by Ellen C. Warren
My ears perked up as I realized I was listening to Rosemary Oliveira’s voice coming out of the radio. Yes, it was her and she was telling her story clearly and distinctly, as she does most things. She doesn’t mince words.
RoseMary had responded to a newspaper article she’d read about electrical fires in rental dwellings in the central city. As a result, she was asked to take part in a panel discussion. “These fires go on and people lose everything, sometimes their lives. But they can’t trace it to anything. And there’s no investigation because these houses are uninsured,” RoseMary explains. “Because (the buyers) pay cash, there’s no insurance on them.
“Those people who are sending out those postcards saying, ‘We’ll buy your house for cash’. They’ll pay cash for your house, then it’s sold a couple times, and ends up in the hands of a corporation, investor group. And they do nothing. They just harvest rents and don’t fix anything.”
RoseMary became a bit of an expert on this in the past weeks due to a property purchase she was considering. Her business, Community Bakers, needed a new kitchen, so she looked at an available building in the 3300 block of Holton Street.
“So I wanted to have the electricals inspected by the city … and the guy came. But we were told we couldn’t enter the property with another inspection. The reason was that if the city found any violations (the owners) would have to report that to a buyer, if I didn’t buy it … So, we just trespassed.
“We went in and he was shocked at the condition of the electrical wiring in the basement in the box. Even the drop from the pole to the house, down into the basement wasn’t grounded. There was water dripping on exposed wires. ‘This is the worst I’ve ever seen,’ (the inspector) said, ‘and I’ve been in some pretty crappy basements.’”
Just as culpable are the management companies these corporations hire. “I went into the downstairs flat, and there was no glass in their window. The resident told me she’d ask them to fix it two years ago.” Fear of eviction can keep tenants from pursuing repairs. Later, a person with the management company told RoseMary they ‘had it on their list.’
And after all this, she went through with the purchase. “Yeah! I had to save the building, save the corner, save the neighborhood! It’s been my thing,” she adds with a laugh.
The “Community” in Community Bakers goes far in describing a common motif in RoseMary’s life. In the case of the business name, it came as a result of her most accessible community, her close neighbors.
After being diagnosed with celiac’s disease she left behind a “short, boring retirement” to go into a small-scale venture using her beloved cooking and baking skills to create packaged baking mixes, “I’m sort of on a mission to get gluten-free baking to taste good … so that those people with allergies to wheat (can) have something decent to eat.” Her neighbors became the tasters and evaluators as she worked at perfecting her recipes. One neighbor has a teenage boy who was masterful at demolishing all her cookie failures.
“That’s part of the reason I called it Community Bakers, but I also wanted to be part of the community. I donate things to the Riverwest Food Pantry. I’m very fond of my community and I believe in the sense of community, ‘cuz we’re all in this together.”
About her home for the last forty years, RoseMary continues, “Riverwest as a community has turned over three or four times since I’ve lived here. The flavor of the community has changed dramatically since when I first moved here til now, but it’s always been a community. And we have to nurture that.”
Raised on her grandfather’s California walnut ranch, RoseMary resided in several parts of the San Francisco Bay area as well as in New York before finding her way here. Schools were usually the draw as she now holds two bachelor’s degrees, in Art and Business, as well as an associate degree in Fashion Design. Her five years in New York were spent as an apprentice to Allen Fannin, a famous hand weaver.
Her last California home was in Mendocino for seven years, four of which she owned a business making window coverings for the burgeoning population. She sold the business and moved to Milwaukee.
Why Milwaukee? “I met all these wonderful people from Milwaukee, in my travels back and forth to California,” she says. “I moved to Milwaukee because it was beautiful, and I had friends here! It was the right choice. I love this place.”
She landed on Humboldt Boulevard, the same street where she currently resides in an historical, beautiful home. “I loved the parks! I loved being able to drive downtown and go to the symphony and the ballet and be able to pull right into a parking spot and not have to pay a million dollars like you have to in San Francisco.”
RoseMary’s curriculum vitae reads like a page out of a Who’s Who of Milwaukee movers and shakers. You can find her fingerprint on everything from the lakefront landfill to the building of the MAM and Brise Soleil in her roles as the Principal Policy Analyst at Milwaukee County for the Environment and Parks as well as the County Conservationist.
She served as chair of the Sierra Club. Susan Mudd, wife of former Mayor Norquist, recruited her to be state administrative director for Citizens for a Better Environment.
At Planned Parenthood she worked as the Government Grant Manager and Compliance Officer for Title 10. “I wrote the grants and administered the dollars.”
She retired from (“if you can call what I do retirement”) MPS where she began as Finance and Budget Analyst, writing budgets for 27 to 32 schools. When they learned about her grant-writing talents she was moved into grants writing management for her final two years.
Look for RoseMary and her wonderful bags of gluten-free goodness at farmers markets — and perhaps one day they’ll be available from a little storefront on Holton.