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A trip down memory lane

By Keith Barber

For a considerable time during the mid-1970s, I had the privilege of occupying an upper flat in the 1700 block of North 34th Street in the city of Milwaukee.

On a recent snowy Sunday afternoon, I decided to drive through my old neighborhood to see what changes had taken place over the years. I wasn’t fully prepared to see what would lie ahead. I was saddened to see that almost one-quarter of the neighborhood had been torn down.

The neighborhood I knew was a friendly, stable one, much like many neighborhoods in and near the Sherman Park area. We had many ethnic groups on our block, which
made living there fun and interesting. Everyone got along well, and we all watched out for one another.

The falling snow reminded me of years spent on this block during snowstorms. Residents here came out of their homes to help dig one another out. Once the sidewalks were cleared, we’d work on the automobiles lining the street.

I grew fond of our teamwork, and it made the block seem more like home than any other place I had previously lived.

Our block was the first neighborhood south of busy Lisbon Avenue, which was a heavy commercial area. A George Webb’s Restaurant sat on the southeast corner of North 35th Street and West Lisbon Avenue, and the notorious Parkway Theater and bookstore were just around the corner.

I still recall the shock and embarrassment of seeing “Deep Throat” on that theater’s marquee one evening on my return from work, and the chaos that followed. But that’s an entirely different blog.

The remaining block south of the commercial district was a jewel. There were lines of Queen Anne-style duplexes and Arts and Crafts Bungalows nestled among mature trees and gardens.

There was a feeling of the good life beaming from every front porch.

These homes were built in the early 1900s by first- and second-generation European immigrants. True craftsmen, these fellows took pride in their work. They certainly had built these structures to last longer than 100 years.

Yet many homes are now missing in this grand neighborhood.

Most were loaded with charm, and it was not uncommon to boast open staircases, extensive beveled and stain glass, French doors, wood floors, massive oak woodwork, wood wainscoting, beamed ceilings, and yes, old cast-iron kitchen sinks.

My old home is still standing alone among vacant lots. The restaurant and theater have also been demolished. My house is now deficient of any architectural integrity due to many remodeling projects, but it is still standing as I had hoped.

So, what happened here? What went wrong? Was it economic or did we just get lazy? Why are there so many missing homes?

I had always been of the opinion that a little elbow grease, paint and replacement boards can go a long way in sustaining your building. I would like to encourage anyone owning an older home to try this concept, because once these beautiful and remarkable homes are gone, they are gone forever, and can only be described in textbooks.

I’d also like to congratulate the remaining residents on the block. It is evident that they have realized the loss, and great efforts are being made to keep the old neighborhood flourishing.

Alive is that old community spirit we had in the ’70s.

As I slowly drove away, my eyes glanced up at the attic windows of my old house. I wondered if the box holding my old love letters and softball gear was still neatly tucked in the southeast corner of that upper floor. I had carelessly left them behind when a job offer in another state led me to move away.

I thought about asking the current owner if I could take a look, but then realized that box and its content was what probably kept that house alive.

I left my heart there on 34th Street.

Keith Barber is a data reporter for The Daily Reporter. While he’s not on 34th Street anymore, he still resides in Milwaukee.

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