© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Evolution of Historic Mitchell Street: Milwaukee shopping hub to diverse neighborhood

 Historic Mitchell St. sign
Valeria Navarro Villegas
This Bubbler Talk takes a look at the evolution of Milwaukee's Historic Mitchell Street.

One of Milwaukee’s culturally-rich neighborhoods is Historic Mitchell Street on the city’s south side. Its businesses and residents have evolved, starting with deep Polish roots to today’s rich Hispanic flavor.

Dave Van Auken grew up there in the 1970s. He remembers a vibrant commercial corridor with Gimbels and other big department stores, a George Webb restaurant and several old movie theaters.

Dave moved to central Wisconsin years ago. He’s now a ginseng farmer, but that’s not our story.

One-year-old Dave Van Auken
Courtesy Dave Van Auken
One-year-old Dave Van Auken with his mom in Mitchell Street neighborhood. He would have his first photo with Santa taken with Santa at Gimbels (former Schuster's) department store that winter.
"What happened to Gimbles, Woolworth, George Webbs, and the old movie theaters on Mitchell Street? I went back & now its all gone."
Bubbler Talk question-asker Dave

Buildings on Mitchell Street

Let’s start with the theaters. Historically Mitchell Street was home to three theatres: The Granada, Juneau and The Modjeska. The latter, named for beloved Polish actress Helena Modjeska, still stands at the corner of 11th and Mitchell but has been vacant for years — it opened in the 1920s.

Bob Sheehey is busy cleaning up The Modjeska. "I’ve been doing this for 20 years. We don’t own the building, it’s a not-for-profit. I can give you a few facts, but I don’t have time for an interview. I’ve got volunteers here. Somebody’s picking [up] the junk," he says.

It doesn’t take much prodding to be invited inside. You could lose yourself in the old theater, especially since the lighting isn’t great, but you still feel its former splendor.

“So at one point and time, we had a youth theater in here [and] kept this thing running with bubble gum and duct tape up until 2008. Things weren't going very well and then when the crash hit, funding dried up,” Sheehey explains.

The buzz around Mitchell and throughout the city is The Modjeska may morph into an arena for online gaming competitions. But Sheehey and others also envision local musical and cultural events being staged there too.

”Mitchell Street was at its peak from World War I until the 1950s,” says Dan Lee. He knows a ton about local history — that’s his job with the Milwaukee Public Library.

People walked or hopped on streetcars to enjoy shopping on Mitchell Street
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives
People walked or hopped on streetcars to enjoy shopping on Mitchell Street

Lee says for decades shoppers walked or jumped on a streetcar to enjoy Mitchell Street’s vibrant shopping scene.

“In fact, an old Milwaukee-ese was 'Let’s go by Schuster's where the streetcar bends the corner of round' because the ... line traveled down Mitchell Street and bent the corner round and headed south on 11th Street," Lee says. "Right at the corner of Schuster's."

A total of five department stores of various sizes dazzled shoppers for years. Schuster's was Milwaukee’s largest department store chain.

“Schuster's was large, full-serve department store. Sears was a latecomer that opened up in 1920 to 1929. The building that we’re in, Hills, was a medium-sized department store and it originally opened up as the Lions store in 1910,” Lee explains.

Shopping malls changed the face of Mitchell Street forever. “Mitchell Street started falling on hard times in the 1970s when Southridge [Mall] opened,” he adds.

Sears, located just off Mitchell, shuttered in 1983.

Gimbels, the store Bubbler Talk question asker Dave Van Auken asked about, was bought out Schuster's. “But they closed this store down in 1984. Goldmann’s lasted another 20 years — that’s an achievement to be celebrated,” Lee says.

Goldmann’s was an iconic, locally-owned department store that catered to working class families. “It didn’t put on airs, it was meant to be affordable,” Lee says.

The Goldmann’s building is now home to Gerald Ignace Health Center and Sears was reimagined into a popular grocery store: El Rey. As for Schuster's, there’s a mall at street level and apartments above.

The former Hill’s Department Store where I met Dan Lee is now home to the Mitchell Street library branch. Manager Maria Burke says the library serves a diverse community.

"Mitchell Street is such an active neighborhood and the library is the only one that’s converted a historic building into a modern library with apartments above it," Burke shares.

Inside the Milwaukee Public Library - Mitchell Street Branch.
Valeria Navarro Villegas
Inside the Milwaukee Public Library - Mitchell Street Branch.

The director of the business improvement district for Mitchell Street, Nancy Bush, says today most retail spaces are occupied, but not like the days of department stores.

Bush sees culturally diverse entrepreneurs — East Indian to Somalian — opening everything from hair salons to event venues. "We have fewer vacancies, we have more businesses, but smaller businesses. We would like to see larger businesses but there isn’t space available," she says.

Oh, and the George Webb at 20th and Mitchell that question asker Dave Van Auken remembers, Bush says it was closed before she started working with the neighborhood BID 15 years ago.

What have you always wanted to know about the Milwaukee area that you'd like WUWM to explore?

Voices of Mitchell Street

 People on Mitchell Street
Valeria Navarro Villegas
(L) BID Director Nancy Bush on Mitchell Street. (R) Mani Cruz is giving a customer a trim at Taso’s.

Mani Cruz is giving a customer a trim at Taso’s. The small narrow hair studio has been a part of the Mitchell Street scene for years. "I know this place since I was a little kid. My aunt worked here for 25 years and I started working here in 2014. I love being in my city, I love being on my street," Cruz shares.

Demitra Copoulos loves Mitchell Street too. As a college student, she waitressed at the Mitchell Street restaurant her parents owned.

Copoulos and her husband have lived and worked in an historic building at 10th and Mitchell for nearly 30 years.

Built in 1914, it was originally a men’s outfitter. Later when furniture company took over, it expanded — adding a third and fourth floor.

Copoulos says they rented the first floor to Payless Shoes for years. “[Then] Payless declared bankruptcy just before the pandemic, just up and left. And then the pandemic hit,” she says.

Copoulos says they’ve been holding out for a new tenant they hope is good for Mitchell Street’s future. “It’s called La Michiocana. They make frozen treats from milk and fruit, on a stick,” she says. They are beloved Hispanic popsicles.

Work is underway within the building’s first floor. Bright colors fill the walls and freezers and high tech displays are being installed. “We stayed here because we believe in the street. The buildings are beautiful, I love the Hispanic community. It has a really good vibe,” she says.

Copoulos hopes the sweet shop will attract more people to explore what Historic Mitchell Street is today and can be tomorrow.

Maybe you remember Gimbels or Goldmann’s, or cherish the years Payless was around. Will new generations cherish La Michoacana ice cream shop? No matter your connection, the rich history of Historic Mitchell Street will never end.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
Related Content