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National Avenue in Milwaukee Attracting New Business

LaToya Dennis
Gloria DeAngelo opened a cake shop and cafe on 25th and National

National Avenue in Milwaukee is becoming a hot spot for small businesses. That area of town has struggled with crime and poverty; but now, new businesses and housing development seem to be flocking to the avenue from Second Street west to Miller Park Way.

When Gloria DeAngelo dreamed about opening a bakery and cake shop, she never imagined it would be here on 25th and National in a building that would horrify most people.

“This was an empty, ugly building when I saw it the first time. I was like oh my God,” DeAngelo says.

But about a year ago, DeAngelo opened Gloria’s Cake Shop and Cafe here. You aren’t accosted by smells of cakes and other pastries on entry, but your eye can’t miss them.

“We do wedding cakes, birthday cakes, one of the more popular is the Tre Leches cake. We make carrot cake, cheesecake, cannolis, gelatins,” DeAngelo says.

All of which are on display at the front counter. The majority of the customers stopping in are Hispanic, and DeAngelo says they typically live in the neighborhood.

DeAngelo seamlessly switches between Spanish and English as she tends to customers. The neighborhood is largely lower income so she says she’s often asked why she decided to open her cake shop here. Her response is simple: "Why not?"

She says that in order to turn neighborhoods around, you have to invest in them financially. And she isn’t the only businessperson interested.

“It’s just in this last year we had Bamboo restaurant come in on 3427 W National (and) open up a new Laotian and Thai restaurant.”

Celia Benton is economic development manager for the group Layton Boulevard West Neighbors. It’s been heavily involved in improving the stretch of National Avenue between 27th Street and Miller Park Way, known as Silver City.

“We had somebody purchase what was an infamous bar on 38th and National that had been vacant for over a year and put almost $200,000 of work in it. It is now a brand new hair and nail salon,” Benton says.

Benton says National Avenue has assets. She says it’s probably one of the most diverse areas of the city. Cheap space is also available and the area gets a lot of vehicle traffic. Benton says more entrepreneurs are taking notice and so are city planners.

“National Avenue has got to be one of the most heavily studied and planned for areas of the city,” Sam Leichtling says. He is the long range planning manager for the Milwaukee Department of City Development. 

Still Leichtling admits that there are questions about the street’s design.

“Is it as friendly as it can be for cars, bikes, bicyclists, pedestrians, bus riders? The plan suggested that the city continue to explore that and potentially look during 2016 whether a future restriping of National Avenue would kind of help make the street more accommodating,” he says.

Back at Gloria’s Bakery and Cafe, she says she has other concerns. She’s installed security cameras.

“You hear about next door that they were robbed or whatever. Thanks to God nothing has happened…sometimes things happen across the street or next door,” DeAngelo says.

DeAngelo says despite her concerns, she wants to expand. “My idea is to grow and be recognized like the Milwaukee cake shop or I don’t know, maybe like Cake Boss or whatever,” she says.

For now though, DeAngelo is focused on surviving the first two years—the most difficult time for a lot of entrepreneurs.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.