Lake Effect On-Site: Near South Side

Apr 8, 2019

There are many names for the neighborhoods just south of downtown Milwaukee, but there is one over-arching term that has taken hold: the near south side.

In front of a live audience at Latino Arts in Walker's Square, Lake Effect's Mitch Teich and Bonnie North sat down with some of the neighborhood's residents and entrepreneurs to uncover what makes the area unique: its growing demographic, charming character, entrepreneurs, and music.

The near south side has become near and dear to artist, journalist and tour guide Adam Carr's heart. Of the many reasons he admires the neighborhood is its many cultures that have mixed to create a distinctive vibe just below the big city.

"KK River, you might consider the border of the near versus the further south side or Oklahoma. I think the near south side is something that ties it together, and I will definitely not claim authorship of this idea, but it really has been the Ellis Island of Milwaukee," Carr says.

And he says the neighborhood continues to change.

“Not only are there subsequent waves of immigrants coming here, but also migrants. And by that I mean there are more and more African-American folks who are either moving from the north side of Milwaukee or Chicago who continue adding layers to what the south side is,” Carr explains.

So, he says, "If you haven't been down Chavez Drive or Mitchell Street, or you haven't been on South 15th Street or up on National in the last five years, what you'll find is probably different from what you expect."

(From left) Jonatan Zuñiga and Celia Benton from the Layton Boulevard West Neighbors join journalist Adam Carr on stage.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

One organization that's been a part of that change is Layton Boulevard West Neighbors. It does community development work in the south side neighborhoods of Burnham Park, Layton Park and Silver City.

The Layton Boulevard West Neighbors organization does community development work in Burnham Park, Layton Park, and Silver City. From economic development, housing development and community building, the organization does a mix of things, says Jonatan Zuniga, the group's outreach and engagement director.

(From left) Lauren Schultz from Purple Door Ice Cream, speaking with Lake Effect's Bonnie North and Mitch Teich.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

So, what does economic development mean? Well, it's about both making things better for the people who are already there and doing things to bring people to this part of town.

Celia Benton, the group's economic development director says, "People hustle very hard in the neighborhoods we serve. We know there's a lot of entrepreneurialism happening, so part of our job is to help them grow and establish and validate their plans and really thrive in the communities that they live in," Benton says.

On the note of entrepreneurship, just a couple of blocks east of Latino Arts is a storefront from which dairy delights emanate. It is a fairly unassuming spot on the corner of South 2nd Street and Pittsburgh Avenue, or Freshwater Way, where Purple Door Ice Cream welcomes ice cream lovers from around the region.

The business was the dream of Steve and Lauren Schultz, who have since expanded their local ice cream footprint to several other outlets. Lauren Schultz says the near south side was the perfect place to start a shop.

"We came to Walker's Point and it just seemed like a natural fit. What we wanted our ice cream shop to be is a welcoming place for everyone. The community really is diverse, but mindful of the differences that people have and they really embrace that, and that's kind of what we wanted our ice cream shop to embrace, as well," Schultz says. 

Writer Mel Miskimen speaking with Lake Effect's Bonnie North and Mitch Teich.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Another fan  of the near south side is Mel Miskimen. The writer and humorist has called this part of town home for quite some time. In fact, her next book stars her south side home. Her latest book chronicles her and her husband's journey of buying and continuously renovating their south side home of over 30 years.

"We saw an ad for a house that said, 'Partially-restored Victorian, double-city lot, pool, and outbuildings.' So we were like, 'Yes! Let's do that!' Well, the outbuildings was a rusted shed and the pool was a deflated kiddie pool that had been draped over the shed like a Salvador Dali painting," Miskimen says.

She continues, "So, we bought the house with good intentions of renovating it. I thought it would take us about five years maybe, tops. Well, it's been 30-some-years and we're still renovating."

And alongside the renovation of her home, she also overcame hopes that the south side would get a makeover.

"In the beginning of our renovating, I was beating my head against the wall. I wanted [the south side] to be like the next East Side, with cute, little boutiques. I wasn't allowing the neighborhood to breathe, I was forcing it into this pigeon's hole. It took me years before I finally got an epiphany that the authenticity of the neighborhood is what is its strength," she says.

(From left) Jone Ruiz, Carlos Serrano, and Dinorah Marquez, from the Latino Arts Strings Program, speaking with Lake Effect's Bonnie North and Mitch Teich.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

One of the most authentic aspects of the near south side is its vast Latino culture. Within that culture is classical music. Dinorah Marquez is an integral members of musical life at Latino Arts.

She is the founder of the national award-winning Latino Arts Strings Program. When visiting the United Community Center in 2000, she thought it was an amazing place for her to give back. The music program started two years later.

"What I see here in our community is an incredible amount of talent … I focused on what could happen when a fertile ground of immigrant youth were given the opportunity to really develop their talents," she says.

She continues, "It's really beautiful to see the children walk out there and just own spaces that they normally would not be a part of. I think over the past 17 years, those spaces have been opened up, and now [the young musicians] see themselves anywhere in town, not just in our neighborhood."