Walker's Point: A gathering space For Milwaukee's LGBT community 75 years and counting
For this week's Bubbler Talk, WUWM tackles this question submitted by Hannah Kaytonah: Is Walker’s Point really a ‘gay’ neighborhood?
Before we dig into the history of Milwaukee's gay community in the neighborhood just south of the Third Ward, we need to consider how neighborhoods are defined. If you think the population identifies a neighborhood, Walker's Point is mainly Hispanic. However, if you view businesses and the communities they serve as the neighborhood, then that’s a different story that goes back to downtown post-World War II.
“The original ‘gay neighborhood,’ if you would, was the 400 block of North Plankinton," says Michail Takach, author of LGBT Milwaukee. This neighborhood was home to the city's first known gay bars. It was filled with of the vacated warehouses, merchantiles, mills and factories spaces longtime businesses were moving away from.
The bars were active between 1949 and 1965 until dozens of city blocks were torn down to make room for a downtown freeway system, taking the first known gay neighborhood with it. As a result, new bars for the LGBT community moved further south.
"The second gay neighborhood moving further south down 2nd Street to the 100 and 200 south blocks, had really matured," explains Takach. "At one point there were seven bars within a one block radius.”
According to Takach, while gay bars in the area were thriving in 1974, The Milwaukee Journal warned its readers, "If you drive south on S. 2nd St. from downtown, ... it will appear as though you are driving into a canyon with no other way out."
Takach notes that throughout Milwaukee’s history, gay bars were in fact everywhere. Destinations ranged from downtown, 12th and Vine, 19th and North to Capital and Green Bay Road.
“When we talk about a gay neighborhood, it starts with that sense of community," he says. "A place you can go where you’ll feel welcome and safe and respected and where people will care that you came.”
Decades ago, Walker’s Point didn’t have a sense of place other than as an industrial operation with a diverse work force that came and went. Takach says that the rise of the gay bars in the neighborhood was not a surprising result of yet another area that was scarcely populated.
"[Walker's Point] was the perfect place to hide in plain sight."
“It really is not shocking that by the 1950 and '60s, this is where you start to see LGBT businesses in the form of gay bars showing up and starting to take hold, because by that time the neighborhood had become almost forgotten," he says. "It was the perfect place to hide in plain sight."
The first gay bar in Walker’s Point was The Nite Beat on 9th and National — a women’s bar that opened in 1959. “Which is astonishing," says Takach. "That’s almost 60 years ago. The owners were very brave to do this and faced some opposition from the neighborhood over there.”
Your Place, or YP, on 1st and National was the second gay bar that opened in 1965. During that time, gay bars had a reputation of being mafia run, seedy, dark, dangerous places. While some were like that, Your Place was actually a family operation run by a gay couple and their Hungarian immigrant parents.
“They kept out the hustlers, they treated people much better than they expected to be treated, they welcomed people who had no families, no where to go on the holidays and they really created a community,” says Takach.
Bill Wardlow has been the owner of the gay bar Fluid for 18 years. When it first opened in 1998, the neighborhood was mostly abandoned industrial buildings and bars.
Now, as Walker's Point changes even more, Wardlow says that it has always been a gay neighborhood for the people who visit his bar.
“I believe it is, yeah. If you’re gay and you want to come out and relax, whatever atmosphere you like, there’s something for you here," he says.
Wardlow notes that while being gay-friendly once made Walker’s Point distinctive, most neighborhoods in Milwaukee can claim that today. “I think every place is pretty much gay-friendly now. Every bar has something different for you, whatever that is. And that’s what I like about Walker’s Point and that's why I've stayed here. Everybody's really cool and I feel welcome."
However you may define a neighborhood, Takach says there’s no doubt that the LGBT community has held a place in Walker’s Point for much of Milwaukee’s history.
"Based on almost 75 years of history, I would say that in today's Milwaukee Walker's Point has become the LGBT epicenter and it continues to grow and thrive," he says. "But I can guarantee you that even though some of the landmarks that are here have disappeared and some of the elders and people and business owners that made this a destination have also left us, the legacy is still here. The city is very, very lucky to have a neighborhood this vibrant, this diverse and this attractive.”
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Editor's note: This story was originally published September 16, 2016.