Milwaukee Memories Page 16
Northside Memories from 1961
I grew up on Milwaukee’s near north side, 7th Street and Vienna Ave, to be exact. Born in 1952, I spent my formative years in the safe cocoon of our surrounding neighborhood, largely untouched by world events or even events in other parts of the city. If I was to pick a specific year to recall, it would probably be 1961. Johnny Tillotson was singing Poetry in Motion, Bobby Vee was pleading Take Good Care of My Baby, and Ben E. King was entertaining us with Stand by Me.” I can’t think of a better soundtrack for growing up.
Our flat was just a block from the massive red-brick Green Bay Avenue School, which in those days was the center of our universe. During the school year we were taught by women who had dedicated their lives to teaching, many of them unmarried by choice; their students were their families, after all. For us children, the school felt just as safe and nurturing as our own homes. I still recall our kindergarten classroom, that actually had a welcoming fireplace, replete with decorative tiles depicting various characters from Mother Goose fairy tales. Our teacher, Miss Robb, was the kindest, most gentle woman I have ever met.
In the summers, the schoolyard became a safe place to play all sorts of games. There was the game of four-square, which we played with a large red ball, hopscotch, bean bag toss, and bottlecap hockey, which we played with a specially constructed wooden box, popsicle sticks and discarded bottle caps. Of course, our activities were supervised by a teenage boy and girl (we called them Coach…), who worked for the city and somehow managed to keep all of us kids constructively engaged. They also taught us how to play chess, which I loved.
In the winter, the same playground transformed into an ice-skating rink. The city would flood the asphalt, creating a huge rink surrounded by mounds of snow. We would skate from morning to night, only taking time out to rest in the comfort of the cozy red-brick warming house. When we weren’t skating, playing hockey or pom-pom pole away, we spent our time in Kern Park, where the parks department had a towering wooden toboggan slide that emptied onto the Milwaukee River. We would tuck ourselves in a single row on the wooden sled and then fly down the slide and into a chute, racing downward, finally screaming with joy as we flew out onto the icy river.
The Milwaukee I remember was much quieter than the one that exists today. There were very few cars in the fifties. The freeways were still in the planning stages and hadn’t yet sliced up our insulated world. We really didn’t need them back then. Most families only had one vehicle, if that. We had the streetcars, buses (many of those were electric, powered by wires above the streets, and even an interurban small-gauge rail system that could take you north and south in the city. Truthfully, even without the public transport, most of what you needed could be reached on foot. Grocery stores were close by—we had the A&P and Halan’s Grocery within just a few blocks of our home. Ketter’s Drug store provided prescriptions, a soda fountain and comic books. Pete’s Bakery provided goodies for only 2 cents apiece, and neighborhood libraries dotted the city—one for each neighborhood, and movie theaters were all close by. I can still remember Saturday afternoons at the Garfield Theater, where we could watch two movies for 25 cents.
Third Street was the precursor to modern shopping malls. Scores of small businesses lined the street. It was here you could find anything you needed—furniture stores, Schuster’s Department Store, and dime stores that always seemed to smell like fresh popcorn. Bowling alleys were just one flight below the street, much like the Pizza Bowl depicted on the old Laverne and Shirley show. Cozy little family eating establishments dotted the street, like Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant, Solly’s and others. A favorite of us kids was Spudnuts Donuts near 3rd street and North Ave. Those donuts were like nectar from the gods.
One of the unique things about living in that time, was that we got to experience some vestiges of past eras that had somehow lingered in Milwaukee just a bit longer than in other places. Who can forget the ragman who led his horse down the street calling out: “Rags! Rags to collect!” Or the milkman making his deliveries in his shiny yellow and white truck. Particularly in the heat of summer when he would generously chip off slivers of ice to us kids as we ran to meet him at the curb.
Well, times have certainly changed. The little neighborhood libraries are gone, replaced by regional facilities that can serve a more mobile population. But, oh how much we lost when we abandoned those cozy little buildings we used to frequent as children. Milwaukee had a bookworm club. Every time we finished a book, we received a little blue stamp in the shape of a bookworm on the back of their library card. What a feeling of accomplishment that was! To supplement the little library was the magical traveling library, the bookmobile. These long, mobile libraries made weekly visits to the schools and the playgrounds. I can still recall looking out the window of the schoolhouse, eagerly anticipating the new adventures that were waiting on for me on its shelves.
I’ve come back to Milwaukee many times over the years. I can still hear the echoes of those past times as I drive through the old neighborhood. Oh, for a time machine . . . Jake Kaminski-Author of Beneath the Polish Moon
Don’t let your Milwaukee memories fade away!
Milwaukee is unique among American cities. Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Milwaukee was the quintessential American town, the best place in the world to call home. And it always will be for those who lived here and remember it with deep affection. Viewers of Happy Days and Lavern and Shirley can only imagine how much fun we had!
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