Monday, July 24, 2006

Village Ghetto Land

On the way home this afternoon, I routed through lower NW Milwaukee -- up 42nd Street to Capital, then south and east on side streets. Some thoughts:

- Is NW Milwaukee in a state comparable to St. Louis's north side 30 years ago? It's almost entirely black, appears poor, and is teaming with people hanging out on the streets. Based on my rapid windshield observations, there seem to be the social networks that pervade functional urban areas, but like St. Louis in 1970, crime is pervasive and decay is spreading. I saw two fresh burnouts. I'm starting to notice more abandoned buildings. It took me a long time to recognize these areas as a ghetto, but they really are, even if they lack the abject abandonment that marks so many St. Louis neighborhoods.

- How can such a vast area, such a large *population*, go so totally unnoticed by *everyone*? How can such vast stretches of decay be allowed to continue? How can land so close to the rising values at the city core be allowed to crumble? How can such incredible concentrations of poverty be allowed to persist?

- I passed by what appeared to be a major crime scene. A LOT of cops were gathered around some house on a side street, lots of vans and cars with lights flashing. A scattered crowd was watching from the surrounding blocks. Around the corner, a policeman was restraining a young man by the arm.

Gina used to tell me tales of listening to the police scanner at night and hearing innumerable "shots fired" reports from the neighborhoods west of Hampton. Moriya reports that after nearly being assaulted by a crazy drunk dude in broad daylight, and after having shots fired on her block at night, the police still didn't show up.

We can launch space shuttles into orbit and bring them back to Earth, but we can't tame our own cities. We can't do anything about people who have so devalued life that they will kill someone in a moment of passion. We can't provide an environment, physical and cultural, that makes these people realize how damaging their own actions are to themselves and everyone around them. We can't instill hope in thousands upon thousands of city residents.

And 95% of America either doesn't know or doesn't give a shit.

I'm not even sure if it's really conscionable to be worrying about architecture in these neighborhoods when such gross poverty is on the loose. Fighting that poverty is the only hope for the thousands of declining buildings in those neighborhoods, but it's such an enormous web of entangled causes and effects I barely know how to start grasping it, let alone finding solutions.

All I know is, if Milwaukee doesn't want its lower northwestern reaches to end up looking like St. Louis Place, somebody -- a lot of somebodies -- better start doing something soon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Farewell Sentry's

Sentry's Foods on N. Oakland is closed.

I'll miss the convenience of it. It was a five minute walk from my front door, mine and thousands of others in the blocks around me. There are other options, including a corner store right on our block, but nothing as close, cheap, and large.

I can't say I'll miss the store itself all that much. It was a 1950s-era building which probably wasn't terribly glamorous when new, and today is a beat-up, remuddled mess in need of a major overhaul. The selection was so-so, the produce was lacking, and the parking lot was a visual blight on the neighborhood.

The Sentry and its vacant adjoining neighbor will be torn down. The Walgreens that is currently 2 blocks south will put up a new building on Sentry's parking lot, with apartments on top. A parking lot will replace Sentry's location. Some sort of deli is apparently taking Walgreen's old location.

It's kind of a lateral move for the neighborhood, at best. With a Subway's and a Cousin's on opposite corners, we've already got a source for cheap sub sandwiches. We've already got a fine Walgreens. The addition of new apartments is a good thing in a neighborhood that is flooded with students, as is removing a surface parking lot. But unless the new building is large enough to reach all the way to the Cousin's building at Oakland, it will just mean the surface parking gets shuffled around. Hopefully Walgreens' inevitable surface lot will be as small and unobtrusive as their current one.

East Side Overview

Having lived nearly 6 years in Milwaukee, I am firmly convinced that my East Side neighborhood is the finest in the city.

It is the most walkable, the most historically intact, the most charming, has the most active streets, and is one of the few places in town where you can get by without a car relatively easy (not that I've done the latter.)

It's also a safe neighborhood. Yes, we have some crime. My car's been broken into 3 times in the last two years (a result of parking it in a dark alley spot. We put up a motion sensor light and nobody's touched it since... knock on wood.) There have been hold-ups, rapes, even a murder a couple of years back. But those are outstanding incidents precisely because they are so rare. Our crime is generated by outsiders. The worst offenses from people living here are drunken college students knocking over your trash can late at night.

The East Side is certainly a haven for college students, and anyone who doesn't realize this and accept it right from the start is a goddamn fool. The city's largest university is located here, and thousands of students flood the neighborhood's prolific rental housing every fall. Far from being the detriment that some people make them out to be, these students are the lifeblood of this neighborhood. They give it the biggest portion of its pulse and vigor. They sustain its nightlife, they support the bars and restaurants and the two (three until recently) movie theaters, they bring life to the sidewalks and parks. Without them, the East Side would be as dull as Shorewood, the lovely but uninspiring well-to-do inner suburb to our north.

But certain residents, and in particular our Alderman Michael D'Amato, seem to view the student population as a nuisance at best, and perhaps an actual threat. I have heard more than once that D'Amato simply won't talk to students about their concerns. He has supported parking measures that range from the obnoxious to the Draconian, the most absurd of which is the requirement that cars on the street must be moved once every 24 hours. This rule is city-wide, actually, but nowhere is it more vigorously enforced than the East Side. When I lived a block away from campus, I had to make a daily trek past my parked car to wipe off the chalk marks which the city's fleet of parking checkers leave on tires to track vehicle movement.

But these are minor concerns in the grand scheme of things. The East Side is a wonderful place, and located less than a mile from the lakefront to boot. I can't imagine living anywhere else in this town.