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A Short History of the Near West Side

Milwaukee in the 1920s:  The Cream City was in a period of rapid expansion.  Its population had risen from 373,857 in 1910 to over 457,000 in 1920, making it the nation’s thirteenth largest city.  By 1930 the population would soar to 578,249.  And the makeup of that population was changing.  The wealthy families whose mansions had lined the Grand Avenue and parts of Highland and State Streets in the 1880s and 1890s were moving to other exclusive enclaves or to the suburbs (Grand Avenue was renamed Wisconsin in 1926 after the grandeur had faded).  Their grand houses Avenue had largely been torn down or turned into boarding houses by the 1920s, although Frederick Pabst’s mansion at Twentieth Street housed the Archbishop of Milwaukee.  This led to a much more crowded Near West Side, as middle and working class families moved in The Irish families that had settled Tory Hill on the current Marquette Campus had moved west by the 1920s, to be replaced by working class families from Eastern Europe.

The far northwest side of the neighborhood was anchored by the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Washington Park and zoo. One of the largest zoos in the country, it had recently acquired its own polar bear.  Just a few blocks south of the park were the headquarters and main production plants of Harley Davidson, the largest producer of motorcycles in the world at the time, and Miller Brewing, which only a few years earlier had produced half a million barrels of beer per year.  Prohibition had temporarily halted brewing, but Miller had in the early 1920s begun making malt syrup, soft drinks, and cereal beverages.  To the east of these iconic Milwaukee industries lay Concordia College, where Missouri Synod Lutherans offered high school and two years of college-level education to young people interested in the ministry. Along and west of Twenty-Seventh Street a number of new apartment buildings sprung up or were developed out of old mansions. The southwest corner of the neighborhood, Merrill Park, with its two or three story frame houses, duplexes, and apartments, housed the families of men who worked in the railroad yards in the Menomonee Valley.  Several blocks to the east, occupying several buildings in the far southeast corner of the Near West Side, was Marquette University.  Flourishing under the shadow of the Church of the Gesu at Grand and Twelfth Street, the University was in expansion mode, having acquired over the previous two decades a medical school, law school, and an engineering college, and opening a new gymnasium in 1922.  A new football stadium would be built just west of Thirty-Fifth Street a few years later. Its several buildings nestled among the houses and flats of working class families whose fathers and husbands worked in the Menomonee Valley’s many factories and railyards.

Despite the declining status of the area’s housing stock, the neighborhood was still bustling, with hundreds of separate businesses, including fifty mostly small manufacturers, dozens of small grocery stores (but also a Piggly Wiggly and an A & P), scores of diners and soda fountains, nearly a hundred doctor’s and dentist’s offices, and over fifty filling stations or car repair shops.  More than three dozen schools and churches, including the Jesuit Marquette University High School and the nearby St. Rose Church and its elementary school provided stability.  A number of hospitals and hotels clustered in the area, including Milwaukee Hospital on Twenty-Fourth, Deaconness on Eighteenth, Children’s on Seventeenth, and Mount Sinai on Twelfth. 

Streetcar lines running along Clyburn, Wells, State, Twenty-seventh, and Eleventh streets stitched the neighborhood together and linked it to other parts of the city. Although most of the street names would be familiar to current residents, some were still known by their original names: modern-day Wisconsin was still Grand, Michigan was Sycamore, State was Cedar, and part of Highland was Prairie.

Although a twentieth century time-traveler journeying to 1920s-era Near West Side might recognize many parts of the neighborhood—a few of the old mansions would seem familiar, the buildings along the Twenty-Seventh Street commercial corridor would look much newer but also recognizable, and Marquette’s “historic core” (Sensenbrenner, Johnston, and Marquette Halls and the Church of the Gesu) were already lining the south side of Wisconsin Avenue from Eleventh to Thirteenth Streets—much has changed.  The Near West Side History Project captures some of the vibrancy and texture of that time and place.

For more on the history of the Near West Side, see John Gurda, The West End, Merrill Park, Pigsville, Concordia (1980).