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Milwaukee neighborhoods with John Gurda: Riverwest and the East Side

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Eight years ago, local historian and writer John Gurda sat down with 88Nine to share stories from Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. The idea for the series came after the release of Gurda’s 2015 book, Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods, which chronicles 37 contemporary portraits of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods.

With the weather warming and conditions ripe for exploring the city, we decided it was the ideal time to look back at this collection and share Gurda’s very well-informed perspective on these well-known areas of Milwaukee. After starting on the south end of town, this episode finds us moving a little closer to the lake and two more neighborhoods you can explore using the player at the top of the page or the videos below.


There isn’t a single neighborhood in Milwaukee that’s like any other. You could get dropped right in the middle of any one of them, take a look around and have a pretty good idea of where you are. That’s certainly true of Riverwest, a section of the city known for its vibrant arts scene and long history of activism. It’s been home to Milwaukee’s counterculture for decades and, by the 1960s and ’70s, saw residents leading political groups and artists’ associations.

As Gurda puts it, Riverwest has a hard time sitting still yet provides ample opportunity to slow down and take in your environment, including a green expanse found right along the Milwaukee River. To many, it’s more than a neighborhood; it’s a lifestyle that becomes a part of who you are.

Upper & Lower East Side

There was certainly a time that the Upper East Side existed prior to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee being established. But, at this point, it’s hard to imagine. The institution of higher learning came along in 1956 and, before too long, had 25,000 students who needed a place to live. It made a huge impact on real estate, culture and — maybe more than anything else — parking.

Just a short jog away is a crazy mix of different worlds we call the Lower East Side. That jumbled-up existence goes back to its earliest days and the oldest commercial district on Milwaukee’s entire East Side: Brady Street. The area right around that thoroughfare was a mish-mash of immigrant communities until UWM had enough time to exert its influence and brought tens of thousands of students to the Lower East Side, where they shaped another side of our city’s counterculture.