Listen: How does one paint an audio portrait of an amalgam as multi-faceted and abundant as the story of Walker's Point? Where does one even start? As is the case in many neighborhoods, looking at the foundational history of an area can give you great insight into the community's present day and what's to come. And if you're looking for for an authority on foundational history in Milwaukee, John Gurda's name has to be at the top of the list. John joined me down in Walker's Point for a few excerpts from a walking tour of the neighborhood, and based on the strength of his first recorded remarks, I knew I was in for a treat: Walker's Point is all that and more (it's a strong arts neighborhood, Milwaukee's gay center, a magnet for new families, etc.), as we will see throughout this week. However, for the time being, join John as he makes the neighborhood's history come to life.
We met at the Holy Trinity Guadalupe church, a staple of the neighborhood since 1849 (three years after Milwaukee became a city!). A major thread of Walker's Point's contemporary narrative is the prevalence of repurposed industrial buildings, now used as residential and updated commercial spaces. However, this theme of "change and continuity" in a single building is not a new one: And before we moved on, John made some remarks about Walker's Point status as one of three original settlements in Milwaukee. The other two original settlements, Juneautown and Kilbourntown, have both been razed to make space for our current downtown, but Walker's Point is closer to the river mouth. Why wasn't Walker's Point tapped as the new site for the city's center? Any historical fiction writers/map drawers looking for a ripe setting for re-imagination? How about a Milwaukee with Walker's Point as downtown?
Milwaukee was once the center of the world's tanning industry. In those times, the Pfister and Vogel tannery, names you probably recognize all over Milwaukee's cultural and business institutions, was the largest in the entire world. Listen, as John explains how newly drafted immigration laws and the resulting need for labor resulted in Milwaukee's first influx of Latino people: As we stood at the edge of the Menomonee Valley, I asked John about some of the other industries that were once based in the area and the long term effects of deindustrialization:
For our last look at Walker's Point, we stopped at 5th and National, the current day commercial center of Walker's Point. While some of the neighborhood's leading lights are now located at this intersection, at one point, each of these buildings was home to a previous generation's staple: Each building in the area has a story, and John gives a few more of those encapsulated histories: The table's been set. Stick around this week for more stories from Walker's Point. (Also! A special side note — John will be back in week 4 when we explore Clarke Square. As it turns out, he got his start working at Journey House and cut his teeth researching history of the neighborhood!)
Photo at the top from: The Historic Walker's Point Association website