Retrieving stories from a hidden neighborhood

Villard Avenue, the main shopping district of the Thurston Woods neighborhood, was thriving in the 1950s.

A summer as hot as this one brings back a particular memory for residents of Milwaukee’s Thurston Woods neighborhood: how they used to gather at the public pool in McGovern Park. But the pool was closed several years ago after decades of those collective memories.

The public pool at McGovern Park was a neighborhood gathering spot.

It’s one lament recorded by UWM students participating in a unique oral history field school, a joint venture between the UWM Department of History and the graduate-level Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures (BLC) program that enrolls both UWM architecture students and UW-Madison art history students.

The purpose was to involve students in collecting stories about a little-known working-class Milwaukee neighborhood on the city’s Northwest side – but with a twist. Along with interviewing and archival research, students also completed architectural floor plans of several homes in the neighborhood.

While architectural drawings and oral histories may seem unrelated, the blended approach yielded richer storytelling than compiling only one aspect, says Arijit Sen, UWM assistant professor of architecture and director of the BLC program. “Both are important because some of these stories wouldn’t have been told in a purely historical context.”

Stephanie Jones listens to resident Jean Devlin reminisce.

Take, for example, the house with a kitchen both upstairs and down. Students learned that many single-family houses in the neighborhood had been turned into multi-family units and then back again, explaining why there are second kitchens in what are now single-family homes.

Students also uncovered elements, like phone nooks and central vestibules, that had been built or modified to accommodate boarders. Some of the homes they documented had tenants, but no separate entrances for the respective dwellers.

“Homes seem like stationary objects, but they really do change,” says Niles Niemuth, an urban history major. “What you get from this (study) is an intimate sense of change over time.”

Immigrant influences

Ariel Gonzalez-Millan (right) picnics with resident Haak Pascal and his son, CP.

The group learned that the percentage of renters in Thurston Woods has grown since yesteryear, but that owner-occupied properties still dominate. There are also fewer recreational outlets today than in the 1960s, when Villard Avenue was dense with bowling alleys.

“The question for us was, ‘how do you re-animate a neighborhood that was once so lively?’” asks Stephanie Jones, a graduate architecture student. “The potential is there, but there are obstacles like a perception that there are safety issues and the problem of getting renters more engaged.”

Potential includes the influence of immigrants, she says, who have brought a global flair to the commercial offerings. The owner of the neighborhood’s Chicken & Grill House is Palestinian, and his stated mission is to get people to try food from different cultures.

Haakaam Pascal, or “Haak,” is an immigrant from Saint Lucia who acts as the area’s watchdog. Constantly on the move by bicycle, Haak, a handyman, has lived in many rental properties since he moved to Thurston Woods in 1992. One property in particular is now empty and boarded up. Rather than leaving it abandoned, Haak believes it should be re-opened as a recreational center.

“Maybe by telling these stories, we can bring the attention to the needs,” says senior architecture student Ariel Gonzalez-Millan, who has chronicled Haak’s tale.

Making friends

Volunteer Chad Allen Johnson and architecture doctoral student Chelsea Wait finish their architectural drawings of a house in Thurston Woods.

“Gems” is the word Cynthia Anderson, a Ph.D. student in architecture, used to describe the oral histories the students recorded on audio. Jean Devlin, for example, moved to the neighborhood’s Berryland Apartments complex in 1959.  The complex was built after World War II, specifically intended to house veterans and their families.

“At Berryland, there’s a different tone, a different history than what you normally think of about a public housing development,” says Anderson. Berryland still gives veterans preference in housing applications.

Resident Lorie Koehler told Anderson that it’s the Havenwoods State Forest that fronts 43rd Street that has kept her in the neighborhood. The 237-acre Havenwoods sprung from parking lots left over from a military installation that also was an internment camp for German-Americans during World War II.

Before that, according to research from three of the students who interviewed longtime Havenwoods biologist Beth Mittermaier, it was the site of a correction facility. In 1977, there was a proposal to turn the land into a Disneyland-like “display park,” but the idea of restoring it to a natural site offering environmental education won out.

Join the reveal!

Student will give the public an opportunity to see and hear oral histories of Thurston Woods

Friday, July 20, 4- 6 p.m.
Agape Community Center,
6100 N. 42nd St.

Students say participating in the field school made them feel like members of the community – and sometimes even members of people’s families.

“This took us middle-class, white kids and put us into a more diverse environment. It forced us out of our comfort zones,” says Graham Caflisch, a master’s student in architecture. “And what we found out is when you give people a chance to tell a story, not only are they willing, but you can also make some really good friends.”

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Architecture Assistant Professor Arijit Sen instructs the students in identifying house styles.