When East Siders tell you they’re moving to the South Side, it’s usually code for Bay View – where it’s also hip but also relatively cheaper to live.
So last May, when John and I announced that we were leaving our East Side apartment of 12 years and renting a house on the South Side, most people assumed we were moving to Bay View.
No, we said. Near the ballpark.
"Welcome to Story Hill!" said one friend.
No, I explained. Other side of the freeway.
For a while, we didn’t know exactly what city we were moving to because the house is at the convergence of three cities.
Then we got the official postcard from the post office.
John and I looked at each other. West Allis?
"On my checks?" he said. "My driver’s license?"
I cried in the car after we signed the lease, telling John it was because the neighborhood reminded me of the steel town my grandparents lived in along the Ohio River in Pittsburgh.
I was really crying because it was sinking in that we wouldn’t be on the East Side anymore.
Fact is, it was way past time for us to leave there. Our top-story Art Deco apartment with a view of Lake Michigan may have worked for early 20th century folks, but it was way too cramped for a 21st century couple with two cats and two households worth of stuff. In addition to renting an apartment, we’d also been renting a storage space, a parking spot for our car and two parking spots for our motorcycles. Heat was included in our rent, but we had no control over the heat. Talentless maintenance people solved most repair problems by running conduit up and down walls and all around the ceilings.
We were also tired of sharing walls with other people. The last tenant who lived next door brought home a different girl every weekend and smoked cigarettes like a fiend. As we did not live in a nonsmoking building and the landlord could not have cared less about our complaints, we decided it was time to finally get out.
We looked at a number of wonderful houses in all four corners of Milwaukee: Riverwest, New Berlin, 38th and National, and Fox Point. Then some friends posted on social media that they were looking for a tenant for their rental house. That’s how we became residents of West Allis.
The move went relatively smoothly, and we went about the business of settling in. For the first time in 12 years, all of our belongings were together in one place. We planted a vegetable garden, put up a bird feeder and cleaned up the grill. My fascination with the old Froedtert Malt plant on S. 43rd was offset by disdain for the tiny bungalow on Grant that had just as much furniture outside of it as most people have inside.
We traded seeing Lake Michigan every day for seeing Miller Park every day; Glorioso’s for Scardina’s; Prospect Avenue for Canal Street; Ground Charles for landjager sausage; Sciortino’s for Grebe’s; Von Trier for Dick & Gloria’s Cocktails and Dreams. Instead of taking pictures of the sunrise out over Lake Michigan from our top-floor apartment, I started taking pictures of the sunrise over the railroad tracks two blocks from our house.
One morning, as I waited at a stop sign at Electric Avenue and Burnham, a man with a mullet wearing a camouflage jacket and oversized aviator glasses sauntered across the street. By the time I found my cell to take a picture, he was gone. "Quintessential Westallica," the caption would have read on social media.
Then I realized: One of my husband’s dearest friends, whom he’s known since the '70s, has a '70s haircut and wears aviator sunglasses and a camouflage jacket.
In our early days of living in West Allis, we went back to the East Side often to swill Spaten Lager with friends, buy burritos at Beans and Barley and pick up the prescriptions we hadn’t yet transferred from Walgreens on Brady Street. I didn’t long to be back on the East Side, nor did I feel quite at home in West Allis.
Then one day, I drove across Lincoln Avenue to Bay View and marveled at all the energy there, one small business after another after another. John took me to the European Homemade Sausage Shop, and a whole new part of the world cracked open. We spent an afternoon up the street in Calvary Cemetery, attended the St. Rita Parish church festival and picked up fish fry at Serb Hall. The trains that run through West Allis bring back memories of the trains that ran alongside the subdivision I grew up in. The walks we take are different from the walks we took on the East Side, but our conversations and the music on our iPods sound the same.
One of the things I really like about our new neighborhood is its diversity. In the summer on any given day, there are black and white and brown kids playing in the yard next door. Within a two-block radius of our house, there are three Mercedes sedans and one Escalade, all newer models.
There is also a special brand of kindness that you don’t always get in the city. This winter, for example, after a blizzard, our neighbor plowed his sidewalk, then ours, then the sidewalks of everyone up and down the block. He also cleared the alley so we could get out of our garage. The next two snowstorms, he did it again.
The only sketchy part of living here has been our excessively loud next door neighbors whose son has told us that if his pit bull ever bothers us to just reach over the fence and punch it in the face. I’m not looking forward to all their noise once the cold weather breaks, but it’ll get better once they start staying at their trailer on the weekends in summer.
Some might say, well, that’s West Allis for you, and maybe they’re right. But the equivalent of it goes on everywhere, no matter where you live. People are people, after all. They may look different, have more or less education or drive newer model Mercedes or rusty old SUVs, but nice people are nice people, bad ones are bad and you can’t tell by how they’re dressed. No community anywhere should be unfairly characterized by stereotypes. But I guess that’s what we as human beings do; we love to brand and categorize.
When I’m tempted to do this, I think of Olive Kitteridge (in the HBO mini-series of the same name), who asks herself, "Who the hell do I think I am?"
One of the things I am is the granddaughter of an auto mechanic who worked in an old garage like the ones I see throughout West Allis. Who had a son – my daddy – who was a NASA research engineer. I have a master’s degree; I also have blue-collar roots, and I don’t turn up my nose at them or try to hide them. This is one of the reasons I enjoy living in West Allis right now.
Will we stay in West Allis? Who knows? But as John said on a recent walk up 60th Street, "It’s growing on me." We could live here longer term. We just don’t know yet.
In the meantime, I want dinner at Antigua, tacos from a taco truck, sourdough bread from Wild Flower and a shopping trip to St. Vinnie’s. I want to master the tricky intersections at Forest Home, 27th Street, Muskego, Greenfield and Cesar Chavez. There is a tavern on Lincoln with a Spaten sign in the window. And the first day the West Allis Farmers Market opens in May, I will be there.
Looking forward to seeing you then.