The Gale Crest Park subdivision is leafy and green with quiet streets that are playgrounds for hundreds of kids. Dog walkers stroll the sidewalks. There’s not much retail to speak of, but there is a full-fledged park a five-minute walk away and smaller communal grassy patches even closer.
It feels a lot like many neighborhoods in Milwaukee. There are differences, certainly, but it sure doesn’t feel nearly as unique as its planners might have hoped.
Two years before the 72-acre subdivision was platted in 1925, newspapers carried advertisements placed by landowner and seller Wisconsin Land and Realty Exchange – and its partner sales agents, Reuther-Smith Realty Service – boasting of Gale Crest Park’s unique-ness.
"Gale Crest Park is a revelation – why? Because it’s a sub-division that is different," reads one from 1923 that includes a map that appears to match what the area looks like today. "It’s new in idea, in design and environments. No home site has ever been offered at the price to equal the value."
Skeptics might have immediately turned the page, however, upon reading the next line: "It is not necessary to go into details in making the claim."
The neighborhood was designed to be green, with "artistic, park-type design," "beautiful" boulevards, circular drives, large lots, wide streets, "park resting grounds" and the phrase "restricted and individual ideal home sites," which gives me pause.
Gale Crest – now called Enderis Park in honor of the MPS-owned playfield that is a major feature – was built on what had been farmland in the decades previous, and each time I dig down into the garden to plant Brussels sprouts or basil or eggplant, I feel a twinge of continuity; as if I’m carrying forward – on an admittedly small scale – a long tradition of working this clay-rich soil.
An 1859 map of what was then Wauwatosa, but is now Milwaukee, shows a patchwork of farms covering the area. The neighborhood that would become Gale Crest was divided into three plots, all bordered by Center Street to the south and Burleigh to the north.
Farthest east was an upside-down L shape of land owned by T. Hartung, whose surname is memorialized by a street in the subdivision to this day. That farm appears to end at what is now 68th Street. To the west are two identically sized and shaped vertical rectangles of land.
Abutting Hartung’s land at 68th Street and appearing to run to what is now about 72nd Street was the property of E.C. Smith. The land between what is now 72nd and 76th Streets was owned by an A. Welch.
By 1925, the neighborhood was platted and ads continued to appear in newspapers, though by now accompanied by photographs taken in the area. One shows a sign arching over a barren street, trumpeting the subdivision’s name. Another shows the kind of sturdy brick single-family house, with steep, sloping roofs, that are standard here.
In 1927, the area was annexed by the City of Milwaukee and improvements were begun. A few years later all but two "short" blocks had been paved and provided with sidewalks and sewer and water mains.
This development was just part of what seemed to be an ever-expanding city in the first half of the 20th century. While the 1920 census placed the city population at more than 457,000, within a decade that number grew to 578,249 and by 1950 there were 637,392 Milwaukeeans.
After World War II, a school building plan for the city had to be altered mid-stream to deal with the exploding population on the west side in places like Gale Crest and Cooper Park.
According to a 1931 newspaper report, the neighborhood was "long ... a popular beauty spot." The same article noted that when Gale Crest Park was platted with 407 business and residential lots, it was "the largest single parcel of land placed on the market at one time" and that "a special effort was made to take advantage of the rolling contour of the land, a large portion of which is heavily wooded, by using a design which introduced the use of wide, curved streets instead of the conventional rectangular block plan."
The result is a wide variety of lot shapes and sizes. On my block, for example, no two houses appear to have similar lots. As for the woods, those are gone, but an elderly neighbor told me a few years back that she used to play along the brook than once babbled where our alley now runs and that the stream was wooded, offering endless fun for Gale Crest kids.
It’s been interesting to try and trace the history of my house and the lot upon which it stands. I often wonder what the area looked like before platting, but also in the two decades after, when construction of houses in neighborhood appears to have come in fits and starts and the neighborhood must have seemed little more than pock-marked with homes.
Row after row of mostly empty, yet platted and paved streets must have cut an eerie profile.
Anecdotally, one doesn’t find many houses dating to the 1920s. Even the oldest ones in our immediate vicinity weren’t constructed until the mid-1930s. Those tend to be the bigger ones; homes built by upper management types.
In a 1931 newspaper article, an unnamed reporter noted that 18 single-family homes and two duplexes were being built. "Including the new homes now under construction, there are at present 45 new buildings in Gale Crest Park."
Perhaps it says something about the neighborhood that less than two years after the stock market crash 20 new homes – ""all being constructed of either brick or stone" – were being built there.
Many homes appear to have been built from plans in the Sears Honor Bilt and other catalogs.
At least on our block, where the housing stock matches pretty evenly that of the rest of the subdivision, construction really picked up from 1935, when one home was erected. Another went up the following year and two followed in ‘37. Three more were put up in 1940 and two more in ‘41. Then it goes quiet until our place was built in ‘47. The final house on the block followed in 1950. The 1940s homes are smaller, more modestly decorated than their elder siblings nearby.
Interestingly, a number of folks in the neighborhood – including us – still have the original blueprints for their homes. Our houses typically share other features, too: One neighbor’s curved bannister matches ours; another house around the corner has the same fireplace, though theirs is faux and ours functional; all our bathrooms are similarly tiled, though typically in divergent colors: some are blue, others yellow, still others purple or pink.
The couple that built our home lived out their lives in it, spending 40 years there. At 10 years, we’re the next longest-tenured owners. Between us a trio of couples spent nine or fewer years. Two barely had time to unpack before taping the boxes back together again to re-pack.
By now, the entire subdivision has been completely developed for years. Only a few spots that appear platted for homes sit empty as green space. And as parkish it is, despite the loss of wooded areas and streams.
And, while it doesn’t look revolutionary, Gale Crest Park is, in a sense, still a bit unique, especially compared to the older neighborhoods to the south and east, but even to the newer Cooper Park to the west, all of which follow a much more rigid grid system.
Ground-breaking or not, it feels like home.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.