To the south, 150,000 cars each day fly past on I-94 with the lights of Miller Park casting a glow into the night sky. To the north, 500,000 cases of beer roll out of Miller Brewing Company daily, en route to thirsty drinkers for miles around. To the west runs the main rail line between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, as well as the schizophrenic Menomonee River, which can morph from a trickling creek to raging torrent with one storm. Only to the east lies an immediately adjoining residential neighborhood, Merrill Park, and that's way up the hill.
So what's in the midst of all this? An enclave, barely four blocks wide by six blocks long, called Piggsville, The Valley and Valley Park: a snug, tight-knit neighborhood seemingly hiding from the rest of Milwaukee.
Only a few city streets connect directly to The Valley, one of them being the low-lying alternative to the sweeping Wisconsin Avenue Viaduct, who's graceful, sweeping arches provide a handsome northerly frame to the neighborhood and provide a boundary between it and the adjacent Miller brewery buildings. Numerous businesses, including four grocery stores, once called the neighborhood home.
Today, The Valley consists primarily of single-family homes and duplexes built in the classic Milwaukee bungalow style and a myriad of architectural styles from the early 1900s.
At the turn of the century, the area was a town called Piggsville, named for an adjacent pig farm. Then, as now, it was strategically located: along a river and major rail line, Milwaukee was a mile to the east; to the west was an emerging town that had recently changed its name from Harts Mills to Wauwatosa.
Milwaukee annexed Piggsville in the 1920s, as the then-version of sprawl was beginning to hit. Today, its surroundings being so well-known, it sits secluded in the midst of activity.
"It's an island, almost like Mayberry in Milwaukee," says two-time neighborhood resident Ken Thom, who frequents the Valley Inn, the only remaining neighborhood business. "People here stick together like glue. You come home and you find your neighbor shoveled your walk for you. Good and unique people live here, and many have been here for generations."
Thom, along with any others, were enjoying playoff basketball and some great thin crust pizza on this particular night at the Valley Inn, which has been around in various incarnations since Miller was starting to experiment with bottling its beer several blocks north.
The bar, located at 40th and Clybourn, was an ice cream parlor during Prohibition and became Leo's Valley Tap until Leo Hutterer, its owner at the time, passed away in 1984. Today his children continue the business, maintaining a low profile city-wide while being the dominant place to gather in the neighborhood.
John Hutterer is one of those children; he has known the neighborhood all his life. He knows the neighborhood has a strong sense of place, even though its name may be debatable.
"My father always referred to this area as 'Piggsville,'" he said, "even though I've never seen a pig around here. The city put up neighborhood signs calling this area Valley Park; but most people call it The Valley, and have for years and years."
Hutterer also noted that while people in the neighborhood hold myriad jobs, blue- and white-collar, few, if any, work for Miller right up the street.
"People at Miller come from all over," he said, "I only knew one woman who worked there, and she happily walked to work every day."
One drawback of being in a valley adjacent to a river: flooding. While nothing new, strong summer storms in 1997 and '98 gave The Valley a one-two punch of devastating floods that finally spurred the long-awaited dredging and construction of a precast concrete retaining wall along the Menomonee River, providing protection well above flood stage, as well as an attractive western boundary for the area and doubling the size of the neighborhood's main park.
The new wall replaces an old flood control wall constructed during the WPA programs of the 1930s, and the dedication stones from the original project have been preserved. This was the first of two developments that gives The Valley a boost.
The other is a new transportation connection, almost complete. Already flanked by railroad, street grid, bus line and freeway, Valley Park is now right along the new expansion of the Hank Aaron State Trail, the new bike route that upon completion will extend from the Summerfest grounds on Lake Michigan to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River.
With the coming of the trail, its associated parkland and the new retention wall, the feeling of a new era is emerging in The Valley. More activities are cropping up right in the neighborhood with a new connection to the rest of Milwaukee; yet The Valley retains and preserves its individual character.
A stroll along the retaining wall and the new Hank Aaron State Trail path reveals a multitude of sights: Miller Brewing's grain tower and revolving sign, freeway superstructures, tree-covered hillsides and bluffs, railroads, the Menomonee River, two parks and, most recently, the elaborate iron latticework of Miller Park's roof. From a low point geographically, you have a high point aesthetically.
So is it Piggsville, The Valley or Valley Park?
The neighborhood's official name in city records is Piggsville/Valley Park, and it is served by the Valley Park Civic Association.
Leaving the neighborhood in the early evening, the only sounds audible were kids playing basketball in an alley nearby and people watching a game from a house with open windows; below it all, the freeway traffic on I-94 provides a distant hum.
The serenity amidst its surroundings makes Piggsville one most unique areas of the city. You can pass through most Milwaukee neighborhoods; the Piggsville/Valley Park neighborhood is one you have to aim for.