By Dan Curran   Published Mar 06, 2003 at 5:28 AM Photography: Molly Snyder

Perched high above the street, upon a horse that stands on a pedestal at the foot of Sherman Boulevard, General Frederick W. Von Steuben gazes southeast toward the center of the city.

Since 1921, the likeness of the Revolutionary War hero has stood at the intersection of Lloyd and Lisbon, at the gateway to the Sherman Park neighborhood from downtown (though technically this spot is two blocks south of the Sherman Park border). From his vantage point, Gen. Von Steuben was a witness to the arrival of settlers in what became one of Milwaukee's most distinguished neighborhoods.

Sherman Park sits on the near northwest side of the city, just four miles from downtown. It's bounded by North Avenue on the south, Capitol Drive on the north; 60th Street and 30th Street Industrial Corridor form the west and east boundaries of the neighborhood.

Ever since it started out as a destination for the up-and-comers of the city, Sherman Park has held a prominent spot in the roster of Milwaukee neighborhoods. Why does Sherman Park seem to be in the forefront of our civic consciousness? Perhaps it's because it showed us how neighbors can unite to defeat a common foe, or maybe because in Sherman Park, Milwaukeeans see the best attempt we've made at mounting racial divisions.

When the Milwaukee Parks Commission developed a tract of land into West Park (now Washington Park) in the 1890s, it marked the beginning of a stream of settlers to what had been a rural area. Largely made up of third & fourth generation German-Americans, those who migrated to Sherman Park came from Milwaukee's closer-in neighborhoods.

The beer barons and corporate presidents remained closer to the city, living on the mansion-lined boulevards of Highland Boulevard, State Street and Grand Avenue. It was those in the next notch of the social strata, the vice-presidents, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and middle managers of the day, who settled in Sherman Park. These good German "burghers" built smart, sturdy bungalows, and homes in Arts & Crafts and Period Revival styles, marked by ornamentation and high craftsmanship.

Washington High School is a four-story, brick, English Tudor structure on Sherman Boulevard, halfway between Washington Park and Sherman Park. The impressive architecture, in sharp contrast from the sterile school buildings built in recent years, makes it easy to imagine when Washington was one of the most prestigious secondary schools in the Milwaukee area.

Washington's graduates include some of Milwaukee's most prominent native sons -- Senator Herb Kohl, Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bud Selig, actor Gene Wilder, NBA star Latrell Sprewell, former Governor Lee Dreyfus, former White House counsel Abner Mikva, and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Newton Minnow (remembered for his labeling of the television industry as "a vast wasteland").

In 1971, the Sherman Park Community Association (SPCA) was born. At a time before neighborhood associations had become a staple for change and advocacy in urban areas, the SPCA broke new ground.

"They were definitely one of the pioneers," says John Gurda, local historian and author of "The Making of Milwaukee." During the 1970s the association battled racially discriminatory real estate practices, landlord neglect and crime.

What was most distinguished out about the SPCA was its embrace of racial integration. Under SPCA's leadership, many neighbors seemed to follow in the belief that integration could work.

"Sherman Park stood out in that it was a neighborhood that made integration a priority," says Gurda. "There was an effort to encourage blacks and whites to live together." In a decade when white flight was the occurring throughout the north and west sides, Sherman Park residents wore the label of a racially-integrated neighborhood as a badge of honor.

It was Sherman Park activists who saved the area from the intrusion of a freeway. The Park West was planned as a link between Interstate 43 and the proposed Stadium North Freeway (Interstate 41). Led by the SPCA, a coalition of seven different neighborhoods vigorously protested the building of the Park West. They succeeded in forcing a court injunction that stopped the freeway's construction. About 10 blocks of Sherman Park's southeast corner fell to the bulldozer, but ultimately the Park West plan was quashed by the federal government due to lack of public support.

In some ways, the years since the 1970s have not been kind to Sherman Park. Driving down Burleigh Street and Center Street, the competitive disadvantages that these streets have with the car-oriented corridors found in the suburbs is evident. Considered the main business thoroughfares of Sherman Park, they are both lined with vacant storefronts.

The conditions on Burleigh and Center raise the question of whether Sherman Park is still a viable area for new businesses. Steve O'Connell, Executive Director of SPCA points to two grocery stores that have opened in recent years, the Lena's on Burleigh, and the new Jewel Osco near 35th Street and North Avenue.

He points to the Burleigh Street Community Development Corporation, which is building a 12,000-sq. ft. community center. It will have space for retail and office.

"The real benchmark for us was the announcement of St. Joseph's that they were adding the obstetrics center," says O'Connell, referring to a $50 million project that is currently under construction at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center. "After rumors that they were leaving, it showed that St. Joe's was committed to neighborhood."

In recent years Sherman Park has struggled with maintaining a racial balance. However, even now pockets of integration exist in Sherman Park. O'Connell says the neighborhood still attracts people of all races who prefer to live in an integrated environment.

"Today I spoke with a man, who is white, who just bought a home here. The reason he bought here was because he wanted to live in a racially diverse environment. He told me that his African-American neighbors have been nothing but warm and welcoming towards him."

Woody Jarvis of Jarvis Realty has sold homes in Sherman Park for 25 years. "I see people as being more comfortable with integration in that area," says Jarvis. "The population in Sherman Park is a generation away from those that had any fears or misconceptions about other races. Those days are bygone." Jarvis points out that "interracial couples definitely seem to have a comfort level in Sherman Park."<


It's not just racial integration that the neighborhood offers. "We have a lot of religious diversity in Sherman Park," says O'Connell. O'Connell says a group of local clergy have formed a group called the Sherman Park Area Congregation (SPARC). Consisting of representatives from the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths, the group meet once a month to discuss neighborhood issues.

According to Gurda, the Jewish presence has long been an important part of Sherman Park. Today that presence is embodied by Congregation Beth Jehudah, a community of Orthodox Jews numbering 120 households. "Where else do you find that kind of blend," says Jarvis, referring to the religious and racial mix found in Sherman Park.

The Old World craftsmanship and variety of architectural styles found in Sherman Park is a big draw for those who move to the area.

"Its the character of the housing stock that sells them on the neighborhood," says Jarvis. With such character, it' no surprise that three of the city's 38 designated historic districts are located in Sherman Park -- Grant Boulevard, 47th Street bungalow historic district and Sherman Boulevard.

"Sherman Park has a dramatic span of housing types," says Gurda. "You have the large duplexes and craftsmen bungalows dating from the early 1900s in the older part of the neighborhood. In the far northwest corner, up by Capitol, there are 1940s-era Cape Cods."

The historic homes of Sherman Park offer more affordability than other areas. Jarvis says that a house in the area is on average $60,000 less than a similar one in Wauwatosa.

The character of the housing stock is a physical asset to the neighborhood. However, it may be in the character of the housing stock that helps creates an intangible feeling of cohesiveness and neighborhood spirit for Sherman Park residents. O'Connell says its in the areas with the finest housing and in the historic districts that you find the most stability, the long-term residents. "On a lot of blocks we have people who have lived there along time, who know everybody," says O'Connell. "It really is like a family."