By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 26, 2011 at 9:03 AM

As much as Brew City strives to look forward, there's always one thoroughfare leading back in time that Milwaukeeans love to travel. It's that curvy road at the Milwaukee Public Museum called "The Streets of Old Milwaukee."

"It's a cultural treasure," said the museum's history collections manager Al Muchka and he should know. Not only does his job description require him to turn a watchful eye to the cobblestone street depicting Milwaukee as it was from about 1880 to about 1917, he's also a Milwaukee boy.

"I was born here in Milwaukee," he said. "It would kill me to take them out. They were here before me, and they'll still be here after me."

That's comforting news to anyone who loves to stroll the dark, L-shaped thoroughfare that leads through old Brew City straight back to the city's old world roots ... the adjacent "European Village."

"European Village" and "The Streets of Old Milwaukee" capture the history of the European people that settled and populated Milwaukee in its early days.

The Streets have got a Watts Tea Shop and a Laabs Drug Store. There's a tavern serving Schlitz, a candy store and a movie house. There's a private home – with a lady in a rocking chair that continues to creep out generation after generation – and much more.

All are outfitted with authentic period furnishings, decoration and objects. And all are arranged on a recreated urban street with sidewalks, trees, cobblestones, fireplugs and streetlights.

The Streets of Old Milwaukee and the European Village remain one of the museum's most popular attractions and has already outlived expectations. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a Milwaukeean that doesn't agree.

"Museum exhibits have a life span from 20 to 30 years for permanent exhibits," said Muchka. "Thirty-four community groups helped create the 'European Village,' it's a part of life in Milwaukee."

A concern for Muchka is how to keep the exhibit changing while maintaining its integrity.

"We want to change them and update them sometimes, but community pressure appears. You reassure them that this is something that is going to improve (it). Milwaukeeans especially, when they latch on to a cultural icon they're like bulldogs. People are so invested in it."

"The Streets of Old Milwaukee" was an idea first hatched in the 1950s and by the time it was researched and constructed, the Beatles had landed in America (and Milwaukee).

"It's a nostalgic look of the city during the time of the parents of the people who built it," said Muchka. "There's a definite tribute aspect to it. But it was also a way to show a lot of collections and a lot of different ideas, especially a lot of esoteric things like objects from pharmacies and Usinger's, for example."

Many of the items used to build the streets – from doors and windows to hardware and architectural details – were salvaged by museum employees from Milwaukee buildings doomed by urban renewal in the 1960s.

And the "European Village" was similarly nostalgic in that it attempted to recreate the old world homes of Milwaukee's European immigrants as they would have appeared in the years leading up to immigration, Muchka said.

"It came from the strong desire at the time to create a companion to the streets that reflected the immigrant experience. It was a way to show their roots."

Centered on a main piazza – with a fountain and the guy that's always sitting on a bench – like most European cities and villages, the "European Village" captures the diverse lifestyles of the people who came to Milwaukee and made the city a cosmopolitan metropolis. There is a bread-laden French mansion, a Greek house adorned with grapevines and an Italian residence with a terrace.

Heading through the maze of recreated homes and shops is like traveling progressively further back in time. The two exhibits are linked by a life-sized diorama of Solomon Juneau's Milwaukee cabin.

But don't think for a minute that the streets don't change. In fact, Muchka said, many items in the buildings themselves are rotated from the museum's large collections, many of which remain in storage for lack of display space.

Three new exhibits were added in the 1990s: the Watson Family House, Harnischfeger and the Roundy, Peckham & Co. store.

"We had space for about three new units and we based those on community need and the availability of collections," said Muchka, who is clearly most proud of the Watson exhibit, which was long overdue in adding an African-American element to the streets.

"The problem in the early '60s was that they didn't have access to a collection," Muchka recalled. "In 1992, the Watson collection, based on a single family, came to light, and it was very representative; the way the Watson family lived was much like the way the other African-American families here lived at the time just before the Civil War."

And the Watson collection – based on objects from the home of freed Virginia slave Sully Watson and his wife Susanna – offered the opportunity to modernize the streets experience, too.

Next to the home, built to three-quarters scale according to an actual 1858 construction contract – curators added what Muchka called, "a didactic, teaching-level case," that offers background information that helps put the display into context and historical perspective. This is something Muchka and the other museum curators hope to expand upon.

"It's been very successful and we're going to proceed with things like that. They will slowly evolve into areas that will give a good, solid history lesson."

One problem with the streets these days is that they don't offer much solid information for young visitors. While many love to ogle the antiques – Muchka called it "The 'Antiques Roadshow' factor" – and most of the kids walking through are amazed by the exhibit, there's a lack of context.

"When it was created, it wasn't a problem because the people who were viewing it knew," he said. "But now we're two or three generations removed and what I notice is the kids think it's cool or weird, but there's nothing there to explain it."

To that end, the museum has worked up a plan to add modern technology to the streets to help provide useful information on Milwaukee, its immigrants and its history so that kids and adults can walk away with more than a retro candy bar and the memory of a vaguely creepy lady rocking in her chair on the front porch.

"The streets would remain intact," Muchka promised, "but we would add some current technology."

But don't expect the layout to change much, as the exhibits are out of space.

"We would have to take something out to add something new. It's certainly always up for discussion. The curators are always interested in hearing ideas from the community. We do take them to heart."

And that was clear from the excitement in Muchka's voice as he talked not only about the exhibits but about the visitors who are amazed by them.

"It's fascinating to watch a grandfather and his grandchildren walking through and he's saying, 'this is what my mother had' and 'I had one of those when I was your age.' It's really inter-generational learning."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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.