Driving west up Vliet St. these days reveals a Washington Heights neighborhood on the verge of something new and refreshing. With the Times Cinema under new ownership, Luckystar Gallery officially opening on 54th St. this June, small cafes and cushy martini bars such as Indigo lining the strip, some are saying this sector of Vliet -- from about 50th to 60th Streets -- could be the next Brady Street or Kinnickinnic Avenue.
Though not yet fully realized, the neighborhood is experiencing high doses of revitalization and culture, and adding to the quality of west side living is a hip little plant, flower and gift shop called Urban Sense, 5911 W. Vliet St.
Co-owners Chris Dobs and Dan Block moved into the 800-sq.-ft space in February 2006 after operating on 2nd and National Ave. as a floral consultation shop for a year. The relocation has allowed for massive company expansion, thanks in part to the 75-year-old greenhouse attached to the back of their store.
Under large solar panels Dobs and Block are able to grow plant life all year around -- everything from herbs to citrus trees to rare vegetable breeds.
"We wanted to do something different than what other people in Milwaukee are doing -- more unusual stuff, stuff you can't find at Home Depot," says Dobs. "One of our specialties is heirloom vegetables."
Heirloom vegetables, Block explains, stem from strands that date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
"Everything you get at the grocery store is a hybrid, so the taste isn't fully there, the vitamins aren't there," says Block. "We do more interesting things like purple tomatoes and variegated eggplant. The taste is a lot better and they're cool to look at."
Outside, to the left of the small shop is where Dobs plants his ornamental vegetable and flower garden in May and hopes to host a farmer's market come late summer.
Back inside, the gift and flower area of the shop is a stark contrast to the agricultural feel of the greenhouse and garden. The main showroom comes off as contemporary and calm, with a big-city appeal. The gifts -- soy candles, fountains, trees in a bag, bamboo trellises, paper vases and lanterns -- posses a modern artistic aesthetic and the flowers look as though they are art installations in and of themselves.
Urban Sense markets itself as specializing in European floral arrangements and thinks outside the bamboo box when it comes to pairing plant life together.
"We're not a basic carnation and baby's breath shop," says Dobs, who's been a European flower buyer for 15 years. "We try to sell more interesting unusual stuff -- flowers from South Africa and the European / Dutch market. We make longer-lasting arrangements that are eye-catching, which makes them more memorable."
For now, Block is working an apprentice of sorts, learning unique techniques from Dobs, like incorporating dramatic vases, submerging flowers under water and incorporating various textures. But with an architectural background, he's already got a keen eye for the type of sculptural design elements Dobs appreciates.
"I'm learning a lot from Chris," he says. "If I went to a floral arranging school Downtown I don't think I'd have what it takes to do what Urban Sense wants to do. A lot of what we sell is very Chicago / New York. You don't see a lot of these flower arrangements in Milwaukee."
Both say, though, that the Milwaukee market is becoming increasingly less conservative when it comes to flowers and their sales can prove it.
"This past Valentine's Day was funny," says Dobs. "As a florist you try to stock up on roses that time of year because you think that is what's going to be your big seller, but this year everybody wanted unusual arrangements because that's what they'd been getting all year. So we ended up with quite a few roses left over, but no other flowers."
Dobs does mention, however, that he is one of only a select few in the state who grow hydroponic roses. Whereas a normal rose has 12-15 petals, his have over 20.
The Milwaukee neighborhood-specific arrangements are a specific point of distinction of the shop. The Riverwest, for example, is, appropriately, a celebration of diversity with numerous colors and textures. The Heights mixes classic elegance with eclectic senses to represent the up-and-comingness of the area. The Third Ward, where industry meets glamour, incorporates exotic and unusual flowers to create something out of the ordinary.
Dobs and Block invite plant lovers of Milwaukee to check out their shop during their official grand opening party, Friday, April 27, in conjunction with Tosa's Art Walk and Vliet Street Days.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”