In all of my days living in Milwaukee, I’ve never seen the RiverWalk buzz as much as it has recently.
The idea to make the riverfront a place that connects downtown development with business and leisure activities seemed to me like a recent phenomenon, but it’s not a novel idea. I did some research and I learned that back in the late 19th century the Milwaukee River was actually a hip recreational hot spot.
“Its banks were lined with beer gardens, swimming schools, amusement parks, canoe clubs and the summer homes of wealthy Germans,” Milwaukee historian John Gurda wrote in a story by Journal Sentinel in 2004. “In the late 1800s, the Milwaukee River – not Lake Michigan – was the place sweltering urbanites favored to escape the summer heat.”
Some years later, the Milwaukee River got filthy and became, well, pretty nasty; consequently, residents and businesses shunned it for many years. How the River went from a booming playground for urban hipsters to a foul ditch, I’m not sure. But, overtime the Milwaukee River has again become a prominent downtown stomping ground.
Last Sunday was the most fantastic late summer day – the sun was brightly shining and there was a cool breeze coming off the surface of the Milwaukee River. Eric and I had planned to go kayaking along the waterway, but Laacke & Joys decided to impede on our fun by forbidding rentals that day – the only day all summer, too. After several minutes of groaning over our bad luck, we nixed that idea and opted to see the River from another angle – the RiverWalk.
The RiverWalk was conceived in the 1990s and has continued to evolve since, yet this was my first official leisurely stroll on the Walk. Sure, I had grabbed lunch and dinner at many of the cafes and brewpubs and perused several of the shops along the way, but this was the first time I’d taken the opportunity to really experience the RiverWalk.
Eric and I spent the afternoon navigating almost the entire three-mile series of riverwalks, which form a single continuous esplanade. Our self-guided tour ran the length and both sides of the Milwaukee River from the North Avenue Dam to the Harbor Entrance, crossing through downtown and the Historic Third Ward along the way.
We began on the “Beerline B” course, the former industrial rail line along what is now Commerce Street, between East Pleasant Street and North Humboldt Avenue. This section is predominately residential development where former warehouses and commercial buildings are continuously being transformed into upscale apartments and luxury condos. These fancy-pants dwellings offer balconies and enormous windows for residents to see a multitude or birds and boats and fish outside their home.
From there we meandered to the part of the Milwaukee River corridor that runs through Milwaukee’s downtown. Beginning from Juneau Avenue to the Water Street Bridge, we followed the signs that steered us down the Walk, running into the more formal promenade.
Here art, dining and recreation opportunities abound. Beautiful hanging baskets packed with vibrant summer flowers and artist-designed trellises covered in lush canopies, really enlivened the spot. At the same time, the sculptures, like the famous river icon Gertie the duck, towering red abstract works, and the new bronze Fonz, gave the area character while symbolizing Milwaukee’s rich history and urban renaissance.
I also took advantage of the many information kiosks that include maps of Downtown, East Town and Westown, and the Third and Fifth Wards, brochures and lists of upcoming events, and historical markers featuring intriguing stories and facts.
Since I’m a history geek, I spent most of the time reading up on tall tales and fun info about Milwaukee. My favorite story was about the “Bridge War.” In 1845, a trivial dispute erupted between Solomon Juneau’s Juneautown on the east and Byron Kilbourn’s rivaling Kilbourntown on the west. I guess one guy was angry with the other guy so he purposely made it so that the roads in his city didn’t lineup with the other guy’s roads. That’s why all of Milwaukee’s bridges are at weird angles. The funny this is, the two settlements and George Walker’s Walker’s Point were unified as the city of Milwaukee the next year.
Outside of Rock Bottom Brewery, we took a moment to peer over the teal green railing and gaze down at the clean, sparkling River. The sun caught the water’s rippled surface and sent flecks of light in every direction, highlighting the surrounding buildings.
We also stood at the foot of many of the buildings we see everyday and looked up at them, studying their authentic German architecture and beauty. The RiverWalk has put the spotlight on their beautifully detailed cornices and limestone decorations, and the peeling paint and crumbling brickwork of the once forgotten backsides have been repainted and restored for the most part. I really liked seeing how completely different the downtown buildings look from the riverfront angle.
The RiverWalk development also links the Riverside Theater, the Pabst Theater, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Shops of Grand Avenue, the Marcus Center, and the Water Street/Old World Third Street nightlife areas.
We continued along the ribbon of concrete that followed the waterway. Eventually, we were sauntering along a more natural wooden boardwalk with tall grasses lining the entrance into the Third Ward neighborhood. The achievement of the nearly one mile long walkway within the Third Ward completed the connection to the downtown RiverWalk only three years ago.
The Third Ward boasts old factory buildings that have been restored and made over into trendy bars, eateries and shops, making the Ipe wood promenade teem with people daily. I’ve always loved the grittiness of the Third Ward – there’s a great industrial feel to it that’s steeped in history, plus it’s less conservative and more eclectic than Downtown.
On Sunday, this district also felt a little lazier as seagulls wheeled overhead and flags on the boat slips flapped in the River’s breeze. It’s a great counterbalance to the traffic whizzing across the bridge a few blocks behind us. It’s so bucolic and sublime that I didn’t feel like I was in a city – it sort of felt like we were on vacation.
You can pretend that you’re a tourist in your own city by boarding one of the sightseeing cruises along the River. At Michigan and Clybourn Avenues the Voyager and Iroquois are stationed among the docks and slip marina. These Milwaukee Boat Line tours offer great public sightseeing excursions, dinner and brunch cruises, and private charters for special events.
Eric and I decided to perch on an open bench facing the waterway. Together we watched a young couple paddle by in bright red kayaks and we wished we were them. At the same time, we eavesdropped on a few people laughing over a late lunch on Water Buffalo’s expansive patio. As we took in the area’s scenic beauty, I began to think about how beautiful urban life can be. Sights like this make me change the way I think about the city and it turns me off about urban sprawl.
From pleasure boating and sailing, to fishing and swimming, the RiverWalk has become a recreational amenity within the city – There’s just so much activity along the River. It’s really great to see so many people using the River.
Consisting of 22 proposed segments, according to the RiverWalk District’s website, the end goal was a riverwalk system that would unify downtown attractions and become, over time, a significant attraction in itself.
The waterfront pathways could possibly be the main cause of change for what has happened to downtown over the last few years. As it was in the 1800s, the RiverWalk is quickly becoming a favorite destination for residents, employees and visitors alike. Next time you’re downtown, pause a moment to take in what the RiverWalk has to offer – you’re bound to find something new.
If you want to take a guided RiverWalk tour, head over here for all of the information.