Milwaukee: Industrial Wealth Yields to an Uncertain Future

Milwaukee: Industrial Wealth Yields to an Uncertain Future

In spite of being built on heavy industry, Milwaukee, like Chicago, did not allow all of its beautiful Lake Michigan lakefront to be surrendered to industrial usage. The Port of Milwaukee and the industrial Menominee River valley are nicely hidden from the central business district and the wealthy lakefront neighborhoods to the north. As Milwaukee’s heavy manufacturing has moved abroad, the city has struggled to re-invent itself. The metro area has witnessed a dramatic shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy and has been successful on a number of fronts. The city has a lovely downtown Riverwalk as well as a stunning Calatrava addition to the lakefront Milwaukee Art Museum.  The city’s significant population decline has been arrested and the city leaders are hoping to capitalize on its Lake Michigan location to fashion itself as a leader in fresh water research.

One of the aspects that makes Milwaukee so unique is that for much of its historical development, Milwaukee was guided by the socialist leanings of its German heritage. The city is blessed with many beautiful landscaped parkways and a large park system that is a direct reflection of a Germanic concern for a beautiful built environment that is accessible to rich and poor alike.

The string of neighborhoods north of the public lakefront parks has been the home of Milwaukee’s wealthiest families since the 19th Century and continues to be the center of Milwaukee’s social elite. Industrialists and Beer Barons built palatial homes along Milwaukee’s alpha street, Lake Drive. Think of Lake Drive as similar to Chicago’s famed Sheridan Road on a smaller scale. As Milwaukee’s elite moved north along the lake, River Hills, a pastoral suburb with large lots, became the favored destination. Although River Hills is not directly on the lake, it is the home to the only country club that matters to Milwaukee’s wealthiest families, the Milwaukee Country Club.

Wauwatosa, Wisconsin: The Birthplace of the Higley 1000

I grew up in the middle class suburb of Wauwatosa on the west side of Milwaukee. During the fifties and sixties, Wauwatosa was a large suburb (56,000) singularly lacking in any minorities. My High-School (Wauwatosa East) was almost 100% non-Hispanic White. Talk about homogeneous!…. we had no Blacks, one Latino, and one Asian in a High-School of 1,300. At the time, the city was overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. Like all older, inner suburbs, it’s politics have become much more Democratic or time, if not much more diverse.

Thirty years later Wauwatosa has shrunk to 44,0000– a large decline that is typical of close-in suburbs across the United States. The quality of Wauwatosa’s neighborhoods have not declined along with the population and if anything they have actually improved. The community is still overwhelmingly non-Hispanic White, but there have been some minority inroads into the community. The city was 92.9% non-Hispanic White, 2.5% Black, 2.3% Asian and 1.8% Latino in the 2000 Census. Although the vast majority of Tosans are lower-middle class, there are some lovely upscale neighborhoods in the city. The most noteworthy is the Washington Highlands.

Map of Washington Highlands

View Larger Map of Washington Highlands

The Washington Highlands: Wauwatosa’s Gem

The Washington Highlands was one of America’s first themed and planned subdivisions. “Before its development in 1916 the Highlands (as it is commonly called) was part of a parcel of rural property owned by Milwaukee brewer Captain Frederick Pabst. On the 200 acre farm, Pabst grew hops for brewing and bred large, fast trotting Percheron horses that pulled his beer wagons.

The property gradually became a rural oasis surrounded by development, and after Pabst’s death in 1904 his heirs decided to subdivide the residual 133 acre farm. They hired renowned German city planner Werner Hegemann to design a model residential neighborhood for the site.

Working with American landscape architect Elbert Peets, Hegemann created a plan using the advanced concepts of England’s new Garden City movement. The objective of the movement was to use an overall master plan to obtain healthful, peaceful environment shielded form the intrusions of industrialization.

The Washington Highlands is considered a premier example of Garden City Planning. Laid out to minimize through-traffic, the curving streets meander along the site’s naturally hilly topography. Numerous private parks help preserve the neighborhood’s rolling landscape, as do “split-grad” boulevards (in which on one of a roadway sits as much as 10 feet fighter than its sister lane).

From the beginning , “the Highlands” were home to both the professionals and worker/tradesmen. Hegemann’s plan for the community provided a central core of large lots to accommodate affluent Milwaukeans, as well as a perimeter of smaller lots for dwellings of more modest means. (Editors note: the perimeter working classes duplexes have been left out of the equation in the Higley 1000).

Building standards and design controls governed lot size, structure design and placement. Nevertheless, the residential architecture of this beautiful old neighborhood’s 350 plus homes is varied, and includes 14 styles popular during the 1920s and 1930s.” (Lynch & Lynch, 1993).

Today the Washington Highlands maintains its cache as the best neighborhood in Wauwatosa and the use of themed streets (Washington Circle, Martha Washington Drive, and Revere Drive) have become commonplace throughout the country. However, this was a novel idea in 1916 and the sub-division can be thought of as a truly unique neighborhood and design original.

Milwaukee’s Aristocratic Retreat: Pine Lake (aka Chenequa)

Chenequa, Wisconsin clearly leads all other municipalities in the state according to 2008 Wisconsin state figures of mean adjusted income. Chenequa is a tiny incorporated village surrounding Pine Lake in suburban Waukesha County. Pine Lake was the favored “lake country” destination of Milwaukee’s elite in the early 20th Century. It has followed the common historical path of transforming itself from a second home place to a first home place over the years. None-the-less, there were still 57 out of 283 homes vacant at the time of the 2000 Census. My assumption is that although some of them may have been for sale and thus empty, most were second homes. The village of Chenequa was incorporated in 1928 and has maintained a single family residential policy since its inception.

Map of Chenequa and Oconomowoc Lake

View Larger Map of Chenequa and Oconomowoc Lake

Each year the State of Wisconsin publishes a list of every city, village, and town’s personal income tax returns. The Wisconsin’s Revenue Department’s figures are different from the Higley 1000 list as my list is derived from the 2000 Census and the Wisconsin list is published annually from Wisconsin tax returns. The Wisconsin numbers are for 2006 and 2008.

It is important to remember that (as detailed in “Methodology”) the mean household income statistics from the 2000 Census are not actual mean household income figures and have a tendency to play down great wealth by limiting the amount a household can claim to approximately $2,000,000 dollars. It appears that there is no statistical rounding to minimize wealth in the Wisconsin Department of Revenue figures and that their statistics include every personal taxpayer in a municipality.

The following is a list of the 10 wealthiest communities in the Milwaukee metro area. Note the huge gains at the top of the list as the affects of the Bush recession had only begun to show up in the 2008 statistics. Although the filthy rich in Chenequa and River Hills were still seeing large gains in income, the mere upper-middle class professional of Bayside and Elm Grove were already starting to see their incomes decline.

Mean Income by Individual Tax Return, Wisc. Dept. of Revenue (2006 & 2008)

Community                                          2008             _           2006

  1. Chenequa                                   $892,425                   $825,209
  2. River Hills                                  $542,158                    $418,869
  3. Oconomowoc Lake                   $362,702                   $307,906
  4. Lac La Belle                                $212,205                   $172,854
  5. Fox Point                                    $185,094                   $146,380
  6. Mequon                                       $159,112                    $153,859
  7. Bayside                                        $156,549                   $157,959
  8. Elm Grove                                   $138,242                   $143,481
  9. Delafield (Town)                        $136,484                   $127,338
  10. Whitefish Bay                             $134,356                   $131,090

Elm Grove: A Sylvan Retreat in the Western Suburbs

There are few Elm’s left in Elm Grove, but this delightful little suburb is still heavily wooded, and the village provides a lovely retreat for it’s 6,000 residents. Elm Grove is surrounded on three sides by it’s much larger neighbor Brookfield. The two communities share a highly rated school system (Elmbrook), but they are very different in the quality of their residential areas. Brookfield is a standard issue, builder built agglomeration of upscale sub-divisions. It also provides the essential big box shopping for the area on the typically overbuilt suburban arterial, Bluemound Road.

Elm Grove’s gracious homes are architecturally unique and the homes on its grandest street, Highland Avenue, hearken back to the eclectic period of the pre-Depression era. Although Elm Grove really doesn’t have any downscale neighborhoods, Indian Hills Estates is noteworthy in having the largest and most impressive homes found in this little village.

Map of Indian Hills Estates, Elm Grove

View Larger Map of Indian Hills Estates

Map of North Shore Cluster (The East Side of Milwaukee to the Mequon Waterfront)

View Larger Map of the North Shore Cluster

All of Milwaukee’s highest income neighborhoods are almost exclusively Non-Hispanic White.  Massey’s Index of Dissimilarity is a statistical method to measure racial segregation and Milwaukee (along with Detroit and Chicago) is ranked among the most rigidly segregated metro areas in the country. Asian’s and Hispanics were not found in significant numbers in the state of Wisconsin when the 2000 Census was taken nor are they present in its wealthiest places.

Although Milwaukee has a large Black population, African-Americans remain isolated and segregated from the suburban islands of affluence. It is also interesting to note that there are few minorities found in the exclusive East Side of the central city. African-American’s makeup an insignificant .7% of the households in Milwaukee’s 11 Higley 1000 neighborhoods.

In summary, Milwaukee faces an uncertain future that is similar to many of the former industrial powerhouses found in the upper Great Lakes. The goal of the city’s leadership is to follow the path of their dynamic neighbor Chicago and avoid becoming a failed city that is on unfortunate display in Detroit.

Posted in Metro Briefs, The US Census on Jan 6th, 2009, 1:18 pm by Stephen Higley   

One Response to “Milwaukee: Industrial Wealth Yields to an Uncertain Future”

  1. Cheri Linehan
    February 7th, 2011 | 2:16 pm

    Thank you for the great information! I was looking for info because my Grandfather used to be a care taker for James Friend of Pine Lake. My Mom grew up living with the friend’s wealth. Thanks again, Cheri

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