Milwaukee’s Uptown neighborhood sees rebirth

Feature Story

Bittercube’s bar at its Uptown production facility.

Christine McRoberts has called Milwaukee’s Uptown neighborhood home for her entire life.

She grew up in the area and, years later as an adult, purchased a nearby house where she has lived for the past 26 years.

McRoberts is the longtime owner of neighborhood staple McBob’s Pub & Grill, located at 4919 W. North Ave. Her brother first opened the Irish restaurant in 1986, but she took over operations three or four years later, instantly falling in love with the work and her customers, she said.

Located just seven blocks west of the tavern, which is famous for its fish fry, is McRoberts’ brainchild and a new addition to the neighborhood: Tusk. The casual restaurant, which opened in November, serves scratch-made shareable platters, soups and salads, and, she said, attracts a different crowd than her veteran concept.

McBob’s and Tusk both sit on a once-vibrant strip of West North Avenue that, at some point, was weathered by the economic impacts of various citywide issues – segregation, crime, property devaluation – that have long-plagued Milwaukee’s central and west side business communities.

McRoberts said she recalls a time during the late ‘80s to early ‘90s when the neighborhood was “very questionable.”

Uptown is confined east to west by North Sherman Boulevard and North 60th St., to the north by West Center Street, and to the south by West North Avenue. North Avenue is home to the majority of Uptown’s commercial properties, some still troubled, vacant or run-down in appearance.

But thanks to the establishment of the Uptown Crossing Business Improvement District 16 in 1995, the neighborhood has gradually made progress, and new businesses, like Tusk, have been moving in.

“The changes in the neighborhood have been amazing,” said McRoberts, who recently stepped down from her position on the Uptown Crossing BID board after more than 20 years.

Tusk occupies a 98-year-old building, located at 5513 W. North Ave., formerly home to Hartter’s Bakery, a family-owned business that shut down in 2004 after 40 years of operation.

The two-story building sat vacant for 10 years before McRoberts started leasing its commercial kitchen, originally for catering and to support operations at McBob’s, she said.

Meanwhile, plans were in the works for another forgotten 1920s-era structure located just next door.

Simon McConico, Robert Gustafson and Jake Rohde spent two years renovating and restoring the ground floor and basement of the building, located at 5519 W. North Ave., now home to Vennture Brew Co.

The new brewery and coffee shop opened in July. It produces about seven-and-a-half barrels of beer each week – more than 150 barrels since it opened – tapping a rotating selection of IPAs, sours, saisons and dark brews.

It also roasts its own coffee, offering a line of cold press brew on tap.

Aside from its obvious function as a café and taproom that sometimes doubles as a remote workplace, Vennture is also a venue for various gatherings and events.

“We’ve done a bunch of random things, like bringing in food trucks, that allow people to use this space and to create more opportunity for people to get out and do something in their own neighborhood without having to go to Bay View or the East Side or out west,” said McConico. “It’s something that people can walk to or bike to, and a lot of people really like that.”

As locals themselves, the owners are involved in their community: Gustafson is part of its BID and McConico participates in his neighborhood association.

And in turn, McConico said, they have a better understanding of the neighborhood’s needs; a local craft brewery used to be one of them.

“This is one of the most interesting nexuses of ethnic and racial diversity in the city, where everything kind of meets, and that is super important to us, as well,” he said. “I’m not sure yet how we can create a space that feels comfortable to everyone, that’s still something we have to figure out, but you can’t do that by being in the middle of Brookfield or on the East Side.”

Without an in-house kitchen, Vennture does not serve its own food, but since Tusk opened, people have been able to order a meal there and enjoy it at the brewery. In return, Vennture supplies Tusk, as well as nearby eatery Wy’east Pizza, with byproducts from the brewing process to make food.

Such partnerships are a defining characteristic of the area’s tight-knit business community, McConico said.

“There’s a collaborative spirit here,” he said. “The more interesting things that we can do to bring people to this side of town, the better it is for all of us.”

That collaborative spirit also provided a landing pad for Milwaukee-based Bittercube last fall when it moved its operations to a vacant building at 4828 W. Lisbon Ave., becoming the third food and beverage business to open in the Uptown neighborhood in a five-month span.

The slow-crafted bitters producer, which first launched in 2009, had operated a production site and tasting room at the Lincoln Warehouse in Bay View since 2014, but as the company grew and production increased, it needed a larger footprint.

For a month during its transition between facilities, Bittercube set up shop in Tusk’s commercial kitchen before the restaurant officially opened. McRoberts had reached out to co-owner Ira Koplowitz months earlier, he said, voicing her support and welcoming the company to the neighborhood.

From an economic standpoint, relocating to a larger facility in Uptown made more sense than remaining in Bay View, where rent is more expensive, Koplowitz said.

The move allowed Bittercube to not only lease a 9,000-square-foot building, but also have the means to renovate the space and open a bar and storefront there.

“We needed to invest into the infrastructure of a building,” Koplowitz said. “And if we had done that in Bay View or Walker’s Point, we would have a space that would have been the same size as the one we were in before and we wouldn’t have had that capital to invest into the other business extensions.”

Koplowitz believes the comeback of the Uptown neighborhood is still in its infancy, which sometimes makes it challenging to attract customers, but he said he sees great potential for the area and hopes for further development along the busy North Avenue business corridor.

BID 16 is currently working to make that happen, said vice president Chris Hau, a principal at Milwaukee-based Quorum Architects Inc.

Smaller scale projects over the past two years, including a new pocket park that now fills a vacant lot at 56th Street and West North Avenue and the nearby installation of Washington Heights’ first Bublr Bikes station, have given way to greater visions and plans for the neighborhood.

After working with the city to identify six sites in need of improvement, the BID partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Community Design Solutions center to go through a design charrette process for those properties.

Hau said the potential project plans will be unveiled in February, and the BID will be seeking both public and private investors and partners to help spur the development.

“Our future goal is to really expand upon the current development that has happened and the new businesses that have invested in the neighborhood,” he said.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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