View from the bay

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Volunteers plant annuals at the Bay View fire station on Kinnickinnic Avenue.

Volunteers plant annuals at the Bay View fire station on Kinnickinnic Avenue. – Photo: Kevin Edwards

MILWAUKEE — When physician Kevin Edwards and his partner moved to Milwaukee 15 years ago, they decided to look in Bay View after some recommendations from friends.

“I don’t know why it draws so many gay people, other than the fact that it’s an older neighborhood and the houses here are relatively inexpensive,” Edwards says. “I guess it’s like a lot of other communities — the gays move in, fix up the houses and gentrify the neighborhood.”

Located along Lake Michigan just south of the downtown area, Bay View — also known as “Gay View” — was once a company town, home to the Milwaukee Iron Company (also known as the Bay View Rolling Mill).

According to Bay View Historical Society president Kathy Mulvey, most of the estimated 1,500 ironworkers who lived in Bay View were immigrants.

“At first they were mainly from the British Isles, but then they came from all over Europe, which made it a very unique community,” Mulvey says.

According to Bay View Homes Realtor Karen Block, much of the neighborhood’s housing stock reflects its roots as a working class neighborhood for factory workers.

“We have a combination of Victorians, bungalows and Old-Style houses, which are basically stripped-down Victorians,” Block says. “They don’t have built-in china cabinets or any of the frills you’d see in a Victorian.”

But frills can be added, especially when you’re paying $215,000 for a four-bedroom, two-bath remodeled home, which recently sold for list price after two days on the market.

Prices in Bay View — about $90,000-$450,000 — are down about 10 percent from last year, says Block, but things are moving quickly if they’re priced right.

“Bay View is a very desirable area and people want to be here.”

Bounded roughly by Chase to the lake, Beecher to Howard, Bay View attracts buyers who want to be close to the lake and walking distance to many conveniences. While the recession has affected the commercial district in Bay View — the local bookstore Broad Vocabulary closed last year — there are a number of food-related businesses in the neighborhood, including restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and a popular farmers’ market. More than just a place to buy fruits, vegetables, jellies, honey, baked goods, coffee, fudge, crackers and spreads, the farmer’s market also serves as a community meeting spot.

“This has become the place to come and talk to your neighbors,” says Mulvey, who also runs the farmer’s market. “People come here and spend the whole day. We didn’t realize how hungry the people of Bay View were for a meeting place.”

They’re also interested in eating well. “I think the farmer’s market has gotten people interested in local, sustainable foods, but it’s also a function of the people who are moving in here,” Mulvey says. “There are a number of forces that are making Bay View especially prominent in that field.”

From the neighborhood’s popular Outpost Natural Foods (a food cooperative that sells natural foods and locally grown produce) to Sweet Water (a commercial fish farm operating out of an industrial building in Northwestern Bay View) The Bay View Neighborhood Association (whose goal is “The Greening of Bay View”) to the Bay View Garden & Yard Society (a gay and gay-friendly group that created and maintains a community produce garden), Bay View may seem like an unlikely place to lead the edge of change. But then again, you have to understand its residents.

Whether they’re transplants, such as Block, who sold her condo in Chicago two years ago and purchased a single-family home in Bay View, out gay couples such as Edwards and his partner, or part of a fifth-generation Bay View family (not uncommon), everyone seems to be on equal footing in this neighborhood.

“Often, when you have that kind of old, close-knit community, they’re not very welcoming, but that’s not the case in Bay View,” Mulvey says. “I think it really speaks to who the people of Bay View are.”

Regardless of their roots, the people of Bay View seem to be influenced by its history.

At the center of that history is a woman named Buehla Brinton, an early resident who taught Bay View immigrants, operated the community’s first public library out of her home, built a neighborhood tennis court in her yard and turned her home into a cultural center for residents to come together.

“She would have Italian night and the Italians would bring food, Polish night and the Poles would bring the food, Welsh night, Czech night, etc.,” Mulvey says. “She brought all those people together and it really shaped Bay View. That may be where the all openness comes from.”

It’s been a welcome change for Edwards, who grew up in a conservative community in Iowa.

“Some of the most accepting people I’ve ever met are in Bay View,” he says.

Edwards, president and founder of the Bay View Garden & Yard Society, recalls the time the group landscaped the local firehouse.

“The firemen were a little funny about it at first, when they found out we were gay,” Edwards says. “But after they saw the work we did, they were very excited. Now they greet us every time they

see us.”

Edwards is the first to admit Bay View is not known for its beautiful gardens. Nor is it known for its yards, which tend to be small. And he’s not actually much of a gardener, when it really comes down to it.

“I don’t think gardening is really my thing,” he says. “I’m the least knowledgeable of anyone in the group.”

But he is committed to the betterment of the community of Bay View.

And in his opinion, that’s all that matters.

Kerrie Kennedy is a veteran real estate writer.

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