Why Milwaukee’s Old South Side?

If you’ve read any of the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, you’ve already met Officer Roelke McKenna. Based on reader mail, he’s a popular guy. Well, in Tradition of Deceit, Roelke gets his fair share of page time.

Tradition Of Deceit Cover

Chloe spends much of the book in Minneapolis, helping a friend. Back home, Roelke gets slammed with the news that his best friend, a fellow police officer, was shot and killed while on duty.

Roelke began his career in Milwaukee, but I’ve never specified a district or neighborhood…until now. His beat was in Milwaukee’s Old South Side. When he hears accusations that his friend was drinking on duty shortly before his death, he fears the investigation is tainted and returns to familiar territory to seek the truth for himself.

District 2 Police Station

So…why the Old South Side?

First, its history perfectly suits my interests and background—and a recurring theme in the Chloe series. I’ll quote the excellent book Milwaukee’s Old South Side (Jill Florence Lackey and Rick Petrie):  “If one adjective could be used to describe Milwaukee’s Old South Side, it would be ethnic.”

I’d already decided to celebrate Polish culture in this book. And at one time, the Old South Side was home to the largest Polish community outside Poland.

Kosciuszko_Park_ice_skating

Ice skating in Kosciuszko Park, 1910. (Photo by Roman Kwasnieweski; From the Archives Department, University of Wisconisin-Milwaukee Libraries.)

Second, it’s still easy to see evidence of the neighborhood’s early Polish immigrants. They built homes on narrow lots, with gable ends facing the streets, as shown in the photos above and below.

South Side neighborhood

This style of architecture became known as Polish Flats.  If families eventually needed more space, they jacked up the foundation and add a lower level.

Kosciuszko Park is the heart of the neighborhood.

Kosiuszko Park

View from Lincoln Avenue. The park, named for prominent General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, provides a 34-acre greenspace in the middle of the most densely populated neighborhood in Milwaukee.

Kosiuszko Park

Note the blue police call box in the foreground. In Roelke’s time, police officers still used these boxes to communicate.

Third, the community can claim several prominent historic sites. These working-class Polish-Americans built beautiful churches, including the magnificent Basilica of St. Josaphat.

Basilica of St. Josaphat

The basilica is also visible across the frozen pond in the historic photo above.

And right down the street is Forest Home Cemetery, established in 1850, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

cemetery

In the 1970s, highway construction and urban renewal sent some of the Polish-Americans to the suburbs, making room for more Mexican immigrants and other Latino newcomers. Tradition of Deceit takes place in February, 1983. The area was—and remains—vibrant and diverse.  It provided a wonderful setting for Roelke’s story.

Old South Side restaurant

Roelke finds himself slipping easily back into the old  neighborhood where he once walked a beat—talking with residents, visiting local landmarks, stopping for coffee at the local George Webb’s.

Old South Side George Webb

You can learn more about the neighborhood by visiting the basilica, park, and cemetery. I also recommend visiting the Old South Side Settlement Museum.  More about that later.

Old South Side Settlement Museum

And as always, you’ll find lots more information, photos, and maps on my website.

Milwaukee readers – any favorite memories to share?

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One Response to “Why Milwaukee’s Old South Side?”

  1. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    Can’t wait to read it. I am re-reading the first Chloe book to remind myself how they met, etc.

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