Washington Heights shines as premier Milwaukee neighborhood

When Milwaukeeans discuss "the urban neighborhood," this is what we mean.

Tucked in between Washington Park and the Stadium Freeway to the east, Wauwatosa's Washington Highlands neighborhood to the west, Sherman Park to the north and the valley bluffs beyond Vliet Street to the south, Washington Heights beckons with charm, coziness and convenience; not to mention an array of awesome homes.

Initial development dates back to 1838, when a proposed canal from Lake Michigan to the Rock River selected the area as part of its path. The project failed by the time local investor George Dousman took advantage of the first incarnation of the bottled water craze, establishing the Nee-Ska-Ra Mineral Springs Company in 1839. Their water source was a spring that bubbled up fresh, clean water on the plot of land where Neeskara Elementary School lies today (no word on whether their bubblers use spring water.)

Washington Heights officially sprung up as a neighborhood in the 1890s with the extension of a streetcar line from downtown Milwaukee to Wauwatosa. The establishment of the oft-overlooked -- and wildly-underrated -- Washington Park on its eastern edge provided further impetus for development and a much-needed source of recreation.

Today, the urban quality of life that Milwaukee touts shows itself well in Washington Heights. The area combines a diverse set of residents, public and private schools, parks, architectural styles and easy access to the rest of the metropolitan area. From there, one can drive to a job in downtown Milwaukee in about five minutes; to the Mayfair area, eight minutes; to Brookfield, 12 minutes. Fifteen to twenty minutes gets you to the airport.

One can take a brewery tour at Miller or gaze upon the world headquarters of Harley-Davidson just by heading east on Washington Boulevard, winding through Washington Park, and cutting a few blocks south onto Highland, which also provides a quick alternative to I-94 to get downtown.

The glow from Miller Park shines just to the south, even if the roof is closed. On a clear night heading south on 47th Street, you can see the top part of the ballpark's video screen inside the stadium.

The neighborhood itself is very walkable, from the relative expanse of the boulevards to the cozier north-south streets, most of which are one-way to accommodate one lane of traffic and one lane of parking. Architecture fascinates with a blend of bungalows, tudors and colonials that are by and large very well-kept, with owners often in their yards gardening, visiting with each other or just relaxing on porches with a book or a drink.

The strong identity and stability of the Washington Heights neighborhood inspires and nurtures adjoining neighborhoods. Small shops, not too numerous in Washington Heights other than along Vliet, abound along North and Lisbon Avenues and draw a healthy portion of their clientele from Washington Heights.

Commercial activity along Vliet Street has seen resurgence in recent years. The revamped Times Theater, The Highlander restaurant, Highland Lanes, a barber shop, bookstores, child care centers, a revamped Mobil station with a touchless car wash and several taverns, including Dana's Fieldhouse, O'Brien's Pub, Coop's Tiny Tap and Wonder Bar, all serve the neighborhood while drawing in customers from all around town.

Fred's at 48th and Vliet serves as neighborhood institution, originally operating as a Taste-T-Freeze from 1957 to 1967. Fred's it has been run ever since by the Geisinger family; who bought it in 1967. Today, Fred Geisnger and his son Bob still own it, churning out burgers, malts, fried sides.

Places like Fred's, O'Brien's (which many Milwaukeeans remember as Bingo's), and Dana's Fieldhouse draw in hungry ballplayers from nearby Wick Field, busily replacing the calories they just burned.

To illustrate the variety in Washington Heights, one must only see Dana's Fieldhouse, O'Brien's Pub, and the upscale West End Gallery right in between. A Washington Heights patron can have a beer and play darts at Dana's Fieldhouse, browse upon and purchase an Art Deco-themed stained glass changing shade at the West End Gallary and then walk next door to O'Brien's for another beer, a $2.50 jumbo taco the size of a square half-acre and some pool, all while walking less than 300 feet.

The 3rd District police department recently relocated from 47th and Vliet to 50th and Lisbon, in a new facility that helps keep Washington Heights among the city's safest places to live.

Washington Heights is also the epicenter of MPS, whose main administration building abuts the southern end of the neighborhood, along Vliet Street at 52nd. A large number of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other city employees call the neighborhood home.

If Vliet Street is the neighborhood's main commercial street, then Washington Boulevard is certainly its main residential street. Part of the city's visionary boulevard system, Washington Boulevard connects Washington Park and Wauwatosa. The boulevard itself is one of the most pleasurable drives in the city, with beautiful homes made of stone, brick and wood lining the tree-filled way. St. Sebiastian's Church, at 55th Street, is a beautiful concoction of arched stone.

Another boulevard (albeit without a median) is Hi-Mount, where some homes have front lawns seemingly big enough to host a kids' baseball game.

A strong neighborhood association contributes to activities in the area, and the Washington Heights Neighborhood Association sets up events like nighttime Halloween trick-or-treating, ice-skating parties, caroling and summer picnics in adjacent Washington Park. Washington Heights divides itself into nine areas, each with a representative who serves in the association. Such organization and community involvement contributes greatly to the neighborhood's vitality, serving as a great blueprint for other urban neighborhoods wishing to follow.

Washington Heights Neighborhood Association: http://www.whna.net/

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