North Downer Avenue – Main Street
North Downer Avenue commercial district is a two-block long retail strip located along North Downer Avenue, between East Park and Webster Places. It was awarded a local historic designation in 2001.
Why Downer matters to the neighborhood
Situated on the west edge of Historic Water Tower Neighborhood (HWTN), this two-block retail strip has always been HWTN’s main street, says Thea Kovac, an old-time resident.
The term main street can be defined in multiple ways. The Wisconsin Main Street Program draws from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's definition as it explains that a main street is a “[place] of shared memory where people still come together to live, work, and play.” According to the Main Street Alliance such streets tend to be associated with small local businesses rather than national chain stores. We regard Downer as the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood's main street because it is a place of shared memories and a thoroughfare made of (mostly) small businesses.
The stores along Downer are only two or three stories high. The street is narrow and lined with trees and integrated within its residential setting. The only exception is a four-story parking structure at the south end of the street.
The shops and facilities along Downer were originally built to serve “homeowners and apartment dwellers living on the city’s Upper East Side” from the 1900s to the 1930s. In the recent past, there has been some real estate speculation on commercial properties along Downer. The Downer Avenue shopping district is not immune to major developments that could completely change its character as a neighborhood marketplace. Economic interests have led developers to propose larger residential buildings very close to Downer Avenue, and a boutique hotel on the street. The parking structure is a reminder of new developments in this area.
Downer has always been a part of the neighborhood’s life and a center of local preservation activism, whether as an everyday shopping district or a historic district endangered by newer developments.
How we tell stories of Downer
As we talked to the users of Downer Avenue shopping district, we found that many of their memories and stories were connected to specific locations. We have therefore selected those sites that frequently came up during their interviews. To read these place-based stories, click on a location in the map below. To read more about our method, go to Places.
View Places in Downer in a full screen map
People experience Downer in diverse ways. Some people are customers at shops on Downer. The others are members of a church. There are also merchants and businessmen who operate their stores on Downer. These individuals have spent different periods of time on Downer Avenue and they have been at the street at different times during the day. They have experienced changes of seasons and they have attended events held here. They hold different viewpoints and perspectives on this street. The street becomes the locus where these diverse individuals meet and interact with each other. While we incorporate their personal and collective memories into place-based stories, we also provide person-based accounts to give you the biographical contexts of the storytellers of Downer. To read more about the people we have talked to, go to People.
- City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission, "Final Historic Designation Study Report: North Downer Avenue Commercial District" (Milwaukee: Historic Preservation Commission, 2001), 3–4.
- Nik Kovac, interview by John Annis and Chelsea Wait, Milwaukee, June 21, 2013.
- Main Street Alliance, "History," accessed July 14, 2013.
- National Main Street Center, “What is Main Street,” accessed July 5, 2013.
- Blair Williams, interview by Fran Assa, Yuko Nakamura and Chelsea Wait, Milwaukee, June 13, 2013.
- Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, "Main Street Program," accessed July 14, 2013.
- Neil Barofsky, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, (New York City: Simon and Schuster, 2012).
- Miles Orvell, The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).