Thea Kovac compares the place of Downer Avenue in the neighborhood to a kind of small town “Main Street.” She should know. Kovac, who is a vice president of the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood association, has lived in a home that abuts the Downer commercial block east of Downer theater since 1975.
When Thea thinks about how to describe the shopping district, she recalls a particular walk she took that brought her to the street from an unaccustomed direction. Seeing it suddenly from a new angle, caused a moment of dislocation and wonder: she suddenly felt she was walking into some small charming European town. Thea is not overly fanciful; that is exactly how the street is described in a 2001 City of Milwaukee study which resulted in the designation of the two commercial blocks as an historic district: “The character of the district is reminiscent of a small European village because at its center lies a picturesque church complex and clustered around it are a variety of small commercial buildings.”
Thea has worked hard over the years to see that the Downer Avenue commercial area continues to be a place of “small commercial buildings.” To Kovac, the stores offer a unique kind of commercial environment that is neighborly. She knows the shopkeepers, and they know her. They know her children as well, and some of them saw her children grow up. The shopkeepers have a stake in the neighborhood and in their relationships with the residents. She calls it an “important” and “synergistic” relationship.
She believes that recent developers betrayed this relationship when they got permission to build the large, multi-story parking lot across from the movie theater. The developers “cared nothing about the neighbors.” The neighborhood association fought the parking structure but lost, despite the historic district designation. Thea argues that it is not a good practice to have a general development plan for such a little neighborhood area, and worries that other large developments will ruin the character of the neighborhood that the historic designation was supposed to preserve.
Thea relates many of the charms of living in the district, and has vivid memories of taking her kids to nearby Lake Park, and the excitement that the Coffee Trader brought to the neighborhood. When she first moved to the neighborhood the corner drugstore still had a functioning soda counter, and the owner talked about having met his future wife at the fountain. Downer has changed over the years to more of an entertainment and restaurant area, but she hopes the neighborliness between storekeepers and shoppers will continue.
- City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission, "Final Historic Designation Study Report: North Downer Avenue Commercial District" (Milwaukee: Historic Preservation Commission, 2001), 10–11, 14.
- Thea Kovac, interview by Daniel Cho and Yuko Nakamura, Milwaukee, June 19, 2013.