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Tosa Transformed: I've Gotten to Watch City Grow Vibrant

Events of past weekend gave me pause to muse on changes over two decades.

As I was walking home with my wife Saturday morning after we visited the and the VillageGreen Street Fair, listening to the skree of bagpipes from the Scottish Fest Highland Games, it occurred to me just how much this place has changed during the time I've called myself a Tosan.

This summer is an anniversary for me; it marks 20 years since I arrived to take a job as a copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal. So as we strolled, I thought about what I have seen come and go in Wauwatosa, and Rip Van Winkle came to mind.

In Washington Irving's famous tale, an old Dutch settler of New York falls under the spell of drink offered to him by wee men in the woods and goes to sleep for 20 years. During his long nap, the American Revolution has taken place, and the changes wrought in his neighborhood make it unrecognizable to him.

Unlike old Rip, I have not been asleep these 20 years, and so I have been able to watch with growing interest the remarkable transformation of Tosa.

When I arrived in 1991, the village was a quaint but fairly dull place. The was the only restaurant in the heart of the Village, and full credit to its owners as pioneers. There just wasn't much of anywhere else to go, although I soon discovered down the street a way. As far as shopping, the only places that captured my interest were the immensely old-fashioned and Drew's variety stores.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn't mention another business pioneer, the , that took an early chance on the Village and remains a popular stop to this day.

North Avenue was every bit as dull but without the quaintness. It had the look of a business district that had once been important but had for a long, long time been growing less and less so. Outdated storefronts seemed to be just hanging on, and almost from my first minute I heard dire predictions of the area's further decline.

Jake's, the classic steakhouse, was there, but then suddenly it wasn't. The video store was left as the major attraction (although one mustn't forget ).

The center of Wauwatosa had moved west, to Mayfair Mall. Now, Mayfair is a godsend to Tosa as the busiest retail center in the state and the largest commercial taxpayer in the city. But when the center of life and culture in your community is a shopping mall, you are suffering a dangerous case of suburbanity.

Then, somewhere around the time Jake's was leaving senescient North Avenue, arrived down in the sleepy Village. I remember wondering at the time, "I think Joe Bartolotta knows what he's doing, but does he? The Village? Really?"

By that time, I had gotten used to feeling that everything good about Wauwatosa was everything old that had somehow managed to keep up appearances. The Chancery had made the move in, but for years no one had followed. Now, surprise, here was a fine-dining establishment setting up its white-linen shop across the street.

Not far behind, although a bit to the west of the Village, came .

And more good things kept coming. Jolly's on Harwood, which after Al Jolly's untimely death became Bjonda, now . . Starbuck's. Noodles and Co. . . . . And now, Yo Mama frozen yogurt. Plus a swarm of other small businesses and galleries that have made the Village not only a dining destination but one for boutique shopping as well.

These days, with Cafe Hollander open from breakfast until bar closing, the Village is alive with people at all hours, and on Saturday it was positively teeming. The Farmers Market is a summer boon, but the Village is active even in the dead of winter.

North Avenue seems poised for a similar if perhaps less dramatic revival. Popular restaurants are moving in, and it seems that when that happens other strong businesses follow. Like the Village, East Town is developing a long-range plan that will begin by doing away with the grossly unpopular "chicane" system of serpentine traffic lanes.

The most interesting thing to me is that with a few exceptions — Jake's, and especially the much-lamented Drew's, for instance — most of the revival of the old lynchpin districts of Tosa has been accomplished without losing the best of those old-guard establishments. You can still get expert assistance from the old guys at Robertson's. You can still get great homemade ice cream and candies at Neimann's.

In that same light, I can't leave off without saying a word about the neighborhood business district that is actually closest to my heart — that is, 68th and Wells. I'm not even sure what this area that I've frequented for so long is called — Hyde Park? — although it is one of those number of places in the Milwaukee area that was once located as: "Where the streetcar turns the corner around."

The streetcar is gone, but bakery and and are still there, as are the cobbler, , and the tailor, , and (by those standards) relative newcomers and , which have arrived since I have.

Thank goodness some things don't change, because it couldn't get much better than that.

Jim Price is the editor of Wauwatosa Patch.

Bobby Pantuso June 07, 2011 at 02:42 PM
Great perspective Jim. I "Grew Up" on North Avenue. I find myself waxing "old man" with the kids when we walk the avenue sometimes. I tell them about how there was a bowling alley in the Arcade Building, the McDonalds was a different building with Norman Rockwell pics on the wall. There was a video arcade on 65th and North called Video Star. There was a spice shop where we would just go in a smell. There was a George Webb next to Radio Shack and when the Brewers won 12 in a row I rode my bike there to get get my free burger. Tosa Variety was a 5 and dime store where IlMitos is, We would scrounge our change together for what seemed like a bottomless bag of candy. I bought the corsage for my homecoming date at the flower shop where The Hot Dog Man is now...... I am getting old.
Bobby Pantuso June 07, 2011 at 02:44 PM
Oh, Forgot about LeDonut! 68th and North where Subway/HR Block is. Best chocolate milk in the world there. I can still taste it.
Jim Price June 07, 2011 at 05:52 PM
Bobby, let's hope this new vision for North Avenue bears the kind of fruit that will make for such memories for a new generation of Tosans. It would be great if the Avenue became kid-friendly again.
Kathy Ehley June 08, 2011 at 03:00 AM
Jim and Bobby - what fun to reminisce about what was, then look at the transformation and growth our commercial areas. It is very exciting to see how vibrant the areas are becoming while blending the quaintness along side the new. It has taken years of people with vision, patience and persistence to get the Village to be what it is today. Kudos to our business and property owners who have taken the financial risk to invest and to our Tosa residents who have become ardent supporters of our local business communities. This partnership is making Wauwatosa stronger every day. And we cannot forget to thank the City staff and elected officials who are there to partner and support. Residents, businesses, and municipality working together, lets keep it up and not take it for granted.
Jim Price June 08, 2011 at 03:16 AM
Kathy, you negligently forgot to thank someone who has had a lot to do with it. Thanks, Kathy Ehley, for leading the Village BID with such great vision.
Bobby Pantuso June 08, 2011 at 03:21 AM
I absolutely agree with Jim. Your work on the Village BID Kathy has inspired me in the work I do for North Avenue.
Shelley Mattheis June 08, 2011 at 02:48 PM
Kudos to all of you. I too have been in Tosa for 20+ yrs. Jim, your reminiscence of the Village and word choice, was spendid. Thank you for the walk. Bobby, your stories were enjoyed by me, as much as the kids you share them with, I'm sure. I remember my first solo outing with my new baby. A walk to Rainbow Books, now UTurn (I think). That was 20 yrs ago. The book store has moved to Viliet. I now own Tuesday's Child with my sister, Liz, located next to Neimann's. I cant imagine setting up shoppe any where else. Kathy, well..... your support has been unrivalled. Tosa is truly wonderful.
Jim Price June 09, 2011 at 06:08 AM
Shelley, just got back from a Brewers win – I can walk to a major league ballpark just as I can walk down to the Village – and yeah, it's a little bit of heaven. Lovely memories, lovely fantasies. It's a pretty special place we've got here.

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