In the last few years, a 3-block stretch of east North Ave, once one of Milwaukee’s hottest entertainment and nightlife neighborhoods, has seen at least 9 different bars close. Five of those buildings sit empty today with no visible signs of life, and one building has been completely demolished. Then came word two weeks back that corner stalwart, the German-themed Von Trier, will be ditching its 40 years of lederhosen and transitioning into “an upscale, classic cocktail lounge with a mid-century vibe”.
These closures and re-imaginings of long-time favorites have hit many locals right in their nostalgia centers; but the closings are often a result of those same people not hitting these bars with their wallets. Von Trier is an eclectic Milwaukee institution, but landmark-status doesn’t pay the bills. In the cases of many of the bars, kids graduated college and never came back to pay more than the $1-specials they did back then.
And the evidence of a continuously changing East Side is growing around the small vacant bars each day, quite literally. In that same 3-block radius, 7 new high-rise apartment buildings have gone up or are in process. And there’s the kicker: one of Milwaukee’s densest neighborhoods is only gaining more residents, yet the entertainment and nightlife options nearby are dwindling. What gives?
I posit a few reasons for the closures:
- North Ave was over-saturated with the same type of loud-music, cheap-drink bars. A thinning of the herd needed to occur. There were unforeseen casualties.
- The local population is shifting up in both age and income levels, demanding a corresponding shift in types, quality, and price ranges of bars.
- The increase in immediate residential population necessitates alternative, lifestyle businesses besides simply shot-and-a-beer joints.
But perhaps most importantly: times change, and Milwaukee is changing along with them. Look no further than blossoming Walker’s Point for proof, with its abandoned warehouses and third-shift dives morphing into the city’s main restaurant district and center for handcrafted goods.
In both cases, the changes did not happen (just) because a business was run poorly or customers found alternatives; they happened because Milwaukee is a living, breathing, growing city. Back on North Avenue’s 3-block main drag, the same time period of bar closings has seen at least 8 new food joints open, not to mention perhaps Milwaukee’s fastest-growing new brewery a stone’s throw away.
A renaissance is built on ruins, not roses. Milwaukee’s East Side, and its backbone of North Avenue, are going through a painful change, to be sure. But there’s no reason to believe it can’t come back different and better than before.