Life in the shadow of Miller Park
By Robert Modlinski
What makes a good neighborhood? Is it the people? The businesses? For most folks it seems to be safety for their families, and a place to have some fun. Nestled between interstate 94, West State Street, and North Hawley Road in Milwaukee, Story Hill is a quaint area with pretty homes, tall trees, and two spacious parks. However, just like the stark contrast between Wisconsin winters and summers, Story Hill has a sportier side to it. It includes something that looks like a giant Martian spaceship that landed a stone's throw away.
Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, is directly south of Story Hill. It is one of six ballparks in the Major Leagues to have a retractable roof, giving it the spaceship appearance. The neighborhood even has its own Las Vegas-style "strip" in West Blue Mound Road where there are copious places to grab a beer or some food before the ballgame.
Story Hill is a different place six or seven months out of the year. For at least 81 home games April through September (October if the team makes the post-season), Story Hill is injected with baseball fans. Many bars have shuttle services to take fans to and from the stadium, saving them the hassle of parking and traffic in the ballpark lots. The shuttles also keep fans who may have had too much to drink, off the roads. But just because they are off the roads, doesn't mean they are out of the neighborhood.
"I'll get home from work at night and find puke and pee in my driveway and garbage cans," said Laura Boese, a newcomer to Story Hill.
Boese lives directly behind J&B's Blue Ribbon Bar and Grill on the northeast corner of 53rd Street and Blue Mound. She grew up on the north side of Milwaukee and relocated to the west side after admiring the homes in Story Hill.
"There's always something going on, it's very centrally located," she said.
Boese describes herself as a Brewers fan, but pays attention to their schedule for different reasons. She has been late for work because of increased traffic around her house during the summer.
"I plan my whole schedule around the games," she said. "During homestands and home games I either stay home, or stay as far away as possible to avoid all the traffic. When I do go to games, by the eighth inning I am out of there."
While she does occasionally find drunken fans passed out on her sidewalk, she insists that it's not a big deal. Dane Laitinen, a fellow Story Hill neighbor, has had similar issues.
"You can definitely tell when they win or lose; when they win, you have your happy drunks, and when they lose, you have your sour drunks," he said.
Laitinen and his wife and son live on Wisconsin Avenue, only a block north of Blue Mound. He admits that he has never been to a game at Miller Park, since he is a football fan, but holds no ill will toward Brewers fans. Other than some isolated incidents, he says it is a good neighborhood to raise a family.
"After one game, my son and I were taking a walk and we come around the corner to see a girl taking a leak on our big tree in our front yard," he said. "I had to tell my son to look away, but other than that, everything is fine."
Sandy Rusch is not only a die-hard Brewers fan, but the Story Hill Neighborhood Association President. She acknowledges that Story Hill is a "baseball neighborhood."
"Story Hill has embraced our proximity to a Major League baseball park since County Stadium was constructed in the early 1950s." she said. "Many Story Hill neighbors choose to live here because of our closeness to the stadium."
Rusch recognizes the number of fans that cause heavier traffic around the neighborhood.
"As the Brewers have enjoyed larger crowds these past few years, we've worked with the Brewers on hiring off-duty Milwaukee Police Department officers to help regulate traffic flow," she said.
She is also proud of the relationship that the Brewers and Story Hill have built.
"I'm happy to say that we have a good relationship with the Brewers," she said. "We invite Brewers personnel to our neighborhood meetings so Story Hill residents can keep up to date on Miller Park happenings, and we can share any concerns or ideas."
For three of the last four years, the Brewers have attracted over three million fans to the stadium. That is above the National League average, and the team has ranked 11th or better in yearly attendance since 2008 out of all 30 Major League Baseball teams. Two of the last four years, the team has posted a winning record on the field. Winning brings out more fans, and that means success for businesses in Story Hill.
Rusch knows the importance of the Brewers for business.
"Blue Mound businesses do count on those 81 Brewers home games and the thousands of fans that come into the neighborhood to help their individual bottom lines," she said. "Gas stations benefit from the extra traffic, too."
Alderman Michael Murphy realizes the impact the Brewers have on places fans can go on game days.
"It is great for the taverns, you have roughly 80 games a year, 30 to 40 thousand people at almost each game, many of which may stop before or after for a bite to eat or drink," he said. "Restaurants and taverns do quite well."
Murphy is in his fifth term serving as alderman for the tenth district. He understands the pros and cons of being a "baseball neighborhood."
"The traffic makes a big impact, and residents may have issues parking," he said.
In order to combat that issue of parking, on some Story Hill streets there are signs that ban parking one hour before or after stadium events. Rusch explained why that rule has been around for a long time.
"The rule is what the neighbors wanted, going back to the Milwaukee Braves days in the 1950s and 60s," she said.
Alderman Murphy recognizes the issues that come along with being so close to the park, but encourages people to head out to games.
"If you love baseball you can walk to the game and meet new friends, and also the paying customers that want to park in your driveway," he said. "I wouldn't be able to think of a better recreational event in this city."
Many business owners would also agree with the alderman. To the bars and restaurants on Blue Mound, the baseball season is what the Christmas season is for shopping malls.
Cheryl Briggs is a bartender at Kelly's Bleachers, a popular bar on Blue Mound. Every year she looks forward to the season.
"It's money-making season," she said. "As soon as March Madness comes, and spring training starts, I know I'm going to make more money."
She loves the atmosphere at Miller Park when she is at games, but likes to work more often when the team is in town.
"This is what it is all about, people watching baseball, drinking and having a good time. It is Milwaukee after all!" she said.
Matt Skalnik owns a relatively new restaurant on the northwest corner of 53rd and Blue Mound. He named it Frankie's Sammiches and it has been open since last June, but is just now starting to feel the positive effects of the baseball season.
"Last year, we really depended on the neighborhood folks during ball games, because most fans weren't aware of us yet," he said. "They wanted to stick with what they know."
Skalnik understood that it takes time to get your name out there and be noticed. He has made friends with his fellow street mates to gain camaraderie among business owners.
"We are all a big family, rooting for each other like we root for the team," he said. "The foot traffic during the ballgames, that's a huge number of people that walk by for each and every game, its almost guaranteed revenue. That's huge."
Fellow business owner W Chang understands what it is like to cater to a crowd. He runs a mobile food truck named Tigerbite, operating out of a kitchen on Blue Mound. He feeds fans after they have migrated away from the ballpark after games.
"Generally we tend to stay away from the ballpark, just because there is so much traffic, but after games get out, especially on weekends, downtown fills up pretty quick with hungry people," he said.
Rusch knows that the Brewers are important not only to Story Hill, but Milwaukee as a whole. She appreciates the team in her home city.
"I literally can see the investment that the Brewers have made in this city by building Miller Park, and their continued commitment to keeping Major League Baseball in Milwaukee," she said.