East North Avenue has gone through some dramatic changes in recent years, but any thoughts of the neighborhood dying are being forgotten as business owners say the area has never been stronger.
The college drinking culture of years past are long gone. Bars like the Eastsider, Hotch Spot, Cans Bar & Canteen, G-Daddy's BBC and more are gone from North Avenue. In place of those former cheap watering holes are trendier restaurant and retail spaces.
"North Avenue, my impression was, it was a strip of underage drinking bars," Geoff Hoen, owner of the new Beard MKE shop near North & Oakland said. "I'm sorry to admit that but that's what it was."
Incriminating statements aside, Hoen knew when he decided to open up his Men's Lifestyle Retail Store, this location was perfect. He formally worked as the store manager at The Waxwing, a store that kicked off the new era of North Avenue, several years after the fire at Pizza Man destroyed the old building.
"[North Avenue] is approachable, it's irreverent and that's what we like about our store," Hoen said. "I feel that as a general feeling of North Ave. It's something for everyone."
New venues are popping up all over the corridor and even more have changed the vision of North Avenue in the last couple years.
"With the addition of Fresh Fin Poke, Insomnia Cookies, The Axe Bar, Cat Cafe, it's all really cool, nichey [sic], quirky things you won't find anywhere else in Milwaukee," Hoen said.
The perception of North Avenue is changing for its patrons as well as business owners. The new bars and restaurants popping up have intent. They're not starting just to fulfill one demographic.
"We do about 15 of our own personal beers," Jayk Burczyk, General Manager of Operations for Hacienda Beer Company said. "We specialize in ales, stouts and we're moving towards lagers and sours right now."
Hacienda Beer Company is still under construction but all eyes are on it as it fills the space of the former G-Daddy's BBC building. Inside, exposed brick walls show the potential of the space.
However, Burczyk says the choice came down to one thing.
"We looked at several neighborhoods in the city and landed on this part of town because obviously, it's an iconic neighborhood," Burczyk said. "It has a rich history. The bar district being redeveloped into this restaurant and upscale neighborhood, everyone is invested."
"This is a prime area in the city for starting or bringing your business," Liz Brodek, Executive Director of East Side BID said. "What we're seeing right now, businesses coming in couldn't be a better fit to this area and the vibrancy and vitality they're bringing is so exciting to all of us."
Brodek says the property owners have been selective with who they rent space to. It's why you'll see a variety of different and trendy things like an Axe Bar, a painting studio (Splash Studio) or an international wine bar with ties to Spain (Baccanera). The variety is necessary because there are more people around to be selective.
"In the last five years, we've seen, I think, about 500 units come around in this district," Brodek said. "When we have residents in the area, they patronize the businesses that are walkable and convenient for them more. The businesses we have here are so head and shoulders above what they're replacing that we're seeing this beautiful culmination of residents and property owners making it as amazing as possibly can be."
"When you start to lose some of those icons of an area, I think people notice," Ald. Nik Kovac of the East Side said. "But hopefully, they come back and notice all these other businesses including bars but more restaurants and more daytime activity."
Kovac says articles about the dying East Side were overblown. The closing of major institutions like G-Daddy's BBC have large impacts on perception. Von Trier nearly closed before the outpouring of support caused another group to purchase the bar and revamp the inside. However, Kovac says those subtractions are overshadowed by larger additions like Crossroads Collective, Hacienda Beer Company and Beard MKE. These businesses came here because it's a more attractive model in the area.
"Adding residential density on North Avenue and beautiful buildings," Kovac said. "We've been more permissive with zoning to allow higher buildings and more density but we've also increased our design standards. Attractive buildings and buildings full of people are good. We're seeing the same phenomenon downtown. It used to be a ghost town after 5:00 p.m. but now, if not a 24-hour than 18 to 20 hour place. It's the same on East North Avenue."
Hacienda Beer Company is setting an opening for Memorial Day weekend. Beard MKE is open but having a grand opening on April 20th.