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Spaces and places shape our ideas and our selves. Sometimes, the idea of a place might shape your ideas more than the actual space, or the actuality of the space. . Case in point: Sydney HiH. Sydney HiH was a … Continue reading →
Spaces and places shape our ideas and our selves. Sometimes, the idea of a place might shape your ideas more than the actual space, or the actuality of the space. .
Case in point: Sydney HiH.
Sydney HiH was a patchwork quilt of a building on the edge of what’s called Old Milwaukee or the River district. It was a quilt of a building in that it was made up of a couple buildings, dating back to 1876, and that by the time my family moved to Milwaukee in 1983, it had long been painted in wide patches of bright colors and stood alone on it’s block, isolated from the rest of the city. Like this:
Sydney Hih was bought in 1971 by Sydney Eisenberg, named after himself, and painted in such a manner as to attract bohemian businesses.
According to a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, the timeline for Syndey HiH during that period went something like this (italics indicate quoted material).
1973 Tenants include The Industrial Arts Co., a group of commercial artists; Delhi Emporium Gift Shop; Dreams and Dragons art gallery, Fermentation Plantation (home winemaking consultants); Mainstream Records; The Mouse Trap gift shop; The Playhouse gifts; Puerto Rican Valley; Western Tradition Leather shop; Merkt’s Cheese; the Shish Kabob, then Milwaukee’s only Indian restaurant; and Fertile Earth Cooperative Health Food restaurant (billed as the first establishment to ban smoking in Milwaukee). In the basement was The Lost Dutchman Mine, a bar where folk music ruled for a while. Later, the space became the Golden Shaft, one of Milwaukee’s first gay bars, and then a disco.
1974 The Sydney Hih struggles to keep its tenants. The tenant roster includes Valentina, a dress shop; the Melting Pot; Goldfish Galore, a shop for fish lovers; and Oil Can Studio, an art studio.
1975 A Milwaukee Journal article describes the place as a “clubhouse for long-haired men and short-haired women” and the “most fascinating shopping bazaar in town.” Tenants now include Heart of the Wood Gallery; Chadah Imports-Exports; Image Maker Studio, run by photographer Russ Manke, Archangel Herb Shop; Zeet Gizzle Fweep jewelry; The Puppet Shop; A New Leaf, a plant shop; and Thoughts Express, a place to have your ideas turned into sculpture. Rents are $60 to $150 a month for a “cubby.”
There were a lot of fires at Sydney HiH.
In a 1983 article about the damage the fires had done to Sydney HiH, Sydney himself had these gems to say about the place:
“I don’t care if an artist is black, white, blue, green or brown, he’s going to a chance at Sydney HiH” he said.
“Syndey Hih in my opinion is a thing of beauty and a joy forever,” he said. “I love it. I love the people in it. I don’t care what you say or anybody else. We’re doing things that we like. We are having so much fun here”
(personal side note, or for Milwaukee peeps reading: please note the ad for the Village pub!)
By 1985, Eisenberg (who lived in Shorewood, where I grew up) was dead. He gained a fair amount of notoriety, had had his law license suspended, and was found guilty of professional misconduct for harassing a judge who then killed himself.
What I’d like to draw your attention to in the 1985 obit in the Milwaukee Journal is the date given for the picture. That picture is of Sydney 3 years before he bought what was to be Sydney HiH. From his obit he seems like a pretty rotten guy, but I love that a 55 year old total square bought and made Sydney HiH. I thought he might have done it as a strategic move to profit from the counter culture, but the quotes in the earlier article make it seem like a true labor of love.
When I was really little, I loved when my parents would drive by Sydney HiH. Once I found out that artists lived there, I decided that’s where I would live when I grew up.
Betty’s Bead Bank was on the first floor, on the corner. I would BEG my parents to take me there. The beads were surprisingly expensive. But I would feel so cool and excited walking up the stairs of Sydney HiH to go in…there were purple tapestries and wooden bead curtains and insense. I rarely bought more than a couple beads.
The owner of Betty’s was Willie Munson. When not looking over his shop, Munson had an 25 year+ career as Pro Billiards Player. He’s fourth from the right in the picture below.
In the basement was the Unicorn Club.
It was mostly a punk club, but, I’m guessing from the opening party info I found, they captured some of the clientele from the earlier inhabitants, the Golden Shaft, one of Milwaukee’s first gay bars (which took over from The Lost Dutchman Mine, which, believe it or not, was NOT one of Milwaukee’s first gay bars). More info here.
Gus, pictured above, is the owner of the Gus’ Mexican Cantina restaurants, of which there is now only one, which he runs with his wife and four children.
I never went to the Unicorn Club…but I did go to shows when I was in high school…so either the bands there were way more underground then the ones I was going to (totally likely), or a different scene (very possible), or the Unicorn was one of the places I wasn’t allowed to go in Milwaukee. The only places I was ever expressly forbidden from going in Milwaukee were the ones that my dad viewed as a fire trap without good means of egress. I think a basement club in an old building that had had several fires would fall under that category.
In 2000, most of Sydney HiH was painted beige.
These pictures were taken by Fading Nostalgia on a trip through Sydney HiH in March of 2012. More pictures and a nice post on that site.
In 2012, after a long back and forth with the city, developers, and activists: Sydney HiH was demolished.
I dreamed of living there when I was really young, because I had been told artists lived there.
Visiting the building during high school, I realized what had seemed like a dream world looked a lot less glossy…and by that time I knew “real” artists who had huge lofts on the south side or further down the street towards my dad’s office in the Fortress. I thought Sydney HiH was for people pretending. And maybe it was.
But I will always remember Sydney HiH and the way it made me feel that first time I saw it. For me, that building, with it’s great paint job, symbolized that you didn’t have to live your life the way everyone else was. You didn’t have to paint your house the way everyone else did. If you were different, why not be proud? From my research tonight, it seems that so a lot of other people will remember Sydney HiH, too.
However! Sydney HiH lives on, not just in memories, but also Google Maps (for now at least, until the google car goes back to Milwaukee):
Long Live Sydney Hih!