3 In the ‘Hood’


“But it’s important to me that I live in a safe neighborhood. I work odd hours; come home in the dark,” insisted Michelle to R.M. “Who needs to worry about that?”

Michelle was half of a couple, each in a medical line of work, and new to town. The other half was Sheldon. Friends called them ‘the he-Shell and the she-Shell,’ they’d explained. Tricky to pronounce but easy to remember. As their respective hospitals were in different directions from downtown, they were seeking a condo location to split the distance.

R.M. was giving them his ’50 cent’ tour. He offered his tour to anyone who didn’t know the city very well, or where to find condo developments. He knew it was important for clients to first get a handle on the entire area, even though their search was for only one unit, in one development. The decision for that one place would best be made in the light of that whole, much bigger picture.

“It’s a license violation for me to talk about neighborhoods.” R.M. gave Michelle his stock answer to a frequent question, asked in a variety of ways, sometimes accompanied by knowing nods and winks in his direction. “I’m a licensee of the state, you see, so I have to maintain professional standards of real estate practice. Comparing the relative safety of neighborhoods is a big no-no.”

“How is that helpful to me?”

“I understand your need to feel safe but there are other ways to approach this. I can show you buildings with attached parking if you prefer that to off-street parking. You drive into your garage, you’re inside and home,” R.M. suggested. “And, you could also check out recent facts about a neighborhood and weigh your choice based on those.”

“Those are on the ‘internets.'” The he-Shell chipped in. The she-Shell ignored him.

“But attached costs more, doesn’t it?”

“Lots more, upfront. But your peace of mind is also worth something. I’ve found it’s more an issue about building security than about neighborhood.”

“How’s that?”

“Most condo buildings downtown have a common, locked entrance. Some newer conversions and new construction are mixed use, with street level retail or commercial space that’s open to the public.”

“Anybody off the street can get in the building?”

“To the retail yes, but there’s also a separate, secure, street level entrance just for the units. Pricier places have a doorman, or concierge.” R.M. privately thought some offered an aura of class, if not necessarily increased security. Along the way, he also pointed out some apartment rentals.

“The other thing you might consider is a short term rental, say six months. You’ll pay a premium but if you’re not sure about where you want to settle, this would give you time to get to know the city, find out what you like. Takes the pressure off making a decision.”

“But then we would have to move twice. In six months!” The she-Shell protested. R.M chuckled.

“There was an Irishman who came last year from Boston and took my suggestion to rent. ‘Course, he didn’t have that much to move — still single — but he ended up buying right downtown. After a brief hankering for a single family house with a large deck in the north shore, he chose a building where he had observed a lot of lovely ladies living. He didn’t mind the extra move, not at all.”

“So this isn’t like Chicago so much, with towers lining the lakeshore?” The he-Shell changed the subject away from hankering men.

Shel, the He-Shell, one half of a couple in the market for a downtown condo.

Shel, the He-Shell, one half of a couple in the market for a downtown condo.

“We have our own version of the Gold Coast with high-rises along a stretch of the lake, downtown and northward. But that’s not the only place there are condos in town. When I first started to specialize in condos, you could list the downtown developments on a single page. The boom gave us over a hundred developments and five thousand plus units.”

“Not so many as Chicago.” The she-Shell was vested in preferring Chicago, her home town. After driving by the ramparts of Chicago highrises, a pixellation of window shades scaling their walls in gradations of open and shut, R.M. could never decide if the hodgepodge was a tribute to human differentiation or a simply a disheartening sameness of experience. He was content to be a Milwaukee specialist.

“To make it simpler for my clients, I grouped developments within neighborhoods, and then mapped them. Since I started in the 90’s, I’ve made a lot of additions. They’re all plotted on the map, in the folder I gave you.”

The he-Shell produced his copy and reeled off their names. “Gold Coast, Third Ward, Walkers Point, East Pointe, Theater Business, Park East, Brewers Hill, Riverwest. Will we be going through all of these?”

Michelle asked, “Are there as many different styles as there are neighborhoods?”

“Yes, and yes. The lowest numbers within each area indicate the oldest developments. You’ll notice some have more numbers than others. East Pointe, for instance, has more developments tucked in here and there but fewer total units. It’s just the opposite in the Gold Coast where there are fewer but taller buildings, and so a higher density of condo dwellers. What’s important is to figure out what area you prefer.”

“Why do some places downtown look like a vacant field, like over there?” The he-Shell pointed, as they pulled into the Theater-Business district.

“They tore down a freeway spur a few years ago to open up the land below. Park East, it’s called. Development was underway with hotels, pricey condos, pricey condos in hotels, that sort of thing. A lot of it is stalled out. Credit markets drying up, developers not getting financed, the economy, mostly. There’s hope that things will improve, eventually. Other areas don’t look this way, you’ll see.”

Michelle, the She-Shell, the 'better' half of the Shells, and a dog lover.

Michelle, the She-Shell, the ‘better’ half of the Shells, and a dog lover.

“But you will show us all the different styles available?” Michelle was still half-expecting to see only high-rises. “I don’t want ugly.”

“Lots of different building styles. The high-rises are mainly by the lake. But there are many condos along the river, as well. There are private entry townhomes, and retail and warehouse conversions. You’ll see the gamut from new urban to older Victorians. Downtown really covers only a few square miles. It’s not far to travel but there’s a lot to take in.”

“I’ll keep this map handy.”

“You’ll begin to realize that you’ve seen some buildings several times because we’ll be circling back a bit. If there’s anything that catches your eye, just sing out and I’ll try and pull over. Depending on the building, we might be able to get inside right away.”

Just as much as his various customers noticed the ladies, or brownfields, R.M. had an eye for cars. He placed no particular value on pricier models, not for that reason alone. No, his was a mechanic’s eye, sharpened by his dismantling and reassembling of an old beater, a 1936 Chevrolet, in his tender teens under his own uncle’s watchful gaze back in an age when adolescent boys were expected to both know and do something. A family trait perhaps, to be on the lookout.