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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Brady Street Festival's Rich History

Shopping, food and music on the East Side

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With the July 25 Brady Street Festival set for the near future, one can’t help but take a peek into school the past. For an athletically challenged high school student from the suburbs, visiting Brady Street in the late 1990s was a welcome alternative to running around on basketball courts. Perhaps “alternative” is the key word, as Brady Street welcomes all types to its eclectic neighborhood.

Even as the street has morphed from its positioning as the city’s central hub of the counterculture and ’60s anti-war movement through a period of gentrification coinciding with economic booms and busts, a strong sense of community gathering still remains. High- and lower-end shops are complemented by a seemingly endless array of hangouts, from bars and restaurants to a wide range of coffeehouses.

Brady Street has always enjoyed a rich history of diversity. The Polish immigrants who first settled Brady Street in the 1860s were later joined by an Italian community, the vestiges of which remain today. In the late 1960s, Brady Street became a locus for Milwaukee’s counterculture and anti-war movement. In 1970, the neighborhood held an early incarnation of the Brady Street Festival, then called Brady Street Days. Usually held twice yearly, in June and September, it ran until 1981, when a rise in crime put the festival on indefinite hiatus.

In the late 1980s and ’90s, and depending on whom you ask, Brady Street became a setting for another chapter in the gentrification narrative that swept across many American cities during the economic boom. Julilly Kohler, then-owner of an art gallery on Brady, spearheaded redevelopment efforts. As a result, new small businesses sprang up along the street, joining established family businesses like Sciortino’s Bakery and Glorioso Bros.

In its current incarnation, the Brady Street Festival has only recently been resurrected. In 2004, the festivities returned as the Artisan Food Festival. In 2007, the festival harked back to its roots, combining the flavors of the epicurean fest with multiple entertainment stages. With participation from more than 60 vendors, the festival also boasts a street-wide summer marketplace.

This year, the Brady Street Festival takes place on Saturday, July 25, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. With three stages to visit in 12 hours, the fest manages to host enough entertainment to give attendees ample choices. Not to disappoint the gourmands, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wisconsin cheese makers will be on hand for festival-goers to sample artisan cheeses from Castle Rock Organic Farms and Carr Valley. The East Side’s favorite game of strategy returns to the festival this year for the Chess Master Tournament, between 1 and 6 p.m.

While county fairs and Summerfest import entertainment from beyond Wisconsin’s borders, this street festival showcases local talent. Headlining on the main stage, Fever Marlene plays two sets, at 7:15 and 10 p.m. Local singer-songwriter Alex Wilson plays the blues on the Humboldt Stage at 8 p.m. Glamour steals the Island Stage at 7 p.m. for the Brady Street Fashion Show. The ladies hand it over to Hot Sauce, a danceable, soul cover sextet, at 9 p.m.

A hub connecting the East Side to the North Side, the Brady Street Area Association’s tag line “For All Walks of Life” takes pride in the neighborhood’s history. To celebrate Milwaukee’s diversity, the city’s divas up the ante on the Island Stage at 7:45 for the drag show. Jackie Roberts, who until recently was the show director at La Cage and works at Halo on Brady, says the crowd for the festival’s drag show grows every year. Roberts recognizes the drag show’s important role in celebrating the neighborhood’s inclusive spirit.

“Bringing the community together, even if it’s only for one day,” Roberts says, “if people can put aside their differences, open up their hearts, open their minds, then that’s all the reason to do it.”