The months went on and other priorities consumed my life. But I couldn’t shake my interest in that abandoned home and its message. After visits to dingy, COVID-restricted offices of Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee, I slowly learned more of the home’s past. I came to realize that, in many ways, 2821 N. ¬¬33rd Street tells the history not only of a home, but of a community and a city.
Like all of Milwaukee, the home rests on once-indigenous lands sold-to-stolen-by the federal government in the 1830s, opening the area to real estate speculators and white settlers. In
those early decades of the 19th Century, it remained a far-away outpost of the city. By the end of the 19th Century, that had changed. Plots were bought and sold, and then subdivided for home-building. In 1906, the home at 2821 N. 33rd St., was built and, like many Milwaukee homes, it was a spacious duplex. That same year, 1906, the manufacturing powerhouse Briggs & Stratton built a seven-acre, six-building complex a few blocks away. (Two years earlier, in 1904, A.O. Smith had incorporated in Milwaukee. At their peak, in the 1960s and 1970s, the nearby A.O. Smith factories employed 10,000 people.)
After the 33rd Street home was built, owners came and went until Louis Hirsch bought the duplex in 1912. There were lean years in the 1930s, and city taxes went unpaid. But by the time Hirsch died in 1945, at that point living on Milwaukee’s east side, he owned the 33rd Street home and four others.
From 1949 to 1976, the home was its most stable. In that period, it was owned and lived in by Albert and Agatha Praniewicz who, like many in Milwaukee, were of Polish descent. In a pattern that persists to this day, the couple had moved west and north (in their case, from 19th and Clybourn Street) in search of a more desirable neighborhood. Like many of that era, Albert Praniewicz was a blue-collar worker, and he ended his career as an assembly inspector at American Motors. The City of Milwaukee directories do not list Agatha’s occupation, although most likely she would have been called a “housewife.”
The years 1949-1976 were also the economic apex of 20th Century Milwaukee. The city emerged from World War 2 to become a manufacturing powerhouse and gained a reputation as an up-and-coming city with a strong middle class and an abundance of family-supporting, unionized jobs. As a result, Milwaukee became a beacon for African-Americans who were part of the Great Migration from the south to the north.
In 1976, the Praniewicz’s sold the duplex to Alvin Jones, described as “a single man.” In subsequent years the Praniewicz’s were no longer listed in the city directory, and they apparently became part of that era’s great white migration out of Milwaukee to the suburbs or rural areas. (Anceestry.com notes that an Albert A Praniewicz, born in Milwaukee in 1923, died in 1999 in Neshkoro, Wisconsin, which is about 50 miles west of Oshkosh.) In coming decades, that white-flight migration was followed by the industrial abandonment of Milwaukee, as once powerful companies such as A.O Smith, Briggs & Stratton, and Allis Chalmers shipped jobs to non-union strongholds in the south and, later, overseas.
Jones, listed in the city directory as a custodial worker for Milwaukee County Buildings and Grounds, lived at the 33rd Street home for several decades as what was once a neighborhood dominated by European immigrants became home to the city’s African-American population. Around the turn of the century, Alvin moved north and west, and was listed as living near 59th and Wright Steet, although he still owned the home on 33rd Street.
The 21st Century has been cruel to Milwaukee’s central city, including the 33rd Street home. Not only had jobs disappeared, but the city’s low-income neighborhoods bore the brunt of the sub-prime mortgage and foreclosure crisis that dominated the U.S. economic system from 2007-2010. Jones received a notice of foreclosure in 2010, based on a 2007 mortgage, and the following year the Sheriff’s Department foreclosed on the home.
After the foreclosure, the home spiraled downward as a shifting group of finance companies and absentee landlords took ownership. By 2017, the city deemed the home “dangerous, unsafe, unsanitary, unfit for human habitation and unreasonable to repair.” It was ordered to be razed and removed. In the summer of 2022, the home — and its graffiti message of peace and love — was still standing.
The home’s future, or, more accurately, the future of the land, is unclear.
Two blocks away, the once-deserted Briggs complex is being refurbished as the “Community Within the Corridor” development of apartments and commercial and community space, including a gym and daycare facilities. Rentals began in the summer of 2022.
I’ve lived in Milwaukee long enough, however, to know that a single real estate development rarely transforms a community. Tellingly, the nearby and much-larger A.O. Smith complex remains a symbol of abandonment and joblessness, and many homes and businesses throughout the neighborhood are unoccupied and/or in disrepair. Clearly, the future is yet to be written.
— This essay is based on a project for a class on Artists’ Books at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Peck School of the Arts. Click here for a digital version of the book.