Oral history interview with Merle Sweet for the Living History Project. Merle recounts his family's history in the Greenbush neighborhood and nearby on Mills Street. He tells several family stories about his maternal grandfather, Max Shapiro, who was a newspaper and helium balloon vendor in downtown Madison for many years. Merle talks about popular play and recreational spots for youth in the Greenbush neighborhood, including school playgrounds and the Park Street viaduct.
3:50 - THE OLD COUNTRY
5:00 - A CITY WITHIN A CITY
11:00 - MAX SHAPIRO
21:05 - FOURTH OF JULY AT VILAS PARK
27:20 - MAX AT UW CHEMISTRY BUILDING
32:15 - SCHOOLS & PLAYGROUNDS
44:00 - ERRANDS IN THE ‘BUSH
51:30 - COMMUNITY CELEBRATIONS
1:00:00 - SCHWARTZ PHARMACY WARTIME LETTERS
[START OF RECORDING]
INTERVIEWER: Good morning, my name is Laura Damon-Moore, I’m here at the Meadowridge Library. It is Monday March 19th, at about eleven o'clock in the morning. I’m here conducting a Living History interview, and I’ll have our narrator introduce himself in just a moment. If you would like to say your name.
MERLE SWEET [MS]: Sure. My name is Merle Sweet.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you, Mr. Sweet, it’s so nice to talk to you this morning. I will just start off by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself, and your family’s history here in Madison, where you grew up, and just kind of give us an overview of that.
MS: Okay. The answer to this question might very well carry over into some of the other questions, but let’s just start—I’m a native Madisonian. I was born at Madison General Hospital. And my parents were also native Madisonians. Born also at Madison General Hospital. My brother and sister, the same. When I was born my parents lived in the Greenbush, which of course we just called “the ‘Bush”. We lived on Milton Street, the first house off of Park Street facing north.
And for people, for listeners, if people were listening to this, Milton at one [end], starts out on the far west at Randall Avenue, or Randall Street I guess it is, and continues behind—goes the one block toward Orchard and another block to Charter, which is right behind St. James, another block to Mills, another block to Brooks, and now it’s blocked by the hospital property. But at one time then Mills continued, straight through there to Park, and then all the way through the Greenbush to West Washington Avenue. So that was the widest part of the ‘Bush, the part along, just parallel to Regent Street.
So that’s where I lived, but I must tell you that I probably only lived there for four years, before we escaped. That’s maybe not the best choice of words. But, we ultimately did move, but not very far. But going back to that neighborhood, and my family’s history there, my parents as children grew up with their backyards adjacent to one another, one living on Park Street, on the Park and Chandler corner, with the backyard reachable from the other house on Chandler Street, the back yard there. So they grew up, they were kids—they were three years apart, but they knew each other and my mother was the oldest of five, and my father had three brothers and two sisters and he was—he wasn’t the youngest but he was, I think he was third from the youngest, if I’m not mistaken.
So their parents all came from what we always called the “Old Country.” And in our case, there were two “Old Countries”. Three of the four grandparents, both of my dad’s parents and my mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother, came from Russia, but it was just outside of where Kiev is today. And the fourth, my maternal grandfather, who I was closest to of all the grandparents, came from Romania. And they all came as children. I’m not—I never met my paternal grandfather. He passed away before I met him, but I was named after him. Not my first name. What we have in Judaism, you have a Jewish name in addition to your English name, and so I’m named after him.
What else can I tell you about that neighborhood—well, that neighborhood was more than just a neighborhood. It was our city. You didn’t really have many reasons to go outside of it, because everything you needed was within it. In our case, that meant there was a drugstore, that was technically not in it—Schwartz Pharmacy was on the corner of Mound and Park, which would technically be just across the street, you know, would have been on the west side—it was actually on the northwest corner of Mound and Park. And today I suspect that would mean it would be in the parking ramp of UnityPoint Hospital or something like that. As that monster grew north, it’s hard to picture some of the places. So we had the drugstore.
We had a grocery store, which is actually a grocery store-delicatessen, which was—you’ve probably heard people talk about it, G and S, it stood for Greenwald & Shackter, these were the two co-owner families. And so you could go there and you would have, you could eat a sandwich there, a deli sandwich, or you could get your groceries there.
And we had, I clearly recall, two kosher butcher shops in the community. And one for sure, now getting to two bakeries, one bakery for sure—the Milwaukee Bakery, the Moskowski family owned the Milwaukee Bakery, and I think that might have been it for bakeries. And then we had two synagogues.
And we also had, what was common for everyone in the neighborhood, and that was what was called the Neighborhood House. And this was a community center, but for the kids, what it really meant, this was your preschool, your nursery school experience. And so everyone knew Mrs. Griggs, who was an institution, for how many years, who knows, but she was the nursery school teacher and she had all the kids and she knew everyone.
So I think that pretty well summarizes about the family history in the neighborhood. I obviously regret that my children never had that experience, and you can’t get that anywhere in Madison anymore. I mean, everybody—we were poor, there was no doubt about it, but we didn’t know it. We didn’t think that way at all. Life went on, and that was the Greenbush.
INTERVIEWER: Can I just probe that word—
INTERVIEWER: The word “experience”—so you mentioned that it was sort of a city unto itself, that there were all those businesses right there, is there anything else about that experience—when you say you wish your children had had that experience.
MS: Yeah, what I’m getting at, more than anything, which probably would address another question later on, but I’ll respond to it now—because the community was almost exclusively Blacks, Jews, and Italians, we didn’t need a Human Relations curriculum in school to learn about similarities and differences between groups of people. We lived it.
The best examples that I can recall came from what I would call “special” or “landmark” days: weddings (fingertips drum on table), funerals, bar mitzvahs, holidays, confirmations, anything that was, so to speak, a one-of-a-kind that would happen now and then. And all you really had to do if you lived there and lived there long enough, all you had to do was to use your eyes and your nose and you knew whose holiday or whose special event it was. And, you just knew something was different on that day and you just accepted that's what was going on. It’s a Black funeral today. It’s an Italian confirmation. But I mentioned earlier that my parents, who were from Russia and Romania, I would say of my many Italian friends, that grew up in the neighborhood, the greater proportion of their ancestors came from Sicily. Yeah, I would say Sicily would be the majority of folks that were Italians. I think that pretty well summarizes it.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you.
MS: You’re welcome.
INTERVIEWER: I think one of the next questions is, share a story about a person or place related to the Greenbush history that we should know.
MS: Sure. Well, I mentioned earlier that my closest grandparent was my maternal grandfather. His name was Max Shapiro. S-h-a-p-i-r-o. And of course he wasn’t a native Madisonian, because he came from Romania. But he might as well have been, because he came here as a elementary aged kid with probably, at the most, a second-grade education. That was it. He married my grandmother here.
He had no skills, no education, so he had no skills, so he became a newspaper seller on the street. So you could, you know—people that knew him before I was born, knew him as the guy who was up and down State Street and around the Square hawking newspapers at all hours of the day. So that became the beginning of his life. Ultimately he married, he had five children, my mother was the oldest. Again they lived in the Greenbush, and he continued earning a living by being a hawker, if you will, a person who sold things on the street.
He had a Sunday morning news corner—no, that came later, let me go back to it. He actually had a daily news corner, one of these green wooden stands right where the Park Hotel is today, the Park Motor Inn on the Square. He was on that corner for many, many years. He had newspapers, he had comic books, magazines—and I can’t recall, I think that came before the next corner which was just two blocks east of there where King and Pinckney meet. I have no idea, I haven’t been on the Square in so long, but on that corner he had a green box and he had a room that he rented in that building that he would take his things to when the day was done. And so selling newspapers was in his blood. And that’s really how he made a living.
Eventually, when the corners died and there were—you know, all of a sudden in those days you had the drugstores, which in Madison meant Rennebohm’s before the Walgreens brand took over—all the Rennebohm’s then had the same newspapers and other printed material. So, he then—but he did have a Sunday morning corner and that was in front of, I think it’s now probably the YWCA, it was the old Belmont Hotel on Pinckney where it meets Mifflin, yeah, where it meets East Mifflin.
And so he would line up his papers there, and I would frequently meet him there, as a little kid, he would go up there at five or five-thirty in the morning. He didn’t drive. He had a glass eye, I don’t know the history behind that, so he had only one eye, and he would take a cab everywhere. That’s how he would do it. Ultimately, and I’m getting ahead of myself but probably one of my greater thrills was when I turned sixteen and got a driver’s license and I could haul him to various places.
But I would go up there with him on Sunday mornings frequently, and what those corners were all about is that there were several churches up there. And so people would go to either Mass or Sunday morning service and then either on their way home or between or whatnot, they would stop and buy. And I can name, I know to this day exactly the papers that he sold because I then, eventually, had a corner when I turned sixteen, right by Holy Redeemer on Johnson Street, fifty yards off of State Street. It was right across the street from the Caramel Crisp Shop, and just down from MATC and Central High School. But the Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal, the Milwaukee Sentinel. The Journal and Sentinel were two different papers. There were three Chicago papers- the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, they both still exist, but there was also the Chicago American, which was the third Chicago paper then, and then the Minneapolis Tribune would still exist, and the St Paul Pioneer Press.
And those papers would be delivered in the middle of the night, and they would be in bundles and they would be wired up, and my grandfather would take his handy-dandy wire cutters and open the bundles and line everything up and if it was a windy day, and it often was, he would put bricks on top of the piles. And, of course, in those days, just like when I had my corner, Johnson Street was a busy thoroughfare, and people would often, if they weren’t necessarily going to church, they might drive by, going somewhere through town. And so we would then just, the person would pull up to the curb and you’d hand them a paper.
And of course, Christmas time, was something just like all news carriers today look forward to tips, that was a big time, the winter holidays, getting something extra to take home. But I recall, when I had my corner, when I was sixteen, if I—I can’t recall how many papers I would sell on a Sunday morning, but we’d finish, I’d get up there to my corner at about five-thirty and leave at about, be checked out by about one, and if I took home eight dollars in profit it was a great day. It was a great day.
MS: So that was a big thing for us. And of course just like anyone else, he [my grandfather] took advantage of his skills of hawking. I don’t know when it all happened, but he got into the helium balloon business. He was the only helium balloon, gas balloons— “Hey, we got gas balloons here!” And he sold helium balloons at the entrance to Vilas Park all summer long. So he wasn’t in the park, he was right at the entrance.
And he would go there on Sundays from his Sunday corner, he would actually get—the cab would take him home, and he would, they would load up his gas tanks and he would have his satchels full of balloons and string and other assorted things that he sold, and take them right down to Vilas. And then he’d stay down there ‘til like five or six and get a cab ride home. So, and then with those balloons, he then also sold them—we had several parades a year on the Square. I don’t know how many there are now, one or two? Is there a Thanksgiving parade, I think, something like that?
INTERVIEWER: St. Patrick’s Day, just happened.
MS: There was a Memorial Day parade, there probably was a Labor Day parade, high school bands marched, I can’t necessarily recall floats, there may have been floats, but there were clowns and convertible cars and things like that. This was the focus, this is what Madison turned out to do, to go to. And so between his two sons, my two uncles, and me and a couple of my cousins, and sometimes he’d hire other kids, and he’d set up his place on the Square, maybe on the inside of the Square, right across from State Street, and then he would sell from there, but he would also then hand out twenty to my cousin to take and walk around and sell, and then my cousin would come back and grab another twenty.
INTERVIEWER: How much did one balloon cost?
MS: Twenty cents. I think twenty cents. And oh, I have such memories of those days and of course, that really just went to supplement- I guess I’ll say supplement, his income. But it was necessary. We would go home after and on the dining room table, all of us would empty our pockets. Our hands would be filthy from touching all this, all these crunched up dollar bills and change, and we'd put them on the table, and I’m not sure what my grandmother might have brought out to make it a festive time for us to snack on. We’d separate, get all the coins organized and eventually put them in wrappers, and that was, those were the balloon days.
And the other piece of the balloon days, was-well, two other pieces. July 4th. Now you know July 4th as Warner Park. Not us. We knew July 4th as Vilas Park. What we called the “Monkey Island”; the island between the big part of the park and the warming house, there’s actually an island there, there’s a bridge to get—I’m sure it’s still there. And so that’s where they set up those base demonstrations. But again, my grandfather set up at the entrance to Vilas Park; couldn’t go in it, either couldn’t or wouldn’t, I think probably couldn’t. And that was a big selling night as well.
And the final one, which I have just the fondest memories of, I'm probably going to give some advertisements but they’re all gone anyway now. New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve, for the—I’m trying to think of an appropriate word without being rude and without being condescending either. People would go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve. And one way that people would celebrate would be to go to planned festive occasions. The Madison Club, which is still in its place, uptown just by the City-County Building. Rohde’s Steak House, which has been gone for years and years and years, Rohde’s Steak House was, I think, on West Main Street, just off of Bedford. Oh my goodness, how could I forget- the Edgewater Hotel. The Edgewater Hotel had a festive—see, these were places that had dinners, and then bands and whatnot. And so they would decorate; they would have a balloon tied on to each chair. And there was a place on East Washington Avenue, I think it was the Ace of Clubs, or the Ace of Spades- it was sort of a nightclub kind of thing, it was a little different than the Madison Club and the Edgewater.
But every year, we would start at about one in the afternoon. And of course the person who got the latest delivery-I shouldn’t say delivery, the latest work done- had their balloons last longer, because helium doesn’t last forever. But we would make sure that we, you know—there was a technique to blowing them up, on this tank, and there was a gauge that was attached to it, and you put the balloon on there and you’d squeeze the gauge and the balloon would fill. You couldn’t fill it too much, if you filled it too much it’d pop right in front of you, and if you didn’t fill it enough it was just a loser. (laughs)
And then once they were filled, you would spin it, so that at the end, that helped cut off any leakage. And then once you spun it, then you would take—he [my grandfather] would have his twine pre-cut, and we’d just take one piece and wrap it around, tie it. Go home with raw hands. But, I remember that very, very clearly. There were usually a cousin or two, and my grandfather and I would be the one that would blow up those balloons. So that’s what it was, it was the balloon stuff and then, eventually he expanded his repertoire a step further and that was selling pennants and souvenirs at Wisconsin football games.
So today of course there’s—I don’t even know if anybody sells anything like pennants, you know, now it’s all t-shirts and hats, it’s all sportswear. But then you had the pins (indicating pin on chest), you had the Northwestern pin and the Purdue pin. And we would work for hours cutting ribbon, and you’d have the pin and you’d set the maroon and gold ribbons for Minnesota Gophers and then put the little pin in the back, and sometimes these things had trinkets, like a little football, a gold football that’d be attached to it. So there was some, there was getting ready for the big day. And he’d build these boards, display boards, because he would hire then kids, teenagers to set up corners in different places outside the stadium.
So, I spent a lot of hours with him, and when I went off to college, well, backtracking again, back to when I got that driver’s license, and particularly when I had my corner, we had this routine on Sundays. My dad would let me take the family car on Sunday morning, and I’d drop him [my grandfather] off at his corner on Pinckney Street and go to my corner and then when I was checked out I’d go pick him up, we’d go back to the house and if it was the summer, we’d get his tanks and load them in, down to Vilas Park. And New Year’s Eve, same kind of thing, well, I shouldn’t say same kind of thing for New Year’s Eve, we’d load up the tanks, and make sure everything was marked- this was for the Edgewater, this is for Rohde’s.
INTERVIEWER: Would you put the filled balloons in the car, then?
MS: No no, we would blow them up there [at the hotels].
INTERVIEWER: Gotcha, I’m picturing a Cadillac or something packed full of-
MS: Hah, right, right. Yeah, no, everything was blown up on the spot.
MS: And so like when we blew up at Edgewater, we might blow up—we’d be in a little room, and we’d blow them up, and then we might then take them out to the ballroom, and they would have their employees then tie them on chairs out there.
And at Vilas he would maybe have twenty blown up and he might tie, might take the strings of all twenty and tie them to something so that if someone came along and bought two he could easily, and he’d- [indicating a bunch of balloons] “Pick ‘em out, pick ‘em out, you want a pink one? Balloons here- we’ve got helium balloons!” He was, people knew him because he was out in public all the time.
And then, you know, as the economy continued to progress, he had to search for more income and he ultimately became a custodian at the university. He was assigned to the old chemistry building on University Avenue. I’m not sure what that building is now, but when the explosion took place at the physics building, I think in 196— no, he was already gone by that time. But, he was real close to where the Sterling Hall bombing took place. I remember then, too, when he worked—and we just lived at 23 North Mills. We had escaped the Greenbush, but we were out of it by two blocks. Two blocks west from the Regent/Park corner, over to Mills Street, and then about four houses north. It was a two-flat. My parents lived on second floor, and my grandparents lived on first floor. And my grandfather had all his stuff down in the basement, all his goods.
But he would, where he would then walk when he had his—I would say his “day job” but it was really, like from four until midnight. That was his shift at the chemistry building. But of course, having the work ethic that he had, he wouldn’t arrive at four. He’d leave the house at about quarter to two, for a five-block walk. But he would, I can picture him sitting there in his big chair, listening to the noon news on the radio, dozing. And then once that was over it was time to get ready to go to work.
His first stop was Rennebohm’s. He went out of his way to go to the Rennebohm’s on the corner of—it's where the Business School is today, so it was on the corner of Park and University, there was an old Rennebohm’s there. He would go in there and have a cup of coffee, and then he would cross the street and get on the north side of University Avenue, and then walk down University to the chemistry building, which had its far end on Orchard Street. And then he would go into his, the custodian, I guess, supply room and the people who were going to be coming on would get in there, and they would meet with the people who were just leaving.
And I accompanied him many times but mostly where I accompanied him was in the summer, when I could stay up later, I would walk up, not often alone, so often with my sister or brother, we would walk up to either Dayton or Johnson and meet him as he would come down from work down Mills Street.
The other thing that he would do, we would sometimes meet him during his dinner hour and across the street from the chemistry building was McArdle Lab. This, I think McArdle Lab still might be—that’s the old University Hospital. And they had all kinds of animals for research, and so it was like our private zoo. We’d go in there and you’d hear these animals squawking and whatnot and he’d show us what was there, and then off we’d go, this might have been about seven o’clock at night, when they would have their dinner hour break, that's what it would be.
So needless to say I have my fondest memories of him. He was honest. Caring. He was a real role model. He had to support his family. I guess I probably thought of him as a provider, not only providing for his family but providing some income for other young kids to make some extra, not a living, of course, but to earn something on the side. So that’s a major memory.
And I don’t think I mentioned it, but of course anybody who grew up in the ‘Bush, not only did we go to Mrs. Griggs for the nursery school, but then we went on to Longfellow Elementary School, where my parents went, my brother and sister as well, and anyone who lived there. Of course now it’s gone through several ownerships and it’s privately owned as a condo, I believe. Condo and/or apartments, I’m not sure.
But in those days it was Longfellow, and we not only were there during school hours, but in the summer we’d go to that playground and we would play as young, as twelve and thirteen year olds we would play what we endearingly called “tennis-baseball”. Could just be two kids, that’s all it took. We often went to Washington School, which is where the Board of Education building is today. So that was going a little bit out of our neighborhood, but not far, not far, because you can see how close it from Regent Street up to the Kohl Center and the Kohl Center is right across the street from what was the Washington School. And so all it took was a bat, and some tennis balls, and you could play one-on-one against one another and we spent many hours on the playgrounds, doing those kinds of things, as well as the summer recreation- what I call “green boxes”. There was a Tot Lot on Mills Street, on the west side of Mills Street in the middle of the block, between Dayton and Johnson. So they had like, what we called “gimp”. Do you know what gimp is?
INTERVIEWER: I’ve heard of it.
MS: You could make bracelets, and necklaces and keychains, there must be a- a more formal word, but we called it gimp, and they’d sell it by the yard and it came in all colors, and they’d teach you—do you want to do a lazy daisy design, or round, or square. It was quite intricate, and people, kids would learn it as first, second, third graders, and would spend hours doing that.
INTERVIEWER: Huh, I’ll have to look in to that.
MS: Yeah, I have no idea if anybody still does gimp. But we all knew gimp.
Also on those playgrounds, we, you did horseshoes, and washers. Washers and horseshoes, of course, were very similar. Washers, there was a hole that you would try to get it in, horseshoes there was a big peg that you would try to get your horseshoe around. And then of course all the group games of soccer—kickball, is what we would call it. It wasn’t actually soccer like people play today, it was more like a baseball with a rubber ball kind of thing.
Then after Longfellow we all went to Central Junior High and Central Senior High. I think the boundaries—the west boundary I know was Randall Avenue, or Randall Street I guess it is called, and so if you lived west of that you went on to West [High School]. And I’m not sure exactly where the east boundary was-there were just three high schools, Central, East, and West. There were two other high schools, but they were not public high schools. Edgewood was around then, very low-enrollment school but it was there. And then Wisconsin High. Wisconsin High was like a university-owned and -run high school. Often kids of university faculty went to that school, not exclusively, but that was the mindset, I think, that those of us who weren’t there, thought did go there. They used student teachers from the School of Education to get their training on the high school level there. So those were the schools. But again I don’t know anyone from the ‘Bush that ever went to—I think probably there were some people from the ‘Bush that did go to Edgewood, I wouldn’t be surprised. But the majority went to Central.
And that was life as we knew it. I can’t recall if I mentioned to you on the phone or not, but as I grew up then, at 23 North Mills, kids in those days thrived on bikes. Whether it was bikes to school or bikes to friends’ houses or to explore or whatnot. So then the city got a little larger. Now I’m probably beyond the scope of this interview, but instead of just being the Greenbush itself, I would say for me personally my northern boundary became the shore of Lake Mendota, like maybe from Picnic Point running east to the Union, you know, we would bike up that way. And then running south to Lake Wingra. And what we called Murphy’s Creek, which is Wingra Creek, and which runs from Vilas Park all the way right out into Lake Monona. And then on the east, as far as Brittingham Park, and then on the west, just up to Monroe Street.
We never crossed Monroe Street. People who lived on— we were always sort of warned, if you lived on the other side of Monroe Street—they weren’t our class of people, they were beyond us. So that was our—Brittingham Park, to Monroe Street. Vilas Park back up to Lake Mendota. That’s where we were. Hours and hours at school playgrounds, at Vilas Park playing ball, in the street.
I have a memory from that neighborhood, just outside the ‘Bush that we lived in, 21 and 23 North Mills. Buses came regularly, city buses came right by— I think they still do. Our house, as several of them were there, two- or three-flats. They all had like a series of steps leading from the sidewalk up to the porch level, and then there might be two doors, one to get in the first floor, one to go up the stairs to the second floor, and if there’s a third floor, you continue walking up.
Most of those homes had big porches so it was not unusual, first of all, on summer nights, to see Blacks, Jews, and Italians gathering on somebody’s porch. And there might have been, someone might have brought some fruit, or something to chew on, something crunchy. And people would sit, and they would gab, and the kids would play catch on the street or play kick the can or chase or hide and seek.
We didn’t need the people on the porch to do those things, we would be out there doing those things whether they were there or not, (background noise) and then when big rains would come, and the buses, the streets would—I do recall, it was both Park Street under the viaduct, do you know where the via—is it still there? Yeah, it’s still there. They rebuilt it though, it was rebuilt in recent years. But for years you’d always see a picture the day after a flood, you’d always see a picture in the newspaper of kids in their swimming suits, walking in waist-high water under the viaduct.
MS: We never, I can’t recall that we ever walked, it never got that high on Mills, but when the buses would come down, we’d always have contests to see how high up (indicating on chest) the water would come on the steps. We often got water in the basement. This wasn’t an everyday occurrence, of course. But I have those memories, I’m sure anybody who lived there during that time has those same memories of buses and water, being spread all over.
(Fingers drum on table)
I mentioned some of those places earlier, this goes to “share a story about a person or a place”, related, and again it goes back to my grandfather.
Once we had—the first move actually out of the Greenbush was to the 1100 block of Spring Street. I don’t know if you know Spring- Spring Street is parallel to Regent, and it is the first street—it’s in the block that is just due south of the university heating plant. And there was a three-flat, and we lived in that three-flat for not very long, before we then moved back again, closer toward the ‘Bush at 23 North Mills. And there were homes just like ours on both sides of the streets, but as a kid I recall them demolishing several of the homes across from us, and they made a big parking lot out of it. The drum and bugle corps, the Madison drum and bugle corps used to use that parking lot on summer evenings for practices, and so there was some good I guess that came out of it, you had some entertainment. But I’m sure it’s still a parking lot today, I’m quite sure.
But back to my grandfather, again, living at 23 North Mills, even though we were there, the ‘Bush hadn’t gone through the closure yet. So everything that we needed was still in there. And so we would set out, my grandmother would give him [my grandfather] errands, and the errands would always be morning errands because he was working, he had to take his nap at noon and he had to get up to his custodial job. So in the mornings we would go into the ‘Bush, hand-in-hand as the story goes, and—
I don’t know how we pulled this off, without a cart or backpacks or anything of the sort. But we would go to G and S and get whatever groceries were needed. And, of course, those weren’t big shopping days compared to what families go through today. But we would make the stops: G and S, the butcher shop, the bakery. And I have to make one comment about the butcher shop. In those days the butcher shop, I believe there were two, and the one that we went to, and I think probably all butcher shops in those days, the butcher would put sawdust or wood shavings on the floor, to absorb blood. And so the story was, that as soon as my grandfather opened that door, to the butcher shop, I’d walk in there and do my best baseball slide across the floor on those shavings.
What else is a seven year old going to do? I can’t recall getting any blood on me or anything like that. But I recall being on the floor in those butcher shops. Finally we’d get those groceries and one of the stops we would get, we would buy bagels, freshly, I’m sure at the Milwaukee Bakery, and then we would stop at an Italian store, it was either on Murray or Frances, could’ve been Di Salvo’s, I’m not sure. It was on the corner of where either Murray or Frances meet Regent. And we would go in and get a—I’m not sure what those containers are called, but it's the containers that you see Chinese food coming in today.
INTERVIEWER: Like a takeout?
MS: Yeah, a takeout, yeah yeah, but we’d get black olives. So there’d we be, carrying the groceries down Regent Street, and ripping open a bagel, sharing a bagel, and reaching in and having black olives. That was like, having a fine steak. That was neat. That was neat. So those are my memories. My grandfather, I wasn’t with him when he passed away, I went off to college, eventually, after high school. Then my grandmother died, I think, my senior year of high school and then he died the following year.
I didn’t say much about my grandmother, but I was very close to her, too. My maternal grandmother. Because they lived on first floor. Because my brother, was allergic to everything, and so my grandparents had three bedrooms on first floor. They always rented out the front bedroom to a university student, to a grad student. And then they had the back bedroom, and then there was a middle room empty. So some time, I guess I probably was in high school, and it was decided that I was going to be sleeping downstairs. So, of course, my grandmother spoiled me big-time.
MS: And I would get home late from school, might have been after basketball practice, or whatever it was, I would get home late from school, and of course everybody’d already eaten upstairs and my grandmother would make me my own special meal. And as long as I was down there, why would I go up to my, my bedroom was there, why would I go upstairs? And we’d sit and watch television. And I remember Burns and Allen [sp], lot of comedies that my grandparents would watch—my grandfather wasn’t around to see much of that, he listened to the radio a lot. And I recall laying there—my grandmother sitting on one end of the couch and I’d be laying on the other and I’d just be so tickled I would push my toes into her upper legs, I’m sure it hurt her, but I have that recollection of doing that.
So that's my grandparents. The reason I didn’t dwell on much on my dad’s side, is because for whatever, even my dad and his three brothers and two sisters grew up in Madison, after they finished high school at Central, all of them went to Central, the three brothers and one sister and my grandmother moved to Milwaukee. I have no idea what that was. So all my Sweet first—there are a lot of Sweets in Madison, but they weren’t first cousins or immediate family. My first cousin Sweets all grew up in Milwaukee, and for anybody who listens to this, the Sherman Park area in Milwaukee, the Sherman Park neighborhood where Milwaukee Washington High School, that’s where all those cousins attended, that’s where they lived. So we would go into Milwaukee, to visit cousins, and they would come to us as well. But I wasn’t nearly as close to my grandmother Sweet as I was to my grandparents, the Shapiros here in Madison.
Um, I mentioned running the errands, I mentioned human relations, I mentioned Central—
Oh, you know a drawing compass? What a drawing compass is—you probably were introduced to it in geometry. So the real scope of our lives, if you had a giant compass and put the pointer down right in the middle of the intersection of Regent and Park, and stretched the rest of it wide so you could draw a circle, if that circle could reach the Monona shore—I’m blanking on the, where people ice-fish all the time—
INTERVIEWER: Monona Bay.
MS: Monona Bay. Thank you. If it could reach Monona Bay, wherever it would land out, that really was our city. We didn’t have any reason to go to the east side, or the north side, or the far west side, whatever the far west side was. We had no reason to go there. So that’s the neighborhood. There’s the question about community traditions and, or, family traditions. The community doesn’t exist anymore.
The Italian community still has an annual—Italia, Italian Fest I believe it’s called. It’s grown, wow. I’ve gone to it, over the years, because friends of mine have—bring their children to it as well. But, Jews have not had anything quite like that. Actually, in many ways, only in recent years, Blacks in Madison started a tradition at Penn Park, I’m trying to think of the name of it—they would get this thing going right before, it would be a gathering, a big festival gathering right before the school year would begin. It was usually in August- I shouldn’t say was, I believe it still is, in August and I’m blanking on what that’s called. I’ve gone to that, on several occasions. But there really isn’t—well, there is, the Madison Jewish Federation, several years ago, bought what they called the Goodman Campus- it’s way out PD past the university golf course, and that’s where Camp Shalom is in the summer. And a lot of other activities. They have a couple of large group gatherings out there. But these aren’t the Greenbush families. These are people who moved to Madison in more recent years.
I would say therereally isn’t a community gathering particularly of the Jews from those days. But family gatherings of course, naturally go on for holidays and things like that. The Passover holiday is coming up in a week and a half now, and we’ll be spending some of those days with—we have three children, two children, I said three—two children, two sons, and we’ll be spending time with one of them and his family for the Passover holiday. But I think, I think, Laura, I probably covered most of the things on here if you want to probe any further on anything that I maybe started and didn’t finish.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I think the one question that frequently comes up when we talk about that neighborhood, is the impact of the urban renewal activities that happened there, and I just wonder if you have any impressions of that [time].
MS: We had already moved out, although our ties were still strong. I think anyone you interview about this would likely say the same thing. There were promises made, that it was going to get torn down. And rebuilt. Better. Better quality. And people would be, hopefully, would come back. I don’t know if I should say that they would be invited back, or encouraged to come back- but it never happened.
Now, on the north end, Bayview, the Bayview community was built. And I believe the initial occupants were Southeast Asians that came as immigrants. Eventually I came back to Madison to first teach and then became a school principal in Madison, so when I was principal at Randall School we had many of the children from the Bayview neighborhood that would, that were in attendance. But the Triangle never drew back the people that left.
I guess my memory, in my mind, I say that the Black families that left went just a little bit further south, on both sides of Park Street, on the Penn Park side and where Lincoln School is now, in the Magnolia Lane area just off of Badger Road.
The Italian families, I think, initially went south also but I think it was almost exclusively between Fish Hatchery and Park, so behind what was then the Burr Oaks bowling alley—that area was known as Burr Oaks at one time, there was even a golf course there in the Burr Oaks Golf Course. Right now Lincoln Elementary School is the center of that neighborhood.
And the Jews moved just a little bit further west, and so by 1948 or '49, Beth Israel Center, the synagogue was built that replaced—there were two synagogues in the Greenbush, and they were replaced by Beth Israel Center, and so the people wanted to be within walking distance. So people often were in what I call the “presidents’ streets”: Madison, Monroe, Harrison, Jefferson, the streets just off Monroe Street. And streets just beyond Monroe as well; West Lawn, Keyes, in that area. Things changed later on, when people went further west yet. But that’s, when it closed down, and the bulldozers came in, that’s where people went. I don’t know the history of, what was the term you used, I blanking again on the term you used, renewal.
INTERVIEWER: Urban renewal.
MS: Yeah, urban renewal. I mean, urban renewal was going on everywhere in the country at that time. And what I’m wondering is if people ever did come back to their neighborhoods. I mean there’s no doubt there’s all kinds of condos now, just off from the west Main area, Doty area, sort of between there and downtown. And then, of course, the high-rises along West Wash, and now of course East Wash is getting loaded that way, too. But the Greenbush just never did take much back in.
One other thing, a recollection that I have from that neighborhood, I know it’s in my mind, it really couldn’t be the one or two feet that I’m thinking of, there was hardly any space between two buildings. You would, you might want to find a shortcut to go from one street to the street behind it, and instead of going around the corner to the streets that were maybe north and south you would try to cut through and I recall some places that you just had to just squeeze to get through. And in the summer the grass snakes, the green and black grass snakes seemed to always find a place where my foot would go, and I just—or the ball would fall and you’d reach down to pick up a ball and you’d be right next to a snake.
Back to Schwartz's Pharmacy; probably others have talked about this place, again it was just across the street from the official Triangle, but this was a real gathering place. And during the war years, particularly when, well, people that had lived in the Greenbush, they would go off in the service and instead of writing back home, writing cards to their family, they would mail their card to Schwartz Pharmacy and they’d be posted up there. You’d walk in there to get a cherry Coke or to get medicine or do whatever you were going to do, and you would read all about maybe the person who was twelve years older than you who you knew, who you admired from afar, who was now in Germany, in the army. And so that’s, that was a big-time gathering place.
INTERVIEWER: So really writing to the neighborhood, to share their news. Wow.
MS: Exactly. Yeah. Those are my memories. Those are my memories. I’m probably going to walk away from here today and say, “Why didn’t I tell her this.” But those are the things that I remember the most. And, of course, I spent most of the time dwelling on my maternal grandparents, my maternal grandfather in particular. The cemetery of course is here, and so all my relatives, my parents, my grandparents, are at Forest Hills. I’ll be at Forest Hills. And I hope that it’s a while, but that’s just part of living in Madison. For those of us that are natives, this is what we do.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you.
MS: You’re welcome. I hope this—
[END OF RECORDING]