My Kind of Town: Kenosha

by John Bloner, Jr.

I don’t get around much anymore. That’s not just a song title or a result of the pandemic, it’s a fact from my life. Long-distance travel doesn’t suit me. I’ve tried to stuff my 6’3 frame into an airline’s economy class seat and found Houdini couldn’t escape from a spot that tight. When my family would travel to Yellowstone or anywhere else when I was young, I was left behind with my aunt. They did not want to be on a car ride with me then, and you don’t want me as a passenger with you now. It’s a good thing I’ve learned to bloom where I was planted: Kenosha, Wisconsin, the fourth largest city in our state. We’re as far south as you can go in this state before you’re in Illinois and as far east without getting wet in Lake Michigan.

Ready for a tour? Lace up your sneakers because we have a lot of ground to cover.

Kenoshans love their many parks. In the city, Lincoln Park, Simmons Island, and Library Park are well-known. Wolfenbüttel Park, named after our German sister city, is at its most gorgeous in September when the flowers are at full bloom.

Our County park system features Petrifying Springs, the Bong Recreational Area, and Fox River Park, to name a few.

Wolfenbüttel Park, located on Kenosha’s lakefront

Union Park isn’t exactly the Central Park of Kenosha, but it’s a gem nonetheless, located on the corner of 46th Street and 7th Avenue, only blocks from Lake Michigan. You can reach three art galleries without scuffing your sneakers, dine on the finest fish fry around, hear piano jams and other live music, get a tattoo, paint some pottery, check out a book at a little free library, take advantage of free WiFi, buy some original art during a summertime art market, experience Shakespeare through live theater, and say hello to Deep Breath, a sculpture in the park’s center, constructed in his garage by welder Matt Bellefeuille from pipes, bike parts, a traffic light and a metal fan. A few years ago, I sketched this picture of Deep Breath.

Over twenty years ago, Kenosha artist and mover-and-shaker Melanie Hovey, her sister, and her Mom founded Lemon Street Gallery on what was once known as Lemon Street, which is now 46th Street, along Sheridan Road. This place is a perfect place to see what’s right about Kenosha: a local nonprofit, dedicated to the public good, displaying fine art, holding art classes, and providing a pottery studio. I mean, just look at this place, its brickwork, signage, and then step inside to meet Beth, Lynn, Eileen and volunteers. Lemon Street Gallery has welcomed my Krazines art and creative writing group for Saturday morning creative jams and we hope to return in a post-Covid world.

To the north and south of Lemon Street Gallery is Re:Vision Gallery, owned and operated by Marjorie Meyer, and ArtWorks & The Pencillarium, owned and operated by Chet Griffith. Re:Vision Gallery’s building is wrapped in art by local artists and there’s a lot more inside its doors.

I’m not much of a drinker. I appreciate a beer with pizza, but that’s about it. I enjoy a delicious burger, too, and Ron’s Place on 52nd Street and 33rd Avenue has one of the best around in its 5×5. Ron Pendrick opened the bar in 1972, and while he’s now retired, his legacy continues in the business’ name, its family-friendly culture, its food and adult beverages, and its Tour of Teas’ Challenge. Here’s how it works: Drink one of each of their 40 flavors Long Island Iced Teas or drink 50 Teas, where you decide on the flavors, and receive a Tour t-shirt, featuring a caricature of Ron, drawn by me. Participants also have a chance to win $1,000.

I create new shirt designs each year, in which Ron rides a bronco, writes a sonnet, crosses the Delaware, swings a bat, catches a football, and paints a picture like Bob Ross.

Thank you to Tom Plummer and Tracy Wynn for providing me with the opportunity to share my art with Ron’s Place’s customers. Here are just a few of my designs in draft and final forms.

On summer Sunday mornings, I’ve taken my Native American flutes to Hawthorn Hollow Nature Sanctuary and Arboretum, where I traverse its prairies, woodlands, and gardens, searching for the perfect spot to play my music to an audience of birds and squirrels. Nature’s creatures are attracted to the haunting sounds of these instruments. While I’ve played, I’ve witnessed sparrows circling high above me and a grey squirrel sitting motionless on a nearby rock until the song ended.

I’ve also brought my sketchbooks to this sanctuary, either alone or with my Krazines’ group, to render drawings of the property’s three historic buildings: a one-room Pike River schoolhouse (1847), Somers Town Hall (1858), and a second schoolhouse (1906).

My friend, the singer-songwriter, visual artist, and poet Brent Mitchell put together a poetry walk for Hawthorn Hollow during his tenure as Kenosha Poet Laureate (2016-17). Brent performs often at this sanctuary for its Pike River Concert Series and for the nonprofit’s fundraisers.

One stop on Poetry Walk 2017 at Hawthorn Hollow Nature Sanctuary

What says America to you: Its flag? The Statue of Liberty? Maybe it’s one of our country’s national wonders, such as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite? My heart is tugged by America’s diners, these places of pure Americana with their Formica, stainless steel, and their neon signs. The USA once boasted 6,000 diners, but numbers have dropped to 2,000, says Sarah Saffian, writing for Smithsonian Magazine. Read her article, “A Life Devoted to the American Diner” for an in-depth look at these breakfast-and-lunch hotspots.

My stomach’s been sated with food and drink from two of the finest diners around: Frank’s Diner on 58th Street and 5th Avenue and The Coffee Pot on 50th Street and 7th Avenue. In my decades of work at the Municipal Building, 625 52nd Street, I walked several times a week, summer and winter, to The Coffee Pot, where I was greeted by owners Janis and June, and by staff Gene, Jennifer, Julio and many others. The cook was often breaking eggs for my staple lunch of a ham and swiss omelet before I placed my order. In autumn, I couldn’t wait for the day when they feature stuffed acorn squash, along with a side of their homemade toast.

I drew this picture of The Coffee Pot and placed cartoonist (and Chicagoan) Chris Ware in front of it, not because Chris has ever visited this diner, but because I wanted to put two of my favorites in the same frame.

I did a similar thing with Frank’s Diner, placing the Canadian cartoonist Seth outside this eating establishment. In 1926, the diner was built in New Jersey and shipped by rail to Kenosha, where six horses pulled it to Fifth Avenue and 58th Street.

Frank’s Diner is open seven days a week with a menu that includes its popular garbage plate, cinnamon rolls, and its Bleu Shu Burger, named for the writer Michael Schumacher, who often visits there.

In 2017, my friend Juli Janovicz introduced me to Michael so I could write an article about his life, his work, and about his experiences in Kenosha. Over a span of three hours, he spoke of his encounters with legends in literature and music, including Allen Ginsberg and Odetta and shared stories of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. I plan to re-publish this article through this blog in the near future.

My heart holds a special place for downtowns. Just that word, downtown, evokes audible memories of Petula Clark, whose bracingly clear voice reached my very young ears by transistor radio in 1964, as she sang this Tony Hatch tune.

When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely

You can always go

Downtown

Just thinking about this song makes me want to skip down the middle of Sixth Avenue, my arms open wide, singing, “You can always go downtown!”

In the 1960s,. I rode the elevator with my mother at JC Penney and the escalator at Woolworth’s. Barden’s store had pneumatic tubes by its cash registers and the Lake Theatre (now Rhode Center for the Arts) screened free Saturday afternoon movies for kids. I remember when my buddy Rick Hudson and I rode the bus to see Robinson Crusoe on Mars there. Years later, I went to football games at Lakefront Stadium, shopped for records at Bidinger’s – where I based my buying decisions on album art rather than on reviews or radio airplay, and picked up copies of the British music paper, NME, at Becker’s Cigar Store.

Stepping outside of Becker’s, I could look up three stories to see the Rexall-Mayer scaffold sign. These drug store signs went up across the country in the 1940s-50s when the establishments they promoted served not only as pharmacies, but as community gathering places. To admire this sign and many similar to it is to reflect on how society has changed over 80 years. When’s the last time you went to Walgreens to hang out and catch up with friends?

Similar in age to Rexall signs are PCC streetcars. The City of Kenosha re-introduced this mode of transport in 1999 when it acquired streetcars that had previously been in service in Toronto. Before they arrived in Kenosha, they were repainted to represent the liveries of cities where streetcars once were a part of the fabric of their communities, including Toronto, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.

My father loved seeing these cars on their 2 mile route on our lakefront. He called them rolling museums. He was not alone. Visitors from across the USA and Europe have stopped in Kenosha specifically to hop on board. Since their introduction here, other cities have built their own systems, including Milwaukee. As one Kenosha streetcar driver told me, “No one smiles when boarding a bus. Everyone smiles when they step into a streetcar.”

Thanks for reading this week’s post. During the months of April and May, I plan to travel around Racine, taking photos and drawing some of that city’s points-of-interest. If you have any suggestions of places to see and sketch, please let me know. To see more of my art, visit my Instagram page @juniorbarnesart. To learn about my art-making and creative writing group, the Krazines, and our monthly publication, Moss Piglet, head over to www.krazines.com or visit our Facebook page and join our Facebook group.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lorna nader says:

    A great memorial for me!

    Like

    1. Writer-In-Residence says:

      Thank you, Lorna!

      Like

  2. Lynne I Jossart says:

    Loved your stories about Kenosha. I grew up there and spent a lot of time at Meyer Drug Store since my Dad’s store (Music Center) was located almost across the street on Main Street. Thanks for the memories!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Writer-In-Residence says:

      Hi, Lynne. Thanks for the memories you have shared, too, and thanks for reading!

      Like

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