Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Riverside Rivalry

Michelle Monte comes up with a nifty little phrase to describe the great North side-West side rift in this city: the “compass culture.” Not bad. Hadn’t heard that one before. I approve. After a little bit of comparative urban analysis (Oshkosh and Sheboygan) she looks for her own diagnosis of the problem. Here’s a version of a comment I left on her site.

I understand why she selected the methodology she used to examine the situation and I appreciate her conclusions but there are a number of factors the she chose not to explore that may help to demonstrate why this issue is more complicated than most people may realize.

First, Monte starts by examining the geography of the city, which is absolutely the correct way to start. Unfortunately, she begins by searching for the city’s contemporary center of gravity. That center has changed too frequently over the years to ever establish itself as being a culture, population, or commercial hub from which the city grew concentrically.

The real place to start is with the Fox River. Oshkosh wouldn’t be here were it not for the Fox River, it has always existed around the river, and it is something we will always have to contend with even as it begins to become less vital to the city’s economy as Oshkosh transitions away from a manufacturing economy.

The river is a huge psychological impediment as historically has always been. This goes back to the old Athens-Brooklyn days of the 19th Century and is something that maintains itself to this day. I vaguely recall stories of roving gangs during that time that would duke it out for the honor of their respective side of town. I get a visual not unlike Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” but in Oshkosh and with German immigrants.

Part of this phenomenon was a transportation issue. I’m pretty sure there was only one bridge linking the two sides of the city during the Golden age of the lumber years during the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. That means an entire generation would have likely had to gone well out of its way to get from one side of the city to the other, and some of that precedent seems to have been passed on from generation to generation through the years.

It’s kind of strange but for a long time the West side of the city was the “poor side,” while the North side was the enlightened home of the landed. In the 1060s, 1970s and 1980s this began to change dramatically. There was almost a magnetic reversal of the poles as the lumber mills began closing, the city began to decline economically and really had that feeling that it was teetering on the precipice of becoming a full-fledged member of the Rust Belt. That didn’t happen, but what did happen is the actually began to divide itself in to three distinct sections (something that Monte alludes to).

The first section I’ll call the Old West Bank. This encompasses the west side between the Fox River and Highway 41. This has traditionally been a working-middle class section of town and likely will remain so (with the obvious exception of some of the more recent developments south of Ardy and Ed’s). In a lot of ways – and especially with regard to the school boards redistricting effort – this part of town complicates the demographic make-up of the city for counterintuitive reasons (more on that below).

The second section I’ll call the West Side and is everything west of Highway 41. This is pretty much what everyone refers to when they say “West Side” these days when they want to load that phrase with all of the social and economic meaning they can find. This part of tow has experienced the most commercial and residential growth in recent years: from Wal-Mart/Festival Foods/Lowes to the hospitals to Carl Traeger school to the many subdivisions, etc. This has been great and is the kind of growth Oshkosh should hope for continue to strive for.

This has largely happen because the area west of 41 was really the only place left for the city to grow due to some absolutely asinine city planning on the North side, which is exactly what you think it is: everything North and East of the Fox River.

Growth on the north side is next to impossible in the way it has occurred on the west side. Instead of being able to grow beyond the highway the north side has painted itself into a corner by essentially forbidding any grow and/or development north of North high school. The reason for is simple: the landfill, the prison county park and the Winnebago Mental health basically form a barricade that keeps growth from expanding in any meaningful sense north of Highway 41 and East of Lake Butte des Morts. No wants to live next to a prison and no one wants to live downwind from the county dump (neither of which should have ever been built so close to an urban area). WMH is s different story since it’s been there forever. County Park would have been a wonderful place to develop around, but also complicating matters is the Industrial park just to its south.

So the city limit of Oshkosh’s north side is pretty much Smith Street. That right there is really enough to choke off growth on one side of the city, but there’s another huge obstacle to growth on the north side: the University. A huge swath of the north side has been essentially reserved for student housing. This is mostly in parts of town that are actually historic areas but have been left to rot by “landlords” who can rent cheaply to students and never worry about marinating their properties. From an economic standpoint this doesn’t help since 10,000 (1 in every 6 or 7 people living within the city limits) is almost by definition beyond poor (being students and all, they likely have some degree of debt to pay off). This happens in almost every college town, but is exasperated on a cultural level by the lack of integration between the city and UW-O. That’s been changing in recent years, but for a long time the area around the university was essentially an island and unless you worked there or went to school there, you really had no other business there.

The student housing situation is changing too. The new apartments being built between Wisconsin and Jackson Streets (appropriately within crawling distance of Molly’s… Woo-hoo!) may free up some more territory in old student housing neighborhoods that someone will buy and renovate and punt off to a family or two. Who knows?

So while the west side has grown and prospered, the north side has stagnated and even declined. (The loss of the hospital and the frustrations over the downtown redevelopment have only added to the problem on the north side.) In the middle is the Old West Bank, really just doing what it’s always been doing for years now – and can you really blame them for wanting to keep their wagon hitched to the West Side after all of these years?

Redistricting may be a necessity to balance out the utility and efficacy of the high schools, but it will not solve the soft animosity each side of the river has for the other.

In fact, it’s as Monte said it’s really not that much of a deal among the actual students, who know each other from activities like soccer in the summer, etc. Among high school graduates who eventually go off to college the rivalry becomes merely playful, if not null and void all together, when they finish their studies.

The rivalry is on its way out, but it will take a while – in my estimation at least a generation. Maybe two. That may seem like a long time, but you have to remember that we’ve also come a long way from the days of roving gangs. Think of it as the globalization of Oshkosh – and as the world gets smaller, so too will Oshkosh.

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