In 1954, expecting their fourth child, Logan and Marie Brickson sold the converted garage they called home and bought a modest four-bedroom brick house at 10th and Tyler streets.
No sooner had they sat down for their first meal than Marie declared the baby was coming.
And so Helen Fricke lived in the house at 1502 S. 10th St. from the day she was born until the day she was married 19 years later.
“It was the kind of neighborhood that you read about,” Fricke said.
She remembers ice skating in Powell Park, playing kickball till the street lights came on and moms called their kids home to eat.
The block was blue collar and strongly Catholic.
Neighbors — and she can still list them all — were factory workers, truck drivers and mechanics.
Fricke’s father, then 38, worked as a hod carrier, hauling loads of brick, stucco and plaster on his shoulder. When he hurt his back, he sold Watkins products door to door until he landed a job as a school janitor.
There was a grocery store at the other end of the block. Officially it was the Family Food Market, but everyone knew it as Zel’s. The grocer, Zelma Koblitz, lived behind the store with her son and his family.
Like most of her neighbors, Fricke went to Holy Trinity school, and later Aquinas, where the class differences were more apparent. For prom, Fricke wore a dress borrowed from a neighbor.
“We were the poor kids,” she said.
Still, the Bricksons owned their own home and had a solid claim on being middle class.
But times changed, and so did the neighborhood.
Big employers closed or downsized, shipping jobs overseas. Children moved out. Their parents passed on, leaving behind aging homes with more value as investment property than homesteads. New residents didn’t always share the same Midwestern values — hanging out in the streets, jawing loudly.
“It got the point where we didn’t want to be outside anymore,” said Bob Thiele, a retired machinist who bought the home across from the Bricksons’ in 1980.
Last year, he and his wife moved to Holmen — in part to be closer to their grandchildren.
“My biggest complaint — the landlords just didn’t take care of their stuff,” said Marion Thiele.
She doesn’t blame all landlords — for a time, the Thieles owned the duplex next door — but felt at some point the neighborhood had turned a corner.
“We did everything in the house we possibly could have,” she said. “The next step was the siding, but we knew we’d never get our money out of it.”
Neighborhoods in crisis
It’s a pattern repeated thousands of times over the past four decades. People like Fricke and the Thieles have left La Crosse for bigger homes, newer schools and lower taxes. They left behind small and aging homes whose greatest appeal is often to investors.
With some of the city’s core neighborhoods in crisis, people are taking notice.
Neighborhoods were the focus of the spring mayoral race, and the cornerstone of Mayor Tim Kabat’s campaign. The past year saw the emergence of three new neighborhood associations — the first in nearly a decade.
The city council approved a six-month moratorium on rental conversion while leaders get a handle on the problem. There have been other steps taken: public and private fix-up programs; renaming the much-maligned Hood Park (after years of trying); and extending the airport TIF district by a year, which is expected to generate $1.12 million to build affordable housing and improve the existing housing stock.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said La Crosse city councilwoman Sara Sullivan, whose district includes 10th and Tyler. “In some of our neighborhoods things have gotten bad. Those of us who don’t live in those neighborhoods can’t ignore it anymore.”
Sullivan is chair of the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Commission, where she has worked since early 2012 to create a clearinghouse of information for understanding the issues facing La Crosse’s neighborhoods.
For her, neighborhoods are the heart of any city, and revitalization is an effective tool for economic growth.
“They’re the backbone of the community,” said Charley Weeth, president of Livable Neighborhoods.
A pyrotechnics consultant with a degree in sociology, Weeth has spent the past dozen years leading the nonprofit group that organized in the late 1990s in opposition to a proposed north-south corridor. Along the way, he’s become something of an expert on the forces that shape communities.
“You can’t have successful businesses and institutions if there aren’t great neighborhoods,” Weeth said. “Businesses are going to invest in communities where there are customers.”
Growth and stagnation
Since 1970, La Crosse County has gained about 35,000 residents. Yet its largest city grew by just 1,314 people, a rate of about 2.5 percent, during a time in which the local universities enrolled thousands of new students.
That population shift was not without economic consequences.
Adjusting for inflation, equalized property values over those four decades grew by a factor of 16 — roughly 1,500 percent — in Holmen and Onalaska, which benefited from commercial development around Valley View mall.
In La Crosse, the tax base grew just 40 percent.
The implications affect everyone — not just those in troubled neighborhoods.
Karl Green, an associate professor with the UW-Extension service, studied the issue and found that residential property owners support the bulk — 53 percent in 2009 — of the city’s property taxes.
Yet because of the concentration of older and lower-value homes, La Crosse has less tax base per capita than cities like Eau Claire, Sheboygan or Appleton.
While some blame the tax-exempt institutions — like universities, hospitals and churches — that account for more than third of the city’s useable land, Green said that’s not the real issue.
With more than 17,500 workers commuting into the city, La Crosse’s population swells by more than a third each day. No other city in Wisconsin with a population of 50,000 or more sees as big a swell.
“If people who work at those nonprofits lived in the city,” Green said, “we wouldn’t be talking about this.”
Reasons for flight
The reasons for the exodus are complex and varied.
Political, social and economic forces have conspired to make suburban living not only desirable but easy.
City housing — much of it built before World War II — was aging and often too small for modern tastes. Crime — real or imagined — led to a perception that parts of the city were no longer safe. Hmong immigrants and African Americans fleeing the same issues in larger cities began to change the complexion of a once homogenous population.
Years of lax enforcement have taken a toll. The city’s chief inspector recently speculated that 90 percent of the properties have potential code violations.
A lack of planning, coupled with the loss of homes to parking lots for rapidly growing institutions added to a sense of blight in the neighborhoods.
Rural communities to the north offered land and low taxes. New freeways — Interstate 90 in 1969 and Hwy. 53 in 1992 — made it far easier to commute to the city, which remained the economic hub.
Meanwhile, with a growing student population looking for places to live, those low-value city homes were ripe for picking by investors who could easily turn them into rentals, thanks to a lack of regulation.
With virtually zero population growth, the remaining city residents were burdened with increasingly high tax bills. The cycle threatens to become a spiral: each new rental conversion threatens to lower the value — or desirability — of surrounding homes.
“You can’t point to one thing and say ‘this led to central city decline,’” said Larry Kirch, director of planning for the city of La Crosse.
Home ownership and value
In 1970, La Crosse had an estimated 11,271 single-family homes, according to Census data; 64 percent were owner-occupied. The median value — in today’s dollars — was just above $93,000, only slightly less than in Onalaska and more than either Holmen or West Salem.
In four decades, the city has gained just 411 single-family homes, and home ownership has dropped to just above 50 percent.
The median worth is just $129,373, second lowest among the county’s 18 municipalities.
Hemmed in by bluffs and rivers, the city has little land for residents to build new homes, and so with each passing year the housing stock grows older — now nearly three times, on average, as in Holmen.
Rental property has always been a part of the mix, but over time it’s grown — from around a third of all housing in 1970 to nearly half — what Weeth considers the “tipping point.” In certain parts, only one out of 10 residences is owner occupied.
“It’s not having rentals that’s the problem,” Weeth said. “It’s having too many rentals, and not having them properly maintained.”
Today’s society is also more mobile than the post-war generation. Some of Fricke’s neighbors rented, but they stayed in the same homes for years.
Today, a quarter of the households in La Crosse move each year. In some neighborhoods, it’s more than half.
Many of the changes are systemic and irreversible.
Big box retailers have replaced neighborhood merchants, offering consumer goods at prices Marie Brickson couldn’t have imagined.
The blue collar jobs that gave unskilled workers like Logan Brickson and his neighbors a foothold to the middle class are gone, and they aren’t coming back. Today’s workers can expect to change jobs — even careers — multiple times. Families move more often, and neighborhoods are less stable.
Combine that with local factors — a lack of planning at the city and county level, the construction of new highways, a failure to enforce city nuisance ordinances — and you have a recipe for urban decay.
It’s also been a recipe for high taxes.
While those high taxes are often the scapegoat for the city’s woes, Kabat points to developments like the former Hillview golf course on the far South Side and the Beyer nursery at the foot of Main Street as signs that some middle income folks still want to live in the city.
“Those subdivisions fill up pretty darn fast,” he said. “If taxes were the overriding factor for everybody, I don’t think you would have those subdivisions being developed and filled up as quickly.”
But there’s limited land available.
Kirch notes the millions of dollars the city has put into downtown revitalization, neighborhood plans, rezoning, home fix-up programs.
“In spite of all we’ve done, it’s not enough,” he said. “This has been happening for 40 years. Why would we expect we can turn it around overnight?”
Yet he sees an opportunity, as new generations like the millennials show new interest in urban living.
“We have this snapshot in time where — nationally — living in cities is in vogue again.”
At the moment, Shannon McKinney and Larry Schneider are the only homeowners on their side of the block.
Next door, bricks are falling off the former corner grocery — long since converted to apartments. A fluorescent green sign on the door warns it is unfit for habitation. The other four homes are vacant and for sale.
Their 128-year-old duplex, which they bought in 2003, offers space — and a decent back yard — for their seven kids. Renting out the upstairs helps them pay the mortgage on Schneider’s wages while she home-schools the kids.
McKinney, who is 41, grew up in the neighborhood, near Eighth and Jackson streets. Yet she admits her heart sank a bit when she went to look at the house and realized it was on the “other side” of West Avenue.
Schneider, originally from Nebraska, said his biggest shock on moving to La Crosse was the property taxes. He pays almost twice what he did on a comparably priced house in Omaha.
“It’s not that we don’t appreciate the excellent city services,” he said.
But as self-described penny pinchers, they’re suspicious of neighborhood beautification efforts. After all, if your home is worth more, your taxes might go up.
That’s a common refrain heard in city hall, and one Kabat knows he has to address.
He suggests incentive programs to help offset the increased taxes, or waiving permit fees for people making improvements — especially for the conversion of rental properties back to single-family.
“That’s really tough,” Kabat said. “We should be looking for ways to help encourage people to do that.”
McKinney is ambivalent about many of the issues facing the neighborhood. She thinks landlords — and she herself is one — get a bad rap, as they provide a necessary service.
Aside from a recent shooting a couple of blocks away, crime has not been a problem. In fact, Schneider points out that La Crosse is still one of the safest cities — for its size — in the country.
“The neighborhood could be better,” Schneider admits. “But I laugh when people say you live in the ‘hood’ … I’ve had neighbors come over and say ‘your garage door is open.’”
They love being close to downtown, being able to walk to the Y, the library, hospitals, the co-op.
“I can’t imagine myself living in a suburb,” Schneider said.