When you cross the threshold of the Riverwest Public House Cooperative and step into its gathering space, you're greeted by the flaky, buttery aroma of the Milwaukee Pizza Company's signature Brick House and Lakeside Deluxe pizzas. Forty beers—90% local—are assembled atop the dark, ornately woodworked bar, lending the space a palpable 20th century British pub aura. And while anyone can enjoy a pint and a slice, the Public House, as it’s commonly known, is much more than a bar. It’s an investment in community building.
Peter Murphy, events coordinator and co-op enthusiast.
Bordering the east and west sides of the city, the Public House is located in the heart of the Riverwest neighborhood, a blossoming pocket of democracy which has a special knack for uniting its diverse surroundings. The neighborhood has become home to several innovative co-operatives: a community newspaper, public education space, grocery store, and book center, among others. But until an unseasonably warm St. Patty’s Day in 2011, when the Public House first opened its doors, Riverwest was missing perhaps the oldest and most effective community connector—beer.
Try one of their local brews and Milwaukee Pizza Company's signature pie. (They’ve got the Sriracha sauce ready.) Bartender Wendy Mesich pours a beer on draft (right).
POUR A COLD ONE AND THEY WILL COME
“Thinking conceptually, we were like, ‘What do the people in Milwaukee like to do? They like to drink! So let’s start a bar!” says Peter Murphy, the events coordinator (and admitted co-op enthusiast). Unlike traditional business corporations, co-operatives give voting rights to members—typically local—who elect a board of directors from among them, which makes final decisions on the company’s operations and values. "It's a step away from growing a business for the sake of the bottom line, which has a tremendous cost to the community. Co-ops are much more physically inextricably linked to the communities where they operate. It's all about being close and accountable to the people you serve," says Murphy, adding that residents within 50 yards of the bar are automatically granted membership. In true democratic form, however, it’s open to the public.
The Riverwest Public House Co-op is part pub, part community center co-owned by 700 of its patrons. From left Dante Smith, Peter Murphy, Avery Edenfield, Wendy Mesich laugh together during a worker collective meeting (right).
Now home to about 700 member-owners who are patrons of the place they serve, the Public House offers local residents an ownership stake in the bar for $40, effectively giving them a say in its actions and principles. All net proceeds go to the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance, with the mission of sprouting more co-ops in the locale. "We wanted to use the seed money to start more businesses—a co-op bakery, daycare, butcher shop, community pharmacy. We wanted to create an adaptable model and keep it hyper local, in this one neighborhood in Milwaukee," says Murphy.
FILM, ART AND LIVELY DEBATE
The weekly docket includes live music every Friday and Saturday, along with film screenings, art fundraisers, educational discussions, and blind debates during the weekdays (for which all proceeds go to Kiva Microlending). "We set up programming that's more intellectual fodder and activist inspired. We have a radical ethos," says Murphy. Indeed they do—especially on Tuesdays. Or should we say Taco Tuesday, which features a burlesque show hosted by Cream City Cabaret followed by a drag show hosted by House of Dimera. It's their ace in the [watering] hole for adjoining populations. "I've NEVER seen a more diverse group of people," says Murphy. "The area lends itself to lots of opportunities for integration and desegregation, but you have to be really open to it."
Co-ops are much more physically inextricably linked to the communities where they operate. It's all about being close and accountable to the people you serve.
Whether burlesque, bands or beer, the Public House always has community building as the end goal. "When you get to own your work and make decisions that have outcomes for the business and community, it's so much more exhilarating," says Murphy. "Plus, how many people can say, 'I bought a bar today for $40'?"