Washington Heights has neighborhood pride

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Terri Coughlin and Barbara Hayden stand in front of a vintage houses included in a May 17 Spaces & Traces tour of Washington Heights. - PHOTO: Max Siker

When Terri Coughlin sat down to breakfast with friends on Sat., May 17, it wasn’t so much a social gathering the celebration of a one-of-a-kind Milwaukee legacy.

Coughlin and her friends had gathered at McBob’s Pub & Grill, the well-known west side watering hole at 4919 W. North Ave., before setting off on Historic Milwaukee’s 2014 Spaces & Traces tour of famous homes and businesses in Washington Heights. 

The friends were excited because it was the first Spaces & Traces tour of their neighborhood. They were also excited to represent their group, the Washington Heights Rainbow Association, the oldest LGBT neighborhood association in the greater Milwaukee area.

WHRA began 19 years ago to provide respite and a welcoming environment for gay and lesbian residents of Washington Heights, a geographic area bounded by North Avenue and Vliet Street on the north and south and Washington Park and 60th Street on the east and west. Since its early days, WHRA has expanded its membership to include straight residents. The group also takes on fundraising and service projects to improve the neighborhood. 

WHRA currently has 110 names on its email list, which includes current residents as well as people who have left the neighborhood but want to remain connected to it. 

“When I returned to Milwaukee from Ohio and moved to Washington Heights 11 years ago, there were four or five rainbow associations around the city,” says Coughlin, WHRA’s president. She’s not aware of any such associations remaining in the city, although just west of Milwaukee, the Wauwatosa Rainbow Association is active.

Coughlin says its her group’s commitment and camaraderie that have helped keep the volunteer-run WHRA afloat. It also helps that a lot of lesbian and gay singles, couples and families live in the neighborhood.

“There are quite a few LGBTs here,” Coughlin says. “It helps our neighbors understand that we’re just like everyone else. When you hear that a neighborhood has a rainbow association, it helps you decide where you might want to live if you are gay or lesbian.”

People are drawn to Washington Heights for its beautifully restored homes and vintage houses in need of renovation. A small business revival over the past decade has added a vibrant buzz to the neighborhood. Among the area’s residents is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who has a home on Washington Boulevard.

A group of neighbors decided to start the association nearly 20 years ago during a backyard barbecue at a home on 56th Street. WHRA began as a social group, but eventually took on a social-service mission. 

With funds raised through rummage sales and at a volunteer-staffed booth at PrideFest (where you’ll see them again this year), the association began to fund neighborhood activities and eventually moved on to support other causes, Coughlin says.

“We support one of the summer concerts each year at Washington Park, have given to the local Lutheran church and provided kids’ costumes for the neighborhood Halloween ‘spooktacular,’” says Coughlin, who also serves on the Cream City Foundation Board.  “We’ve also contributed to Elena’s House for people living with HIV/AIDS and the LGBT film festival.”

As the summer progresses, Coughlin anticipates a surge in activities, many of which will promote WHRA and its mission.

“I have never lived in an area with so many neighborhood gatherings,” Coughlin says. “Did you know that Washington Heights is the number one neighborhood for block parties in the city?”

This summer, members will deliver reusable canvas grocery bags to residents, both to support the neighborhood’s “green” initiative and to raise the group’s visibility. Such efforts are typical for the group, which has an active relationship with the Washington Heights Neighborhood Association.”

Coughlin hopes LGBT people in other neighborhoods will be inspired by WHRA’s success to form more rainbow associations in Milwaukee.