It’s that time of year again.
The days are mellow but at night, there’s a bit of a nip in the air. OK, really more of a wholehearted bite.
Autumn in Wisconsin — hard cold winds straight off the Canadian prairies sweep summery days away.
Experienced walkers in these parts know how to stay the course during the cold winds. Put on your heaviest boots & take on some ballast – – drop a half-dozen rolls of quarters in your coat pockets, maybe a couple pints of Captain Morgan, the favored antifreeze in these parts.
Wax the ear flaps on your Stormy Kromer hat to cut wind resistance and head into the headwinds.
People are using to weaving, here in the city that leads the country in excessive drinking, so tacking & jibing with the wind comes pretty naturally.
Signs in the park remind dog owners that during High Wind days, any breeds smaller than a St Bernard should be double-leashed and aviation wheel chocks are recommended when they stop by a fire hydrant.
Who knows where the summer’s heat is carried off to – – I seem to recall an old Chippewa legend — when the North Wind blows into town, all the sunshine’s warmth is swallowed & carried to Capistrano.
Or perhaps I’ve got that muddled somehow. But modern science offers an equally crazy story to explain the change in seasons.
This old planet wobbles along on a bent axle or tilted axis, something like that?
“Wobble & Tilt” should be a carnival ride, or cop lingo for an inebriated pedestrian, but it’s scarcely appropriate behavior for a mature planet.
And recently I’ve become hopeful that scientists will buckle down and stabilize this situation.
Last month, apparently lacking adult supervision, those crazy kids at NASA deliberately crashed a spaceship into an asteroid. (Some articles called it a “moonlet” which makes me feel bad, like we’re picking on the little guy.) The idea was to see if they could change the asteroid’s course as a kind of test run for a planetary defense system.
So I’m thinking, once NASA has practiced up a bit, crashing spaceships & changing orbits, etc. perhaps they can correct Earth’s wobble & tilt problem?
Redirect some pointless wandering rock to smack into Earth. Nothing over the top like last time, when they wiped out the dinosaurs, just a smack on the wrist with a ruler, so Earth straightens up and flies right. Haley’s Comet is due for a visit in 2061, they should have it all worked out by then.
These same science types are working on jaunts to Mars, where temperatures during the tourist season average -81 degrees F.
We laypeople may not know much about space travel. But we do know, that those sorts of scientists, interested in the Red Planet, and eighty one degrees below zero, are not from around here.
No one from Wisconsin is much interested in traveling somewhere colder. The Wisconsin science types are mostly in Madison, huddled around a plasma magnetosphere called The Big Red Ball.
Our planet has a magnetosphere of course, so at least we’re protected from solar winds, even if it doesn’t help with the Alberta Clippers or the Arctic Cold Fronts.
The Big Red Ball, at the U of Wisconsin, kinda looks like a Hollywood mad scientist thing – – covered with magnets, wires, gauges, and pretty sure a 48-cup stainless coffee maker. And it cranks out 500,000 degrees F. or 5 million K, something like that, basically “real hot,” a miniature sun. And the scientists really don’t care if they discover a darn thing — as long as the funding holds out, the lab is nice and toasty.
And that reminds me, time for cinnamon raisin bread toast and hot coffee, gotta go.
Well, I haven’t been posting much. So other than working and studying, what have I been doing?
I’ve been making a determined and deliberate effort to make Milwaukee feel like home and have pretty much succeeded.
Part of this process, I think, was going to live in Walker’s Point, a neighborhood on the south side of town.
A mostly industrial area, on low-lying ground between two rivers, and in recent years just a footnote in the city’s story, this neighborhood has also long been a hub for people who were “othered.”
For many years, this was a German town, but in the early 1900’s, immigrants from Mexico were brought in to work in the numerous tanneries, which for a time, produced more leather than anywhere else in the world. Polish and Slovenian immigrants had arrived before them, to work in the steel mills, machine shops and factories.
Walker’s Point is now gentrifying and growing, old businesses and warehouses being converted to brewpubs, restaurants and loft apartments, but the residential population is still pretty small, there’s still a great sense of neighborliness and its low-lying houses nicely frame the skyline of the downtown. The skyscrapers for Northwestern Mutual and U.S. Bank are easily visible and not too far, but a world away from this neighborhood.
Also visible is the clock tower at Rockwell Automation, with its 40-foot clock faces (twice as big as Big Ben’s clock), big enough that ships on Lake Michigan use it like a lighthouse.
The area is also home to artists and the gay nightlife scene, and there’s a diverse and tolerant crowd roaming these streets. After being a backwater, now I think now the currents here are a lot of the lifeblood of the city, with true big city hustle & bustle but small town feelings of neighborhood.
Walking around, there are oldtime residential pockets, and you’re struck by the many Victorian homes. Many are stately and charming, with quaint flowerbeds and yards full of statues and art. While a lot of this area is still industrial and not far from the harbor (and the Milorganite factory is sometimes within smelling distance), it’s quiet and safe.
Here’s some cellphone snapshots of random things from from recent walks. There’s no theme today, it’s just an interesting town to walk around.
Here’s some stuff from other parts of the city. Closer to downtown, they’re building a 25-story apartment building. What makes that interesting – – it’s wooden! I don’t mean it will have wood facing or paneling, but the actual structure. It will be the tallest timber frame building in the world.
Near the high school where I worked a few years ago, are some Frank Lloyd Wright houses, currently being restored.
The Basilica of St Josephat, built by Polish immigrants. Maybe it was the spiritual locus, but the sky above it really was that blue the day I walked here.
Hard to believe you’re looking at a former post office (keep reading for the explanation).
By 1900, when this was built, there were 60,000 Poles living here, and they already had seven churches, but wanted something grander, with room for over a thousand worshippers. So this is basically a scaled-down version of St. Peter’s in Rome.
In a clever bit of economy, they bought the old Chicago Post Office, a big 4- or 5-story Second Empire-style building, which was being replaced, and re-used the stone blocks. (The giant 9-story Old Chicago Main Post Office you see today, which goes over the Eisenhower Expressway, was built in the ’20’s and ’30’s)
And that’s the news from Milwaukee. I hope everyone is well and staying dry.
Milwaukee is often overlooked and overshadowed by Chicago and Detroit (even if usually for bad news), and seem destined to never be quite as cool as the Twin Cities (“The Hipster Capital of the Tundra”).
So it’s natural that the city’s interesting and unusual history isn’t any more publicized that the city itself.
Like NYC, Milwaukee wasn’t always one city – it was formed by a merger of rival settlements. Three towns became one, and bridging the three-way split required…what do you think? Rationality? Efficiency? Common sense? Come on, get real, there were politicians and capitalists involved. And these are Badgers we’re talking about! These people chose an incredibly combative giant weasel for their mascot. Of course there was some strife and lunacy before they could come together.
“The Bridge War” was part of the city’s tumultuous creation process — an odd story of destruction and “burning bridges” rather than building them.
The Milwaukee River is now mostly a place for pleasure boats. But people focused on rivers in the old days, in ways that we’ve forgotten. Rivers were the highways and trade routes, and sources of energy, and were still important, long after the railroads and steam engines came along. They were lines of communication.
But they also have always served as borders and frontiers.
Natives of New York City are very aware that its boroughs were once proud, independent towns and cities, some for over two centuries. In the 1800’s, the Roeblings built what was then the longest suspension bridge in the world, to link Manhattan to… those people on the other side of the East River. The Brooklyn Bridge was an instant hit, and over 150,000 crossed on the first day, between the two biggest cities in the area, but a few years later, when the cities voted on merger, it was a real squeaker, and Brooklyn passed it by just a few hundred votes.
And Milwaukee had its Bridge War, which resulted from a fierce rivalry between three communities.
Juneautown was on the East bank of the Milwaukee River,
Kilbourntown was on the West bank,
and Walker’s Point was on the South bank.
Wait, can a river have three banks? OK, Walker’s Point turned out to be on the south bank of the Menomonee River, and not pointy at all as far as I can make out.
All three towns were named for their founders, and all three founders were very much alive and well at the time of the War. In fact, once the city was created, they took turns being mayor. Which is nice.
But in the beginning, we had three rival Founding Fathers – – who were classic examples of that all-American hybrid, the Politician-Capitalist–Land Speculator. The competition between their settlements was so intense, they deliberately laid out their streets, so that they didn’t intersect with their rivals’. Even today, most of the bridges in this city have to cross the river on a diagonal, posing a hazard for boats, as a result of this nonsense.
In 1845, the state government ordered the creation of a bridge over the Milwaukee River, between Juneau’s and Kilbourn’s sectors. This proved widely unpopular on both sides of the river, as they enjoyed being independent entities, and feared they would lose out financially if they became part of a bigger collective. There was also the simple economics of deciding who would pay to maintain and run the bridge.
Then and now, here and abroad, the “West Bank” always seems to be problematical.
On May 8, 1845, the people of Kilbourntown started the war, by simply dumping their half of the bridge into the river. They destroyed the drawbridge, to prevent those on the East Side from entering their town. In retaliation, the Easterners destroyed other small bridges, to prevent the denizens of the West from crossing to Juneautown. There were fistfights and worse, but no one was actually killed, and the ridiculous and petty war shortly fizzled out. The next year, sanity prevailed and a united city was created.
In any case, the Germans had started arriving – including soon-to-be-famous brewers — Miller, Schlitz, Pabst, and Blatz – and somehow the whole East Bank – West Bank thing didn’t seem so important, after a couple of steins of beer.
Solomon Juneau served as the first mayor, and his rivals Walker and Kilbourn also had their shot at running the city. Juneau married a member of the Menomonee Nation, and retired to the country. Once a year, his cousin Joseph would write to remind him, that his town was still called Juneau, Alaska, and why exactly was Solomon’s place called Milwaukee now? (Ok I made that last part up, but Juneau really is named for Solomon’s cousin.)
Byron Kilbourn went on to various elected positions and business speculations, until his sharp-dealing caught up to him, and a bribery scandal caused his railroad to go bankrupt. He ended up forgotten in Jacksonville, Florida. About twenty years ago, the city dug him up and reburied him here – – he was kind of a disgrace, but they wanted a complete set of Founding Fathers.
George Walker was a fur trader, and never had the cash of the other two, and lost control of his patch of land. But he did get to be mayor. Twice.
A minute, trivial footnote in history, for a city almost reduced to the skids. But a good lesson about a place that shook off its selfish, bridge-burning past and united, and made a contribution to America.
Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by bridges – the architecture, the symbolism, and the stories. A good bridge is not just beautiful, it almost always carries with it a good story or two. So when I first set foot in Milwaukee, I looked at my little map and headed for the river.
My guidebook said the river has Bascules. My keen, college-educated mind presented three options:
So, it turned out, all three guesses were wrong. A Bascule is a kind of drawbridge.
The drawbridge was being pulled up when I got there, and I looked across the river to see what had caused the Panic & Alarum — an attack on Milwaukee, expecting to see maybe…a horde from the Sons of Norway with battle axes? Scott Walker & The Tea Party, waving torches? The Menomonee Nation on the warpath?
But it dawned on me — the lift bridges are just to let the boats go out to the lake.
There is an endless stream of stories about bridges:
T. Barnum’s parade of elephants, to prove the safety of the Brooklyn Bridge .
The Golden Gate – beautiful, impressive, but a magnet for over a thousand suicides
Hells Gate Bridge in NYC, so-called, because when you cross it, you’re in Queens. The model for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. To my eye, kind of ugly, but incredibly strong. Part of it is supported by another span, far underground, over a fissure in the rock bed. The bridge’s piers are on two islands, and supposedly, they were made of very smooth stone, so that inmates on the islands’ mental asylums couldn’t climb up and escape.
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