travel

Overlooked and Underloved: Milwaukee

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Here’s a line from a song “The Bay” by the British band Metronomy.

Because this isn’t Paris. And this isn’t London. And it’s not Berlin. And it’s not Hong Kong. Not Tokyo….”.

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This song fits Milwaukee.

It’s the kind of city that shouldn’t be nice, because that contradicts your preconceptions.

You don’t want to admit that you enjoy it, because it’s… Milwaukee.

Located…where, exactly?

It’s OK if you don’t really know.

“Somewhere past Chicago,”

 “near the Great Lakes?”

“Yeah, it’s…oh wait, that’s Minneapolis”

are all acceptable answers.

 

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If your brain does kick out a few random factoids, there’s an image problem.  The city was a byword for industrial decay, notorious for its massive rate of crime and poverty, and Miller Lite on culture.  Even the ball team was sub-par.

> Poster boy for the Rust Belt.

> Someplace dull where people talk about electric power tools.

> The City That Made Beer Famous” – but a lot of it came to be cheap, sticky, mass-produced “value beer.”

Old Milwaukee, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Schlitz Malt Liquor were never seen in my house.  They always seem to be the brands you see in roadside ditches– tossed from rusty pickups with rude stickers.  The pickups are driven by the kind of people that throw their trash and empties out the window, and were driving by old rusted-out Allis-Chalmers hay-balers, a brand once world-famous, manufactured just down the road from my apartment in West Allis, and now faded away.

The city was part of feeling embarrassed about living in the northern U.S., in the Rust Belt.

Bad cars from Detroit.  Bad beer from Milwaukee.  Bad politicians from New York.

 

Last summer, I moved to Milwaukee.  Voluntarily.  I entered of my own free will.

The city continues to get a lot of bad press.  New Yorker magazine just ran an article about the thousands of evictions that take place yearly in this, the fourth poorest city in the country.

 

 

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The art museum on the lake. A fantastic creation by several architects. The central building by Eero Saarinen, an addition with a winged sunscreen that opens & closes by Santiago Calatrava

 

But Listen Up People —  I am here, and I am here to say, Milwaukee is a great city 

 

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City Hall. When it was erected, the tallest building in the country.

 

 

On a great lake.  Literally, the city is right on one of the “Great Lakes.”  Lake Michigan is impressive, one of the biggest expanses of fresh water in the whole world.  It doesn’t need the others to be a Great Lake.   You could drop Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut into it without a trace. And its the only one we don’t have to share with Canada, so it is an All-American lake.

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Mitchell Park Domes. Desert and tropical environments, and a nice break from winter

This isn’t the 1980 Rustbelt anymore!  Milwaukee is ready to be a new poster boy, one for new era, the re-birth of the American city. From Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Milwaukee, the revitalized Richmond and Louisville, and of course, NYC – all have stories of revival, comeback, resurgence, regrowth.  And unlike NYC or San Francisco, young people can actually afford to live here, and can afford to have some fun.

America’s comeback is, and will be, taking place in its cities.  A lot of this is change is brought about by an influx of young working people.  Young people who move in, work, and spend their money here.  There are still huge problems, but that just isn’t the whole story.

IMG_6515So it feels good to move to a city that is coming back to life, and showing people that “moving to the city” is still relevant and desirable.

It may be overshadowed by bigger, sexier Chicago, but Milwaukee is very much a worthy, interesting destination city on its own.  I know one Chicago resident, who comes up on weekends, because he loves visiting the local joints in our town.  Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, is prosperous and squeaky clean, and has earned the reputation of being the ultimate college town (though it will always rank below my favorite, Ithaca, NY) but Milwaukee can give them a run for their money — there is a vast population of students and recent graduates.

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You can have an apartment!  Not a cleaning supplies closet “artfully re-purposed into a Living Pod,” or a retro-engineered shipping container, or a squat where the coachroaches have names and their own little bunk beds.  You don’t need to live in a derelict loft with five roommates, and go dumpster-diving behind Panera’s; here you can live a good life on very little money. Beer is cheap, and it is good – Milwaukee’s old-time genetic coding has kicked in, after all this is Brew City, and they’re once again making great beer around here.  Microbreweries like Sprecher, Lakefront, Brenner  turn out ales and lagers as good as anything in Europe.  There’s lots of innovative stuff, too, like organic pumpkin beer, tangerine IPA, etc. and a really smooth black lager.  Bars are plentiful, friendly, and the “pub food” is excellent, and the nightlife is good.

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Where I live, West Allis, somewhere between a city neighborhood and a suburb, there are tree-lined streets, and you can walk along the Hank Aaron Trail to downtown, and then along the RiverWalk, which stretches right through the heart of the city.  You can walk on top of the bluffs along the lakefront, and they even have a lighthouse.

A quintessential American city — it’s a diverse population, mostly Germans, Poles and Mexicans, but with dozens of other groups and ethnic communities in the mix. There are African-American neighborhoods mixed with Hmong immigrants just up the road from an old Scandinavian enclave.  Maybe, here in the middle, as the new, monied elites grow richer on both coasts, will be one of the last bastions of middle class America.

IMG_6331A world-class art museum on the Lake (the building alone is an architectural gem, in part a design by Eero Saarinen, who did the St. Louis Arch and buildings that still look futuristic at Dulles and JFK airports), authentic ethnic restaurants, hip lofts and desirable neighborhoods, full of hipsters, yuppies and yup-sters, a cool live-music scene and lots to do, this town is excellent.  To amuse tourists and local visitors alike, a stroll along one of downtown’s main streets takes you past a series of street poles with mini-stories told in ‘flip art’.   Milwaukee offers more green space than any major American city — parks abound along the lake. You can visit the Pabst mansion, the Mitchell Domes (huge geodesic gardens, one for desert, one for tropical), enjoy German food in the restaurant that has hosted four US presidents, celebrate “Pho-bruary”, and experience blue-collar America’s factories, with tours of Miller (and the other breweries too) and Harley-Davidson’s factory.

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“The Streets of Old Milwaukee” in the excellent, and fun, Public Museum

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Celebrating Men in Tights

This town may not have the fashion scene, but it has character. Here, people talk to you. They are sincere; they are friendly.  You can live on a reasonable salary. Housing prices aren’t outrageous. You have all the big city amenities, and none of the traffic. Sure, this town lacks the frenetic pulse and determined weirdness that enlivens places like NYC, but it instead feels like a big small town. You feel like you’re at home, even when you’re not from around these parts. I think it’s wonderful. But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself.

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History, Uncategorized

Old Milwaukee. Troubled bridges over water.

Milwaukee drawbridge LOC

Milwaukee drawbridge. LOC

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.

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1901 Milwaukee River. NY Public Library

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1885 Milwaukee River from Walker’s Point Bridge. NY Public Library

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.

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1885 Milwaukee River. NY Public Library

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.

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My first day in Milwaukee

Footnote

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:

  • If I remembered biology class correctly, a bascule is the digestive tract of an amoeba, or,
  • a mysterious ethnic group in northern Spain, that used to blow things up, or,
  • a mythological creature that asks you three questions or riddles or something, and if you get it wrong, it eats you or you fall into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. Or something.

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.

Bascule bridge Chicago 1890 LOC

Bascule bridge. Chicago 1890. LOC

There is an endless stream of stories about bridges:

  • Brooklyn Bridge 1910 LOC

    Brooklyn Bridge 1910. LOC

    T. Barnum’s parade of elephants, to prove the safety of the Brooklyn Bridge .

  • A really cool science lesson called “aeroelastic flutter,” “mechanical resonance,” or maybe “sympathetic vibration” (I don’t know, whatever, did you think I was a physics major?) when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge turned into “Galloping Gertie” and ripped itself apart – – just very cool, and scary, to see a suspension bridge start bucking in waves, look up the video.
  • The storied London Bridge, (“London Bridge is falling down, falling down…“) now sitting on an artificial lake in Arizona.
  • The Millennium Bridge in London, a beautiful sculpture, and a fantastic pedestrian walkway over the Thames — except the engineers forgot that pedestrians are human beings. When it opened, the first people walking across it, instinctively compensated for the slight swaying motion — and their reactions collectively made it sway harder and harder, until it was impossible to walk.  I thought it sounded fun, but they added more guy-wires to fix it.
  • The Waterloo Bridge, with bronze lamps made by melting down Napoleon’s cannons
  • Tappan Zee Bridge – NY’s sagging, staggeringly expensive symbol of governmental infighting and dysfunction
  • Golden Gate Bridge LOC

    Golden Gate Bridge LOC

    The Golden Gate – beautiful, impressive, but a magnet for over a thousand suicides

  • Even the Roeblings weren’t infallible – – their Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge lasted forty years, carrying trains on one level and pedestrians on another, but when locomotives got heavier, it had to be replaced with a homely, but stronger, steel arch bridge.
  • Hell Gate Bridge LOC

    Hell Gate Bridge LOC

    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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