Rise, Fall, Resilience ... Renaissance?

Rise, Fall, Resilience ... Renaissance?

Milwaukee’s history can be summed up in a neat, three-part narrative: rise, fall, resilience. We tell ourselves this narrative in an ongoing effort to define what kind of city Milwaukee is today, and where exactly it is headed.For those of us who came after the fall, however, such a pat retelling of Brew City’s past rings somewhat hollow. For as a thirty-something Milwaukeean whose roots in the city go back three generations, I have little firsthand knowledge of Milwaukee-as-industrial-powerhouse. While my forbearers made their livings in manufacturing, in making things, I, apparently, make a living selling my knowledge. I learned no trades in high school, the only time I’ve ever punched a time clock was when I worked low-wage retail jobs in high school and college, and the only union I’ve ever belonged to is the one that represents grocery store workers. In fact, I have never been inside a working factory, except while taking a tour.Which makes it all the more interesting to witness the demolition of the last great industrial site in or near Downtown Milwaukee, the old Pfister & Vogel tannery. Unlike so many of the other great industrial relics that have disappeared or have been reinvented in recent years, it was actually not too long ago that this massive complex employed hundreds of people. Back in the mid 1990s, when I worked one of those low-wage retail jobs at a grocery store, I waited every day for the city bus right across the street from this industrial behemoth. It stank to high heaven, it was steamy, dirty, and loud. I remember on frigid January nights workers would emerge from the factory to take their smoke breaks on the sidewalk, wearing white T-shirts in the bitter cold and coated in sweat and dust. It made my crappy retail job look posh by comparison. But they probably counted themselves among the lucky ones. They had careers in manufacturing and they had good jobs.On a Wednesday in February 2000, the 500 employees of Pfister & Vogel received a written notice in their lockers informing them that their plant was closing, and that they were all terminated as of that coming Friday. 500 people had gotten the axe with no more than two days notice, and the mighty tannery fell silent.In the seven years since the plant closed, the neighborhood surrounding it has turned from blue collar to white collar, tiny cottages have given way to condos, and a freeway that separated the neighborhood from Downtown has been demolished to make way for new development. It was thus only a matter of time that the old tannery would attract the interest of condo developers. And, now, after several years as a popular site for urban exploration, and a lengthy process of environmental remediation, the P&V is finally coming down.So are we now in the chapter in our history where Milwaukee’s resilience blossoms into a full bloom renaissance? We have traded 500 family-supporting jobs for what will become 500 housing units for Downtown professionals. The outward signs of progress continue apace, but I wonder about the progress made by those 500 employees of Pfister & Vogel since they suddenly lost their jobs back in 2000.When I look at the vanishing ruins of Pfister & Vogel, I think about rise, fall and resilience. People are resilient, and I’m certain that the workers of Pfister & Vogel are on their feet. But I wonder how invested and involved they are in Milwaukee’s urban renaissance. And, I think about the tens of thousands of Milwaukeeans, who, without an education, once relied on hard work and luck to break into the middle class. Milwaukee is still the city that works, but I’m afraid that these days luck is in exceedingly short supply.

Tags: jobs

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