Photograph by Tina Klose
It’s interesting to read about the city you live in in a travel magazine or travel section of a national newspaper. You get a sense of how the city would appear to someone just spending a few days, rather than a few years, decades, or a lifetime. Is your town hectic or laid back, highly cultured or more middle-brow? Full of greenery or full of concrete? Is it possible to discern the pulse of a city in a short visit?
Up until a few years ago, Milwaukee was never high on the list of “must see” travel destinations. But recent years have seen a spate of glowing articles in publications like National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among others.
Milwaukeeans are known for our reluctance to toot our own horns, but we like the attention nonetheless. Milwaukee wouldn’t be getting such glowing reviews in travel sections if there were nothing to see here. Those of us who live here know full well that this is a great city. If the rest of the nation ever finds that out, even better.
But I must admit that when reading a lot of these travel articles, I don’t always recognize the city they portray. Sure, Milwaukee has miles of beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline, a lively downtown, historic architecture, great restaurants and a top-notch cultural scene. But most articles make more than a passing reference to the city’s brewing heritage and its role as the setting of “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” and talk about how the city has evolved beyond these cultural touchstones. Fair enough, but “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” two ‘70s sitcoms that are frankly irrelevant to most anyone under 40, portrayed an idealized version of 1950s Milwaukee that never actually existed in real life. And while Milwaukee was indeed the nation’s brewing capital for a number of decades in the 20th century, the reason the city’s name became synonymous with beer was more due to clever marketing than any inherent strengths in beer brewing. I live in Milwaukee, but beer really doesn’t play any more a role in my life than it does yours.
It makes for a nice narrative – the home of Richie Cunningham and the Fonz reinventing itself without losing its soul – but is it really true? When Next American City came to the Cream City a few weeks ago, some friends and colleagues and I set out to discover just that. Our plan: to spend 24 straight hours exploring the city, its streets and waterways, factories and taverns, its sleek corporate headquarters and out of the way haunts. Our goal was to explore Milwaukee beyond the travel literature. To capture in one day the city the way people really live it and experience it.
Walking the streets at Hour Five … still energetic.
Despite some valiant efforts, no one person made it the full 24 hours. But collectively we saw the city from new angles and perspectives, and even the most seasoned, long-term Milwaukee residents among us had new experiences. We plied the city’s waterways, explored its neighborhoods, sampled plenty of local fare and consumed our fair share of local beverages, and saw industrial relics reinterpreted through performance arts. We did a lot, we learned a lot, we laughed, we cried, and, mercifully, in the light of a bright Sunday morning, we went to sleep.
The city just after sunrise.
In the end we saw our city in full: a city changing from a solidly blue collar industrial town to something of a blend of blue collar and white collar, old and new, traditional and cutting edge. It was the kind of revelation that can only come from breaking out of our usual routines and staying up all night. Maybe, just maybe, those travel pieces talking about the “new Milwaukee” are right after all.
Over the next few weeks I will post details our eventful and somewhat-less-than-sane adventure around the 22nd largest city in America. It was a blast. The next time you get the urge to stay out for an entire 24 hour period in a major American city, I say go for it. You’ll be glad you did.