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Way back in September 2008, back when the fundamentals of the American economy were strong, or at least appeared to be, back when a post-convention bounce in the polls seemed to validate John McCain’s “maverick” selection of the Governor of Alaska as his running mate, some friends and I hit the streets of Milwaukee for Next American City’s 24Hours:Milwaukee. It was a beautiful weekend in late summer, the time of year when Milwaukeeans cram every waking moment with outdoor activities, knowing full well that any day might very well be the last nice day for a long time. Despite some valiant efforts, no one person made it the full 24 hours. But we had a great time and discovered some under-the-radar places in this under-the-radar city.

Our roadtrip began at 10:00AM on a Saturday morning at the new headquarters of Manpower, a Milwaukee-based Fortune 500 staffing firm. Manpower recently opened the new cutting-edge green building on the north side of Downtown Milwaukee. As crowds gathered along the nearby Milwaukee River to watch a rowing competition, we were given a private tour of the spectacular world headquarters by a company representative.

After Manpower it was off to the Fondy Farmer’s Market, a long-running outdoor market serving Milwaukee’s near north side. Every farmer’s market serves an important community role, of course, but Fondy is unique. It serves a neighborhood long plagued by high poverty, unemployment and vacant lots. The market sells fresh produce at low prices, and much of the produce is grown by local residents in a network of community gardens around the neighborhood. Fondy’s long term plans include an incubator for food businesses and expanded selling space. For now it remains one of the best farmer’s markets in the city and a great stop for an “off the beaten path” tour of Milwaukee.

Fondy Farmers Market

We then headed to the city’s near South Side to take in an Asian street festival. Unlike other immigrant cities, Milwaukee has never had much of a Chinatown, but an influx if immigrants over the last few decades from Southeast Asia has added an Asian flavor to the city’s ethnic mix. Milwaukee currently is home to 30,000 Hmong residents, the second highest concentration in the country. The Hmong, an agrarian people based in Indochina, allied with the United States during the Vietnam War, and subsequently suffered a forced displacement at the hands of the Laotian government. Beginning the late 1970s, Hmong refugees came to the US in large numbers, and continue to arrive to this day. Milwaukee’s Hmong community supports a rapidly growing bilingual charter school, a strong business community, and community events such as the one we were so happy to take part in.

No trip to Milwaukee’s South Side would be complete without a stop at the only Polish Basilica in the United States, the Basilica of St. Josaphat. Built in the late 19th century, financed entirely from donations from the surrounding working class Polish immigrant community, St. Josaphat today serves a mixed Polish and Latin congregation. It’s mammoth dome dominates the surrounding neighborhood of modest wood frame houses.

After the South Side we headed back Downtown, made a quick stop at the Milwaukee Public Market to pick up some of Milwaukee’s finest beverages, and boarded a pontoon boat provided by Riverwalk Boat Rentals for relaxing ride up and down the Milwaukee River and out into the harbor. It was a beautiful day, and knowing that fall was just around the corner, we soaked in the warm sun and the spectacular views.

Out on the River alongside the rowing race. Photo by Tina Klose.

After the boat ride, some members of our party grew hungry for an early dinner. So it was back to the North Side for a satisfying dinner at one of the city’s legendary soul food restaurants, Mr. Perkins, the kind of down-home place where the walls are covered with photos of the customers enjoying the food through the years. During our visit Barack Obama signs seemed to be competing for wall space with the pictures of smiling customers. The food was, as it always is, filling and delicious.

No affiliation with the Perkins restaurant chain.

At this point, most sane adults would have headed home. But we were barely eight hours in. Sixteen hours to go! The next stop was the Menomonee Valley, and the newly developed Chimney Park, where we watched a unique dance presentation that made use of the industrial relics that are incorporated into the new park. Wild Space Dance Company put on a fantastic show, dancing, on, in, and around two giant brick smokestacks, and the steel underbelly of the 35th Street viaduct, which crosses over the park. The company made full use of the site, at one point using the steel girders of the viaduct as a massive percussive instrument.

Chimney Park before the show.

Oh, what feeling … when you’re dancing on the chimney.

Under the viaduct.

After the dance presentation in the Valley, it was off to the Iron Horse Hotel, an upscale motorcycle-themed hotel that recently opened near the also recently opened Harley Davidson Museum. Harley Davidson, established in Milwaukee in 1903 and still based here, is of course one of the most recognizable brands in the world and one of the city’s more prominent corporate citizens.

After the Iron Horse, it was off to some more nighttime establishments. Milwaukee is, after all, the nation’s number two Party City, according to none other than Maxim magazine, so it should come as no surprise that it was at this point that the tour reached its peak of participation. While the details are little fuzzy, suffice it say a good time was had by all. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, 24Hours:Milwaukee did close Wolski’s.

Closing Wolski’s.

Of course, not everyone in Milwaukee parties all night long. A lot of people work over the wee hours. After bar time we got a unique tour of a local factory, P&H Mining, at four o’ clock in the morning. Zipping through the huge factory on a golf cart, we saw up close the manufacture of massive pieces of mining equipment.

At this point tour-goers began to get tired. At five in the morning we went to Rockwell Automation to watch the sunrise from the top of the landmark Allen Bradley clock tower, the largest four faced clock in the world. Yes, bigger than Big Ben. One member of our party (yours truly) had looked up on the web the time for the sunrise, but neglected to notice that the time given was standard time, not Daylight Savings Time. So, expecting the sunrise at 5:30, we were were baffled when it was still pitch dark outside. We sat around and dozed off for about an hour until the sun finally came up over Lake Michigan, at about 6:30AM.

Just before sunrise.

Just after sunrise.

After the sunrise, the need for sleep overcame any desire to make it the full 24 Hours. In the light of a bright Sunday morning in Milwaukee, we went home and went to bed.

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