“Make A Difference”: What is Milwaukee? I have a few ideas.

“Make A Difference”: What is Milwaukee? I have a few ideas.

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Listen: A week ago, I rolled out a question to anybody interested in thinking about it: "What is Milwaukee?"

I was hoping to harness the energy and feeling folks were feeling post-election and translate it into something productive. To that end, I feel like this project has already been successful — the comments on the first post alone make me proud to be part of this city. Not only are the ideas wonderful and insightful (I've learned something from each and every comment), but it's definitely been the most civil and productive conversation I've seen in a comment section of a blog. Really — check out the responses yourself. The level of dialogue is a pretty good indicator of the quality of thought we have going on in Milwaukee. Feel free to continue posting ideas on the original post and on this one, if you'd like to share some thoughts.

So, as I've had a chance to think about the question with more depth, I realized something — the question "What is Milwaukee?" is really tough. You start with a word, which becomes a sentence, which becomes a paragraph, which becomes a page, and so forth. It's a sprawling city whose themes can be comparably sprawling, while at others stark and simple. 

And I really couldn't wrap my head around just how difficult the task was until I started writing my own response. The more I wrote, the more I felt was being left unsaid. I usually work in 3 minute chunks of audio that are necessarily limited in scope, but with a medium that wasn't begging me to make way for a song, my response could be much longer. I wanted to get it all out, but not make it so long that nobody would want to read it (sorry if I didn't quite hit that second goal).

So, after many rounds of revision, a few long runs around town, and an acceptance that no answer would ever be complete, I let myself spill.

* * * * *

First, a bit of background.

In a little less than two years as producer for RadioMilwaukee, the stream of folks I've had the chance to meet and interview in MIlwaukee has been overwhelming. Everyone from grade schoolers to executive directors, musicians to community activists. It's been at the same time panoramic and kaleidoscopic. With every new person and surprise, I find the city so much smaller than I expected and larger than my ability to capture it (this idea is borrowed from my first boss and mentor — thanks Sam). Funny how that works.

I grew up in Milwaukee and have returned here to live, which adds a whole other layer to my relationship with the city. Oftentimes, I describe my relationship to Milwaukee as a child getting to know their parents like friends. As a curious person, I've loved the chance to explore Milwaukee without reservation. And you know what's even better than that? After every fascinating conversation or discovery, I get to turn right back around and share.

And with that, Adam "ask for a pinch and I'll give you a pile" Carr's answer to the question "What is Milwaukee?"

* * * * *

Some folks live Milwaukee thoroughly, while others are content to think of us as living in Chicago's shadow. That's fine with me.

(I'd rather have an inferiority complex than a superiority complex any day of the week.)

I've come to recognize a polite brilliance here — I've had the great fortune to meet so many talented, vibrant, intelligent people, but none of them are too loud about it. I love that. I've also come to find that Milwaukee's intelligence finds itself more at home in a bar than a coffee shop. I love that too. We won't be drinking craft beers out of vortex bottles anytime soon, but that's cool — nobody's going thirsty.

The arts in Milwaukee frustrate me. Not because anything's lacking, but because when you find them (which can be hard sometimes, I've found), there's so much. Every evening and weekend could be spent exploring, but because Milwaukee's art scene tends to be so dynamic and generative, you'd never be done. (Also, I feel like a lot of artists are turning away from an airy idea of 'creating' and a more towards a concrete feeling of 'making.' But that's just me.)

Milwaukee is just as much a Violent Femmes track as it is Prophetic's lyrics. The logical and practical absurdity of Kings Go Forth or the unapologetic virtuosity of Evan Christian. The obsessive openness of Made of Oak and the bulletproof cool of Jaill. (Plus the rigor and focus of Jon Mueller.)

It's a city where I feel I can wait to see "Waiting For Superman." I got an education I wouldn't trade with anybody, but as a proud product and vigilant follower of the Milwaukee Public Schools, I'm also fluent in the deep structural challenges facing education. MPS at times seem massively complex and at others remarkably simple — kind of like any child you'd find growing up anywhere.


We have beautiful boulevards that remind us who we were and who we are today — Washington, Sherman/Grant, Layton, Hi Mount, Burnham, Newberry, Highland, Cesar Chavez, MLK Jr. Drive (which I affectionately pronounce 'Emelkay' everyday as I cross it). We have scores of bungalow/dollar lot homes, understated architectural jewels from every era, and an unfairly good county parks system. We have a handful of industrial corridors whose legacy of abandonment is reflected in our city's shocking poverty and unemployment rates, and whose reclamation highlights how innovative we'll need to find a way to dig ourselves out.


Milwaukee is a city big enough that I'd wager, without looking at the Yellow Pages, there are more than one professional clowns working here. Weird, right? No matter what your Milwaukee is, you're likely missing a whole lot of it.


From what I've seen, repurposing is one of our deepest themes in Milwaukee. Sometimes repurposing looks like a warehouse district transforming into condos, art galleries, restaurants, and office spaces. Sometimes, it looks like the progression of displaced peoples through neighborhoods from the founding of our city to now. Sometimes, it's an empty lot of land becoming a community garden or an old factory building becoming a vertical farm. Every time I talk to John Gurda, his stories are steeped in "change and continuity," and I always feel as if he hasn't created this idea, but is rather tapping into one that was there all along. While the landscape never quite settles, our ideas hold steady. 


I once heard Milwaukee called a "City of Tribes." The idea immediately clicked into place — we don't draw our identities from straight lines or transversals, but rather from boundaries. Neighborhoods. I see these on long lopping runs or cross-town bike rides, those invisible lines where the feeling of difference is palpable — our interstate highways, when MLK Drive becomes Old World Third, crossing Holton, the bridges that span the Valley (in fact, just about any river crossing), the 60th Street boundary with Tosa. We use broad, sweeping reductions — South Side, North Side, East Side, and Downtown. These monoliths hide the character of their constituent neighborhoods, not to mention the blocks, homes, and personalities we clumsily lump together. And then, of course, there's a world I have to admit I don't know too well at all — the suburbs. First ring, second ring, exurb? Everybody has their frontiers.


Division is both our background and foreground, an inextricable and frustrating part of us. And while we normally engage with this conversation on the level of race, the lines and boundaries we've created for ourselves are just as much socio-economic, cultural, and psychological. We live in a place where segregation is deep and fucked up — and Milwaukee is just as much that retreat into profanity when problems feel insurmountable.


As much as I know about this city, there will always be much more to Milwaukee that I don't understand. But I would never pretend that I can't understand. Or that I shouldn't. There's a lot of good work going on in this city, and there's much more to be done.

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