Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What’s remarkable about Milwaukee?

Monday evening the preservation group Historic Milwaukee Inc. held an annual event called “Remarkable Milwaukee.” The main purpose was to honor a Milwaukee organization, business, or corporation that “exemplifies Milwaukee’s spirit, has a strong history in our community, and has made important contributions to our city’s heritage.” This year the honoree was the Pabst Theater Foundation, along with its director and founder. Congratulations! Well deserved.

The Pabst Theater set the scene for the evening with an onstage “experiment in civic dialogue” in the form of a “conversation” called “Envisioning the Seen.” A panel of community leaders shared their ideas about what is good about the city and what could make it better. I noticed, however, that what the panelists envisioned for Milwaukee seemed almost entirely focused on its downtown. Was this emphasis by design or simply inherent to the mission of Historic Milwaukee? I don’t know but as the conversation progressed I found myself envisioning with a larger perspective.

One of the themes of the conversation was connectivity and I think it could have been emphasized more. The panel seemed largely unified in its vision of Milwaukee, but a second, and I suggest related, theme that emerged from the small degree of discord was inclusivity. I’ll come back to these themes.

The conversation began dynamically with statements that championed downtown Milwaukee – in contrast to the suburbs, which were painted with a broad negative brush. How unfortunate to hear again the divisiveness that has characterized our larger community for so long and that easily could have turned off someone like me, who came in from a suburb to participate. But I was glad I stuck it out. A shift in tone was exemplified by restaurateur Joe Bartolotta who encouraged everyone to “put a positive spin” on our community.

Jill Morin, an author, consultant, and activist, went further, insisting, “We are our own worst enemy.” We know this a great community. People who come here tend to stay. But we’re not yet good at attracting people in the first place, she said.

Former Mayor John Norquist expressed a particularly telling insight: “The parts are greater than the whole.” Though referring to Wisconsin Avenue, he could have been describing the whole fragmented region.

It was Reginald Baylor, the sole African-American on the panel, who urged inclusivity. That concept, I’d like to add, extends in many directions and is central to any vibrant community. I would argue that inclusivity means reaching out to the much-disparaged suburbs as well as to traditionally disenfranchised groups within Milwaukee. All of the parts need to be considered – and invited to the table – before the whole of the Milwaukee region becomes greater than the sum of our parts.

After all, quipped Norquist, “if it weren’t for Milwaukee, Wisconsin would be Iowa.”

Where inclusivity is crucial connectivity follows closely behind. Historian John Gurda’s attempt to steer the conversation in this direction resulted only in a brief, heady consensus (amongst panelists and audience alike) that effective mass transit is sorely needed. Amen – and good luck!

One vital form of connectivity that should not be overlooked is Milwaukee’s magnificent park system. To be truly inclusive, in addition to wrapping an arm around the suburbs instead of keeping them at bay, we need to acknowledge the incredible wealth of nature that we have in our midst. There was a lot of talk about the Grand Avenue Mall, infrastructure like roads and bridges, the resurgence of downtown, and arts organizations – all concerns that I applaud. But there wasn’t a single mention of the lakefront, Milwaukee’s premier public space.

Of course these observations do not diminish the Remarkable Milwaukee ideas discussed by the panel and the good work being done by Historic Milwaukee, which I support. Closest to my own perspective was Sarah Daleiden, who suggested that we need “new ways of walking in the city” and cited the Beerline Trail – which connects the burgeoning residential developments along Commerce Street with the remarkable Milwaukee River Greenway – as one opportunity to “get off the grid.”

Milwaukee River Greenway
As a booster of our metropolitan area’s virtues, I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I love what’s happening downtown, and I love the arts. But along with all that, I envision a day when we can’t have a discussion about Milwaukee’s future without mentioning its parks, open spaces, and natural areas. This is truly one of the most remarkable urban areas in the country. If we believed in ourselves we could become as well known for our natural environment as for “the Calatrava” or any other part. I believe we could compete for attention with cities like Portland, OR.

The panelists were asked, what one thing would you recommend be done to improve the city? Real estate attorney Bruce Block replied, create “more and greater public spaces.” Yes! We have one of the largest and best (and most remarkable) in my neighborhood of Wauwatosa: the Milwaukee County Grounds.

Inclusivity means bringing together all of the parts. Let’s celebrate the Pabst, the Art Museum, the marsupial bridge, and all of our excellent and catalytic structures. But wait! There’s more. Among the best things about a vibrant city are places where there are no buildings.

Architect Grace La asserted, “Healthy cities are measured by beauty.” I couldn’t agree more.

Milwaukee County Grounds

No comments:

Post a Comment