This Is Milwaukee: A City on the Rise Gets Real
"Young people aren’t looking for a perfect city. We are looking for a place that will invite us to help make it better.”
Milwaukee is not a perfect city.
Milwaukee is a city of extremes. There are brutal winters and sticky, sweltering summers. There are shiny new arenas and condos. There are racial wounds — some of which are healing, some of which are still fresh. There are revitalized neighborhoods bustling with fresh energy, and there are specters of shuttered factories looming over zip codes and generations.
In other words, Milwaukee is a lot like every other city in America: complicated.
But while most cities actively try to smooth over and brush aside their complications, Milwaukee is doing something revolutionary: owning the flaws, acknowledging the complexities, and inviting new and lifelong residents to work together to create the city’s future.
I went to Milwaukee on a press trip a couple months ago. I was expecting it to be like other press trips: a tour designed to show visiting journalists all the best parts of the city. We would go to the hip new bars and tour the hipster lofts and meet the cool startup founders, but we wouldn’t see the people who were being left behind. We would get a neat and tidy and inspiring story of the place, but we wouldn’t get the whole story.
Wrong. Not Milwaukee.
Sure, we went to the cool breweries (what’s up, Good City Brewing!) and met the cool startup founders (what’s up, Paige at Rapid Radicals!) and toured the beautiful, eco-friendly new Fiserv Forum (what’s up, Giannis Antetokounmpo!), but we also visited the neighborhood that by many measures — unemployment rates, poverty rates, incarceration rates, etc. —ranks as one of the worst in the United States. We took a cruise on beautiful Lake Michigan with a diverse group of young professionals eager to share stories of why they love their city, and how they dream of improving it. We stayed at a gorgeous arts hotel and toured Black Cat Alley.
One day, our tour guides took us to the site of a sprawling factory that had sat empty for years. Frank Cumberbatch, a longtime Milwaukeean, local leader, activist and VP of engagement for Bader Philanthropies, told the story of how this factory had closed suddenly, and how it affected the families in this neighborhood, which had never really recovered. I found myself getting choked up.
On a tour of the revitalized Brewery District — a sprawling compound of bars and breweries and hotels mixing class and kitsch — our guide offered us pours of PBR, then took us downstairs to a vintage bar that looked and felt exactly like a 1970s rec room. Then he led us into a small, dark room that we never would have found on our own. “There are ghosts in here,” he said. It felt like a metaphor.
Milwaukee Rises Like a Phoenix
There is perhaps no better metaphor for Milwaukee’s recent evolution than Sherman Phoenix.
In 2016, protests broke out in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee following the fatal shooting of Sylville Smith by a police officer. Protests lasted for two nights, and four businesses, including a local branch of BMO Harris Bank, were burned.
In the aftermath, neighbors came together to transform the burned building into something new: a place for hope, creativity, community for all, and economic opportunity for people of color. Sherman Phoenix, the rebuilt building, is now a bustling food hall/community center/art gallery, home to 27 tenants including restaurants, boutiques, a yoga studio and a therapy office.
On the morning we visited, the space was already buzzing with activity — groups of residents were sitting in the dining area working on business plans or just sipping coffee and chatting; people were prepping food at the various restaurants on the first floor; and boutiques selling clothing, personalized sneakers and locally made bath and beauty products were getting ready to open for the day.
What was once a pile of ashes was transformed — through Milwaukee’s unique blend of tenacity, honesty and heart — into a beacon of hope for the future.
The Commons: Creating a Talent Collective
Milwaukee has a lot of the things that make a city attractive to young people: an affordable cost of living, diversity, great community colleges and education systems, and a wide range of major companies and growing startups to help build a career.
And yet the city loses thousands of its young people every year to bigger cities like Chicago. For whatever reason, young Milwaukeeans don’t always see and feel the sense of opportunity in their own backyard.
The Greater Milwaukee Committee, a nonprofit group of more than 180 local leaders dedicated to making Milwaukee “the best place to live, learn, work, play and stay,” wanted to change that.
Their solution? The Commons.
Moving to Milwaukee? Here’s Everything You Need to Know
Billed as a “talent collective,” The Commons aims to connect all the dots for young people and companies in the region through partnerships, mentoring, training and collaboration. “For emerging talent, we’re your direct connection to the great professionals and organizations doing cool things in our region,” according to The Commons’ website. “For local businesses, we’re the hands-on regional talent strategy that your organization needs to attract, develop and retain future-thinking problem solvers.”
I got to attend a presentation by The Commons founders and chat with some of the young professionals who had gone through the program as high school and college students. They talked about feeling like they needed to leave Milwaukee before making connections through The Commons. The program had not only helped them see the opportunities they had locally, but invited them to be a part of growing those opportunities. They were now working at companies like Kohl’s and Southwest Airlines and becoming young leaders in their companies and industries. Out of 800 students who have gone through the program, 90% reported making key connections that helped them progress in their career.
“Young people aren’t looking for a perfect city,” one of the students told me, “We are looking for a place that will invite us to help make it better.”
I asked one of the founders of The Commons what sets Milwaukee apart as a place to build a career or a business. “Milwaukee is open-hearted,” he said. “If you have an idea, people are willing to help you make it happen.”
This Is Milwaukee
At the end of my Milwaukee press tour, I asked the organizers if it had been a tough decision to share such an honest, unflinching view of the city with a group of journalists. Were they afraid of what we would write?
They shook their heads.
“This is what Milwaukee is,” they said. “All of it.”
And that is something to be proud of.
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