Exploring the historic role of America’s downtowns as centers of civic connection has long been my labor of love. Nothing engages me more than the opportunity to visit one of these locales, seeing first-hand its significance — past, present and future.
When I first discovered that the 2009 International Downtown Association annual conference would be held in Milwaukee, my enthusiasm to attend was tepid. Having visited the city’s downtown core in the late ‘80s, I was somewhat familiar with its culture and feel. My takeaway impression back then was a lifeless and unappealing relic best described as its namesake beer: “Old Milwaukee.”
The news for downtown Milwaukee is much brighter now, as the city continues its push to become a vibrant urban center. The largest city in the state of Wisconsin, Milwaukee’s rich cultural legacy is the foundation of a move toward relinquishing its reputation as a moribund industrial town. German ethnicity is evident throughout the metropolitan area, with 38% of residents still claiming some ancestry. Sausage markets and beer pubs still exist as legacies of this deep heritage.
Once the home to four breweries — Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller — Milwaukee for many years held the distinction as the number one beer-producing city in the world. The city now boasts a broader array of companies, allowing for a more diversified economy. In fact, Milwaukee ranks fifth nationally in the number of Fortune 500 companies as a share of population. The roster of firms calling this city home include Manpower International, which is considered the largest temporary employment agency in the world; Northwestern Mutual, with a pristine reputation in the insurance industry; and Harley-Davidson, which has long been the darling of motorcycle enthusiasts worldwide.
Much of Milwaukee’s urban core resurgence can be directly attributed to the forward-thinking tenor set by John Norquist, the town’s mayor from 1988-04. Norquist, now president of the Congress of New Urbanism, is best known for instituting progressive zoning changes that boosted downtown housing. This initiative led to a major downtown population spike (from 700 to over 15,000 residents today), which in turn spurred vitality. Norquist was also instrumental in dismantling a major barrier to downtown Milwaukee’s future fortunes; namely, a mile-long stretch of elevated freeway that traversed through downtown — making the city the first in the nation to remove a freeway in its central-core and opening up a wide swath of land for redevelopment opportunities.
The city has also successfully capitalized on its most prominent asset, the Milwaukee River. Collaborative efforts between downtown businesses, nonprofits and city government have led to the revitalization of a stretch of walkable landscape along the city’s downtown waterfront. The “River Walk” now attracts locals and tourists alike to its outdoor dining, retail, and community arts activities.
Byron’s Beer Garden and Bistro, located just off the river walk on Wells Street, is one example of the distinctive Wisconsin ethos that has reinvigorated Milwaukee’s downtown core. I met a colleague for lunch and drinks at Byron’s outdoor patio and had a magnificent dining experience. One of the bistro’s servers recommended their signature macaroni and cheese dish, which for me conjured up visions of the Velveeta brand my 7-year-old daughter enjoys. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Featuring four cheeses native to the “Dairy State,” this dish turned out to be so tasty that I nearly put in an order for seconds. As you may have guessed by its name, Byron’s is also known for its robust beers. Having tasted one of their darker brews, I am now a real fan.
While the downtown area serves as the crown jewel for central Milwaukee’s resurgence, there are several communities on the periphery that hold bragging rights of their own. With a swanky public market, the Historic Third Ward district continues its upward trajectory of revitalization; the Brady Street district, a former ‘60s hippie outpost, now attracts an eclectic mix of creatives, bohemians, and early retirees to its retail and housing amenities.
As for the future of downtown Milwaukee, all indicators point upward. While the city has its shortcomings — Milwaukee has the second-coldest average temperature in the nation, behind Minneapolis — it has done well by focusing on the distinct qualities it does possess. Revitalization efforts are apparent along the main downtown thoroughfares, as loud jack hammers and construction crews spruced up streets and older buildings. And current mayor Tom Barrett seems just the type of leader needed to move the city to its next rung.
All of this is good news in Milwaukee’s quest to position itself as one of our nation’s fastest-rising urban centers.