My boyfriend and I have this debate about his hometown. He’s tired of it, ready to get out soon, disgruntled by the vast majority of its bro-y residents, and skeptical about its insurmountable segregation. Meanwhile I relish every opportunity I can to adventure in Milwaukee (and not just because he’s there). I’ve visited enough times now to have a favorite breakfast spot, a favorite neighborhood, a favorite park and a favorite corned beef sandwich (of course!), but I think what fascinates me most about Milwaukee is that it is a city of urban contradictions. It’s established and exciting enough to draw a national audience, and yet the population is mostly Wisconsinites. It’s an attractive, inviting city in many regards, and yet it’s still widely affordable to live in. It’s got a progressive sensibility and a fairly successful economy, and yet it’s the most segregated metro-area in the nation. These contradictions make Milwaukee a captivating case study and an important city to pay attention to as other Midwestern cities rise and fall (here’s looking to you Detroit). It’s a hidden gem, with some dark secrets.
First, what’s attractive about this place? Milwaukee has incredible assets: a gorgeous lakefront, high-quality public transit, hundreds of affordable and delicious local food options, proximity to other important cities like Chicago and Madison (and rail transit to these as well), plus local industries to be proud of like world-famous beer factories and incredible cheese companies. Talk about products that we’ll always have a demand for! Moreover, Milwaukee does all this with not an ounce of pretension or snob. It’s the friendly guy from down the block that your parents will definitely approve of when you bring him over for dinner (but he secretly has a motorcycle).
It surprises me, then, that more people haven’t figured out how cool this place is and driven the prices up for the rest of us. I think it’s the Midwest curse—if you’ve never actually stopped in the “flyover states,” you have no idea what you’re missing out on. Outsiders think the Midwest is just mountains of snow, plates of hotdish* and caricatured accents, but the truth is, it is far more nuanced and diverse. Then again, maybe people aren’t moving to Milwaukee because its industries aren’t flashy enough; it is not home to any health care conglomerates, famous nonprofits or big banks—just the Harley Davidson factory, a slew of beer companies and the small bits-and-pieces manufacturing that this nation is built on.
Yet another possible reason for why Milwaukee isn’t quite as popular as it could be is that it’s got serious competition in nearby cities like Chicago, Madison, and even Minneapolis. Why would you move to Milwaukee—a town of 600,000—when you could live in Chicago—a metropolis of 2.7 million? Answer: Because you might actually be able to afford it. It’s utterly strange to walk through a pleasant neighborhood with lovely, old houses in close proximity to a downtown and find out that they aren’t all $1 million. It’s equally strange to see a handful of warehouses converted into trendy condos, but dozens of warehouses still being used for their original purpose.
What’s more, Milwaukee isn’t gentrifying—or at least, not nearly to the degree of other similar metro areas. You hear rumblings about this or that development, but for the most part, the transitions are happening to vacant buildings and empty lots. A revitalization of the city is good news and I think gentrification here is minor enough that it can be stopped before it prices anyone out of their neighborhoods. Sure, a few people are starting to move into neighborhoods where they hadn’t formerly lived, and new businesses are cropping up in previously exclusively-residential areas, but that should be heralded as good news.
No, Milwaukee’s issues are mostly on the other side of the spectrum: the reason the city is shielded from gentrification is that it is already completely saturated with racial tension and segregation. In other words, when you have whole sections of the city whose residents never cross paths, you’re unlikely to suddenly have a bunch of them moving into a new, lower-income neighborhood and driving up the rent. They just don’t mix. Instead, you have a city whose northern—almost exclusively African American—neighborhoods live with a 28% unemployment rate, over 40% of households on food stamps, and almost half of all residents without a high school diploma (source). If we compare this to a zip code just a few miles south, unemployment drops to 6.3%, food stamp recipients drop to 8% of the total population and over 90% of all the residents have graduated high school (source). That southern neighborhood is, in contrast to the north, 78% white and 15% Hispanic.
Milwaukee is a place of paradox. In many ways, it serves as an encouraging example for the urban progress a small Midwestern city can achieve while maintaining affordability. Then again, its status as the most segregated city in America suggests backwards attitudes and an utter failure to rise above a dark history.
What do these contradictions mean for Milwaukee’s future viability as a world-class city? Can it stay affordable and heal its racial wounds at the same time? I think that it must. The current growth and excitement happening in Milwaukee will only succeed if it is capable of reaching the north side too. New, thriving businesses in that area would mean more jobs, cleaner neighborhoods, more eyes on the street to decrease crime (and lower incentive for criminal activity anyway), and more integration of the Milwaukee population. I know that many of you reading this will never set foot in Wisconsin but this matters for you too. What happens here could have implications for racial and economic divides in other cities throughout the nation.
*For those who are wondering, yes, tator-tot hotdish is real. Yes, it is delicious. And yes, Rep. Tim Walz’s “Turkey Trot Tator-Tot Hotdish” won first prize in this year’s Minnesota Congressional Delegation Hotdish Off. So if that doesn’t make you want to come to the Midwest, I don’t know what will.
Have you ever visited or lived in Milwaukee? What’s your experience of urban segregation and growth?