In an ornate, 118-year-old historic theater, 12 of Milwaukee’s civic leaders, social thinkers and cultural connoisseurs sat on plush, red-velvet sofas and high-backed antique chairs to discuss a bevy of serious issues facing Milwaukee while proposing bright ideas to make the city better. And, despite a self-imposed point of disregarding financial and logistical constrictions in order to not stifle idealism and creativity, what emerged from the opulence of the Pabst Theater on Monday night was far from ostentatious.
In a packed house filled to the brim with bearded, bouncy 20-somethings drinking PBR Tall Boys alongside graying professionals sipping Merlot, Historic Milwaukee’s “Envisioning the Seen” got under way for its third event of forward-minded conversation about improving the city. As with past panels, the goal was to generate an informed, spirited conversation among prominent area people who really do care and really may have solutions.
The overarching topic this time was the “Milwaukee malaise,” a term coined in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January. Audience members were encouraged to interact directly with the debate, texting and tweeting questions for the Q&A session.
Although the dialogue touched on matters of genuine importance – how to better engage local citizens, how to build young leaders, how to address racial segregation and tackle economic problems like unemployment, foreclosure and urban dereliction – it often seemed to lose momentum, rolling back down the hills it had just started climbing. Or it simply became irreverent.
Take, for instance, a legitimate disagreement between two panel members about the condition and progress of the inner city. Sally Peltz, founder of Legacy Redevelopment Corporation, which originates loans for real estate projects in central city neighborhoods, at one point said she was “dying to get in (to the discussion).” Much of the preceding talk had centered around the city’s recent plan to develop the lakefront, a project spurred by fellow panelist and former Parks Director Sue Black. Peltz made the point that while Downtown gets aesthetic improvements, not nearly enough work is being done in the inner city, and the work that is being done is overlooked.
Evelyn Patricia Terry, a creative artist honored in 2012 with a Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award, disagreed, saying “we keep focusing on the rocks,” or the same old problems, of the inner city, instead of trying to move them, solve them and recognize the good efforts being made.
The two went back and forth in a healthy debate, drawing others in. Dasha Kelly, founder and director of Still Waters Collective and a skilled storyteller, asked “Where’s their press conference?” in comparing the unheralded urban efforts with the governor-mayor-county executive announcement of the lakefront overhaul.
When the debate quickly turned to the grim economic realities in the central city, Barry Mandel, president of the eponymous Mandel Group, a residential and retail development company, joked that he was glad he took his Prozac that morning. But, he said, the issues of urban Milwaukee are not being ignored. “Every conversation I have, we’re talking about unemployment in the inner city and public education,” he said. “These discussions are happening.”
Then Mike Mervis, chairman of Zilber, Ltd., a real estate and development company, and often the group antagonist, chimed in. “I’m more of a realist,” he said. “These are real problems. When we have discussions, we have to look people in the eye and say we can’t have this cruddy public school system, this unemployment.”
But, as on other topics, that discussion staunched before it could flow into anything authentic or actionable.
“We’re a city of doers,” said Matt Rinka, principal of Rinka Chung Architecture, later adding to much audience applause that “more leaders need to step up” and “everyone needs to be a leader.”
The idea of racial, or at least cultural, marginalization persisted through the evening, easily the issue approached with the most passion. Kelly talked about the widespread disengagement of African Americans in Milwaukee, how many don’t feel they have a stake in the city or even an ownership of their own neighborhoods.
At this notion, moderator Kyle Cherek, host of the Emmy-nominated “Wisconsin Foodie” television show on PBS, objected. As a white male, he said he’d moved into a largely Hispanic community in Walker’s Point years ago and “had the temerity” to try and change things even though he was an outsider in the neighborhood.
Cherek was then asked by Adam Carr, fellow moderator and freelance storyteller, if his children attended Escuela Vieau, the local bilingual public school. The challenge, which was met by quiet capitulation from Cherek, incited uproar from an increasingly emboldened audience that seemed to be tiring of the crowd-play techniques from some of the panel.
But some ideas really did represent critical, outside-the-box thought – like Mandel’s desire to form an “R&D triangle” of development among Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. It seemed to impress both the panelists and a ravenous crowd that by the end of the hour and a half had begun to shout political buzz-rhetoric like “Trains!” over and over. That, of course, was a reference to the federal funding declined by Gov. Scott Walker to build a high-speed rail line connecting the three cities, something the Pabst Theater audience considered to be the “biggest missed opportunity in Milwaukee in the last two years.”
Actionable ideas did float up, like Kelly’s simple directive for prominent businesspeople to “just make a phone call” to invite someone young and outside the corporate club to go to a meeting. Or OnMilwaukee.com founder Jeff Sherman’s proposal to have a mayor of every block. Sherman also pointed out Oklahoma City’s 1-cent sales tax strategy, which helped them build a downtown arena and attract an NBA franchise that has revitalized the city.
Terry made repeated requests for better nutritional health in the inner city, and, though sometimes coming out of nowhere, it rang of real value, given the urban food desert in parts of Milwaukee.
But often the debate fell back onto what Carr called Milwaukee’s inferiority complex, a citywide condition discussed in depth during last June’s event. No one offered any real cure in Monday’s edition, except to shout Milwaukee’s greatness from the mountaintop. “Be proud of your city,” Mervis said. “Don’t let the national media stereotype you. Show ’em you’re more than beer and cheese!”
The rallying cry garnered nods from panelists and applause from the audience, but it didn’t provide much more. Indeed, over nearly 90 minutes, one reporter’s notebook recorded more than two dozen variations of “be your own leader” or “everyone needs to step up” or “it’s up to all of us” as proffered solutions, spewed out as nebulous calls to action that brought more questions than answers.
The last audience-submitted question of the night asked, in one sentence, what will Milwaukee look like in five years? When one panelist tossed out an easy “it’s up to all of you,” a crowd member shouted “Racine!” After the laughter subsided and just before the audience departed to give their own ideas and solutions to Historic Milwaukee, to later be posted online, Cherek encapsulated the evening’s message with a final contribution.
“We have to do it ourselves,” he said, his bright orange shoes that were the subject of multiple Mervis jokes basking in the stage lights. “Nobody’s going to do it for us.”