In the spring of 1990, a shrink, an ad man and all of Milwaukee’s radio stations banded together to tackle the city’s inferiority complex. The $1.2 million advertising campaign was titled “See What You’ve Been Missing, Milwaukee.” The idea was to force us, darn it, to admit what a great city we live in.
That’s Milwaukee, a city where we’re forever underrating ourselves and yet forever lashing ourselves for doing just that. Page through 25 years of this magazine and you can see a constant litany of such worries, alternating with bullish comments about how the city has now turned itself around. We’re up, we’re down, we’re too hard on ourselves, we’re not hard enough.
The shadow of Chicago often loomed in the background of these efforts to analyze ourselves, writer Tom Tolan noted in a 1984 feature for the magazine.
“The rivalry between Milwaukee and Chicago can hardly be exaggerated,” he wrote. “It has almost become a governing principal in the way Milwaukeeans think about themselves.” But “it is a competition only in the minds of Milwaukeeans,” he added.
You could perhaps blame Chicago for any feelings of inferiority and just call it a day. But other theories inevitably popped up. The 1990 image effort was guided by ad agency president Richard McDonald and business psychologist-turned-city therapist Robert Scheid, who blamed Milwaukee’s strong German-Catholic-Lutheran roots for “an unwarranted humility and a self-concept that lags 10 to 15 years behind reality.”
Ah, the old “blame the Germans” strategy. The only problem is that if you read the letters and ads that Milwaukee immigrants sent back to their homelands in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, you can see they were no strangers to pomposity. Their effusive communiqués lured countless others to Milwaukee.
So just when did we start feeling inferior? Maybe the problem is Milwaukee peaked young. By the late 19th century, we were dubbed the “Athens of the Midwest,” a nod to the city’s artsy, German-oriented culture. By 1910, we were the fourth-largest manufacturer in the world. By 1920, Time magazine was calling Milwaukee “the best managed city in the country,” an ode to our clean government and “sewer socialist” public planners. Have we been in decline ever since?
The idea of a fading city, and the corresponding theory that, actually, we’ve just rebounded from all that despair, have been constant refrains for decades.
The early 1980s, when Milwaukee Magazine began publishing, seemed a particularly low moment. We were no longer “machine shop to the world,” but the Rust Belt. Talk of the state’s bad business climate had become the order of the day. People joked that the last person to leave Milwaukee should turn out the lights.
But by early 1985, Editor Charlie Sykes was writing that news of Milwaukee’s demise was premature, and the new Downtown theater district “could set the stage for another quantum leap forward in Milwaukee’s continuing artistic and economic renaissance.”
Later that year, Sykes hired me to pen a feature, “The Turnaround Year.” The proof of that: U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl buying and saving the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, Jane and Lloyd Pettit underwriting the $40-some million Bradley Center, and the building of the $100 million theater district and Yankee Hill, the first major Downtown residential development in decades. Even Chicago had noticed. The Chicago Sun-Timescalled Milwaukee “America’s most underrated city.”
But as local historian John Gurda commented to the magazine, “Downtown Milwaukee has seen multiple ‘renaissances’ over the decades.”
Thirteen years later, I admitted as much, predicting in 1998’s “Turnaround, Part 2,” that the true renaissance had actually begun with the new Midwest Express Convention Center, plans for the Calatrava art museum addition and the $15 million RiverWalk. “This time,” I opined. “We have shaken off our collective inferiority complex as a city.”
The facts of these city improvements were never in dispute, but what they meant for our self-image was. Some city boosters would point to them as proof we’d overcome our Laverne & Shirley, beer, brats and bowling image, and had now become a different, hip, contemporary town.
Others urged us to embrace the old Milwaukee as a key part of what made us unique. “Why is it cosmopolitan to have a beer and wurst in Munich but horribly déclassé to do it in Milwaukee?” wrote Bruce Murphy, saluting the “old world charm and atmosphere that makes Milwaukee a unique American city.”
“Things that once made us Bushville are now making us trendy,” Steve Filmanowicz wrote in the early 1990s.
Others embraced a more cosmetic strategy to buck up our image. We just needed to use jazzier words to describe ourselves. Thus, the city changed its official slogan, going from “A Great Place on a Great Lake” to “Genuine American.” At some point we changed to no words at all, just the image of the Calatrava to suggest… what, a city about to take flight?
Maybe we just needed an increase in the average temperature. Dean Amhaus, president of Spirit of Milwaukee, a city marketing organization, suggested thatwe could improve our image by simply moving Milwaukee’s official
temperature-taking site inland from Mitchell Field. Everyone knows it’s cooler near the lake. Big brother Chicago mitigates its lake effect by taking the official temp some 15 miles west. But the notion never got off the ground here. We might be inferior to Chicago, but at least we’re more honest.
Indeed, there was a sense by the eve of the 21st century that we’d become more comfortable in our own skins – perhaps buoyed by a surge of positive stories in the national media. The RiverWalk, Miller Park, a revitalized Downtown and, in particular, the Calatrava were wowing out-of-towners. The New York Times called the Calatrava “quite an image enhancer.” A reporter for Moneymagazine wrote, “I fell in love, unexpectedly, with Milwaukee.”
Even the fact that the famed land of cheeseheads was losing its title as top producer of cheese (and California ran ads mocking us for that in 2005) wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead it was confirmation of what made us unique. The old-world cheesemaking skills of Wisconsin were creating some of the world’s best gourmet artisan cheeses. As Syd Cook, one of the state’s internationally acclaimed cheesemakers, told the magazine, “Ultimately, the huge advantage we have is the terroir [our very ecology]. … The beauty of the area is transmitted into the cheese.”
As Tolan wrote back in 1984: “A city begins by making itself in the image of other cities, but to become truly great, it has to learn to become more like itself.” Twenty-four years later, Milwaukee appears to be doing just that – at least until the next round of self-doubts.
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Images of Milwaukee
The old Milwaukee [was] … the territory that’s a tad behind the times, the big city with small-town values, the location that was always good for a yuk in Hollywood movies.
– Writer Bruce Murphy, July 1986.
I had always liked to tell people I was from Milwaukee, as if it imparted to me a great air of reliability, of yeoman-like stability in a country always in flux.
– Writer David Ruenzel, October 1992.
Milwaukeeans … are social drinkers, not isolated drinkers. We have the cultural phenomenon of the neighborhood tavern to thank for this … the result is unmistakable. Voila! Gemütlichkeit.
– Writer Michael Horne, June 1991.
It’s so easy to live here. You can do anything … without taking four hours.
– California transplant Lesley Kagen, June 1992.
Sometimes, it takes a [slower] city to cut through the pretensions. … One need only look at the many fine examples of period architecture.
– Bruce Murphy, July 1986.
Family and work and longtime friendships … these values are just easier to see in Milwaukee.
– Editor John Fennell, September 1992.
In a city like Chicago … the physical enormity can detract from the feeling of community. In Milwaukee … I’m forever bumping into someone who knows someone I know.
– Kurt Chandler, June 1998.
We need to be telling people all the things we are, rather than defending all the things people think we’re not.
– Pfister Hotel concierge Peter Mortensen, February 2006.
Once people move here, it’s extremely difficult to get them to leave.
– Executive recruiter Judd Werra, June 1992.
In Milwaukee, you don’t brag about how much you’ve spent on something; you brag about … how much money you saved.
– Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, June 1991.
Milwaukee, despite its charms, has yet to become famous in poetry or song. Nobody sings of having left their heart here, and given the climate, it’s hard to imagine someone penning “I love Milwaukee in the Springtime.’
– Michael Horne, June 1992.
Disdainful of unhealthy self-absorption, relatively unconcerned with appearances… Not too refined like the East or too raw like the West… [Milwaukee is] the center that must hold.
– David Ruenzel, October 1992.
Like a younger sibling coming into her own, we are finally getting over our rivalry with Chicago.
– Kurt Chandler, December 2003.