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Milwaukee versus Chicago: a fight to the death, or a manufactured beef (and we don't mean Portillos)?

Yesterday, I ate some of the most delicious cheese curds I’ve ever had (Pizza Man, who knew?), planned my Summerfest strategy and enjoyed a 30-minute commute home from work. Meanwhile, Rod O’Connor of Chicago Magazine was worrying—or at least, worrying about whether he ought to be worried. It seems the Cream City’s recent south-of-the-border marketing campaign has struck quite a nerve with our southerly brethren.

The article’s subtitle lays out its main conceit, an unfounded premise that’s a hop, skip and a jump from just plain conceited: “Our northern neighbors want to win Chicagoans’ hearts—really, really bad.” Now, I can’t speak for the city as a whole (or can I?), but generally marketing campaigns are aimed at winning wallets, not hearts. Then again, Milwaukeeans tend toward geniality and warmth, so I shouldn’t remove hearts from the equation just yet.

O’Connor, writing for Chicago Magazine, fittingly begins his us-versus-them journey while walking down Chicago’s Milwaukee Ave. Milwaukee has an eponymous street, too, and, in a shoe-horned twist of fate, the Milwaukee Magazine office is situated very close to the Third Ward intersection of Milwaukee St. and Chicago St. So I begin my own metaphorical journey.

Should Chicago be worried? According to O’Connor, whose hand-wringing over the matter barely extends beyond the first paragraph (plus a subsequent shout-out to our afore-alluded-to curd dominion), the answer is a resounding no. And I’d have to agree.

You see, worrying doesn’t really mesh well with Milwaukee’s preference for easy living. We like our cost of living low, our parking plentiful, our traffic thin and our worrying minimal. “But easy doesn’t necessarily mean best,” O’Connor argues. I suppose it depends on where your priorities lie.

“Sure, Chicago gets better bands. And there’s more going on there at any given time because the city is several times the size of Milwaukee,” says Lindsey Anderson, Milwaukee Magazine’s new culture editor and recent Chicago transplant. “But [in Milwaukee] you can visit a friend who lives across town without first spending an hour sitting elbow-to-elbow with a stranger on an overcrowded, airless train or bus.” It’s only about six weeks into Anderson’s Milwaukee tenure, and the livin’s already easy.

Our culture editor isn’t the only talent on staff poached from Chicago: I hail from the Windy City myself. I admit it feels a bit traitorous to write about all the ways we hold our own against Chicago, but I’ll soldier on (my relationship with Milwaukee has demonstrably progressed to “royal we”-status anyway). And our art director, Paul Higgins, also hails from the City by the Lake, but he commutes upwards of 80 miles a day just to work in…another city by the exact same lake.

“Chicago has extremely thin skin and needs constant compliments to keep its inferiority complex subdued,” Higgins says. “Just call them the Third City and see what happens.”

Okay, Chicago: It’s alright that you didn’t make the list for Best Cities for Women in Tech or Best Cities for LED Usage. We’re guessing you also can’t boast the 43rd spot on the Most Fashionable City list, which Milwaukee received, among other designations, in 2013. I won’t mention our James Beard nominations or growing distillery scene, since you already did (thanks for the props). But can I mention our cheese curds yet again?

“Fried cheese curds are pretty much the pinnacle of human achievement,” says Anderson—who, remember, is coming from Chicago. She didn’t say the same about your Trip Advisor-sanctioned art museum. Just sayin’.

A few grievances from Chicago Magazine’s write-up:

→ “Well, well, well. Seems Milwaukee has forgotten that Chicago is an international dining capital that hosts the James Beard Awards.” Well, well, well. Seems Chicago has forgotten that Milwaukee hosts a little thing called Summerfest!

“Now here comes Milwaukee—or, as I like to call it, Chicago’s Canada.” If we’re your Canada, does that mean actual Canada is ours? We’ll take it! (One word: poutine.)

→ “Milwaukee’s adorable ship-shaped lakefront art institution is a bona fide winner.” Thank you, though it’s nowhere near as adorable as your Sears Tower or the iconic Marshall Field’s clock. (Did I get those names right?)

“Milwaukee’s most confounding claim is that it’s becoming a truly international destination.” Why become an international destination when you’re already a destination-that’s-international? Polish Fest, Irish Fest, Festa Italiana, Mexican Fiesta…we’ve got all the international we need right here.

→ And an interesting nugget from the Chicago Magazine comments section: “Strange that Chicago only had twice as many visitors as Milwaukee yet Chicago metro is far more than twice the size.” Zing!

In all fairness, Chicago does have better public transit, a musical named after it and an entire festival dedicated to literature (we have Firkin Fest). And I admit to shedding a poignant tear of hometown pride when the Cubs finally won the World Series (though my appreciation for baseball pretty much begins and ends with a Miller Park tailgate). And maybe, after living in Milwaukee for the better part of the last decade, I still sometimes find myself, on particularly trying days, bathed in the glow of the Lou Malnati’s website, mouse hovering over the Ship a Pizza button. (Despite our best efforts, we just can’t seem to do pizza like Chicago does—there’s a reason Lou Malnati’s sounds so similar to Illuminati…)

But maybe that’s okay.

The intersection of Chicago St. and Milwaukee St. is a peaceful one. There’s a parking garage, a few office buildings and this café. As Milwaukee struggles to define our identity beyond beer, brats and the Bronze Fonz, we will reasonably take issue with purely relational sobriquets: we’re not Chicago’s Canada. We’re not Chicago’s little brother, younger cousin or drunk uncle. We’re just Mill-e-wah-que, the City of Festivals, a Great Place on a Great Lake and yes, a wonderful tourist destination for our neighbors down below.

So no, Third City, you shouldn’t be worried.

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