Essay: I’ll Take Manhattan, and Milwaukee

Milwaukee living really is sweeter than the Big Apple. Really.

By Elizabeth Evans

It’s been more than a year since my husband and I moved from New York City to Milwaukee, but our East Coast friends still don’t believe how much we enjoy living here. My business is based in NYC, and my husband’s family lives just outside the city, so we travel back and forth regularly. When we reunite with New York friends, the conversation goes something like this:

“So, how’s life in the Midwest?”

“It’s great! We’re glad we made the move.”

Then they ignore me, the native Milwaukeean, and focus instead on my husband, studying him for cracks. Someone cocks an eyebrow, leans in conspiratorially: “But how is it really?” 

New Yorkers feign gleeful ignorance when it comes to life “west of the Hudson.” When I first announced my move to my officemates, one colleague asked me, with a completely straight face, if Wisconsin was next to Idaho. One of my husband’s relatives expressed concern about attending our upcoming wedding in Milwaukee because she worried there would be no decent hotels.

Perhaps it’s not entirely their fault. To stroll through an MKE airport gift-shop is to be surrounded by cow-print pajamas, T-shirts praising cow-tipping, yellow foam cheeseheads and neckties, and at least one refrigerator filled with cheese and sausages. And then there’s the beer. Even those who are too young to recall “Laverne and Shirley” think of Milwaukee as beer central.

Yes, Milwaukee does beer, brats and cheese like nobody else, but branding itself exclusively with this well-worn triumvirate overlooks Milwaukee’s other assets, among them a surprisingly robust cultural scene and a dedication to supporting local, independent businesses. I love taking visitors to such tried-and-true classics as Usinger’s, the Cheese Mart and Leon’s Frozen Custard, but I also enjoy showing off Boswell Book Co., savoring a creative brunch at Blue’s Egg, and exploring Downtown gems like the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Grohmann Museum.

Milwaukee will never be New York, but New York can’t be Milwaukee either. The traits I value most in each place often seem oppositional. I miss the rush of people in New York, that feeling of moving as part of a tide. There’s a certain unmatchable romance to strolling beneath the arched branches along Central Park’s Literary Walk, sharing the path with dozens of others who are escaping the city’s frantic energy for a few moments of calm. But in Milwaukee, I feel a different satisfaction in my early-morning walks with our dog (the dog we had neither room for in our apartment nor our budget in NYC), a quiet joy when I pause in Juneau Park to watch the sun come up over the lakefront. Most mornings, I am blissfully alone, and I can breathe deeply. The air tastes good.

Other favorite things we’ve traded in our move: 3 a.m. karaoke sessions in Koreatown, jazz and whiskey smash cocktails at Bemelmans Bar, racing cross-town in taxis at night and catching magical glimpses of icons such as the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza or the Brooklyn Bridge. 

What have we gained? For starters, my 45-minute commute has evaporated to nothing, and my husband now enjoys a breezy 10-minute walk to work, giving us nearly two extra hours together each day. We’re not constantly bumping into one another in an apartment the size of a dorm room. Turns out customer service still exists after all. And I still have three places within a five-minute radius to satisfy my cravings for bibimbap. There’s something in the air here more exciting to us than the buzz of NYC; it’s the sense that this city is growing in new and tangible ways, and that young people can play a part in it. You don’t have to be a millionaire to have a seat at the table.

Recently, at a friend’s wedding in Massachusetts, the man seated next to us explained that his girlfriend couldn’t attend because she was interviewing for a professor position at a university in Virginia.

“We have to go where the jobs are,” he lamented. “I told her I’d follow her anywhere [dramatic pause] except the Midwest!”

My husband and I exchanged glances, and under the table, his hand dropped onto my knee in a calming gesture. He knew I was tempted to set our tablemate straight, but we held our collective tongues. The East Coast may refuse to acknowledge the Midwest’s finer charms, but this myopic view is to its detriment. We ventured beyond the Hudson and found something truly great here.

Let the skeptics fly on over. They don’t know what they’re missing.

‘I’ll Take Manhattan, and Milwaukee’ appears in the February 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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