Let’s Talk It Out: Conversations Between 12 Pairs of Local Luminaries

We asked two dozen of the sharpest minds in the city to get together and chat about what they do. Come be a fly on the wall for MilMag’s 2019 Conversations.

On Sports Management:

Sport as Science

Jon Horst, general manager, Milwaukee Bucks
David Stearns, general manager, Milwaukee Brewers

Illustration by Cameron Lewis

Milwaukee had a heck of a pro sports year in 2018, and for that we can thank our young tandem of general managers, David Stearns and Jon Horst. Stearns’ overhaul of the Brewers’ roster last winter included trading for eventual MVP Christian Yelich and assembling an unconventional, under-the-radar pitching staff that carried the team to within one game of the World Series. Horst has overseen a coaching change that, along with key roster additions and subtractions, has converted the Bucks from young, talented underperformers to legitimate contenders to reach the NBA Finals – at least through the first quarter of the season.

The two GMs are also friends, and patriarchs of young families. Horst, 35, and his wife have a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son; Stearns, 33, and his wife welcomed baby Nora on the eve of the Brewers’ postseason run. (“I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep,” he says.) Their mid-November conversation began with how sports analytics – once an invisible force shaping the product on the field or court – is becoming increasingly visible to fans. – Moderated by Chris Drosner

On Art:

Living Off-Center

Marilu Knode, director, Sculpture Milwaukee
Michelle Grabner, gallery owner and professor, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Photo by Matt Haas

Building a successful career in the arts, whether as an artist, curator, historian or gallery owner, is no easy task. But both Michelle Grabner and Marilu Knode have finessed this trick. Born and raised in Canada, Knode first came to Milwaukee in 1997 to serve as senior curator at INOVA, the Institute of Visual Arts at UW-Milwaukee. She left in 2003 to further her curatorial career, which has taken her over the years to places as far-flung as New York City, Phoenix, Cairo, Los Angeles and St. Louis. She returned to Milwaukee in 2016. Grabner, a native Wisconsinite, did her undergrad and graduate work at UWM, then moved to Chicago and returned here in 2015. They talked about the shifting role of major cities in today’s art business, and the joys as well as the responsibility of living in Milwaukee. – Moderated by Carole Nicksin

On Architecture:

Building Up

Bob Greenstreet, Dean, UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture & Urban Planning
Rocky Marcoux, Commissioner, Milwaukee Department of City Development

Photographed at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion; photo by Kenny Yoo

In terms of aesthetics, Milwaukee is fortunate to have miles of shoreline and scenic rivers, plus a pleasing combination of historical buildings and contemporary architecture.While the topographical characteristics are the equivalent of having good genes, the city’s built landscape isn’t just a matter of luck. Not only has there been a concerted preservation effort; there is also a great deal of planning involved in deciding what gets built. And among the thought leaders in that arena are Bob Greenstreet and Rocky Marcoux.

Greenstreet has led Wisconsin’s only architecture school for more than two decades, while Marcoux has held his current position with the city since 2004. The two are friends and colleagues, united in their enthusiasm for Milwaukee, as well as their dedication to helping make the best decisions, design-wise, for the city. They started this conversation – inside the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion – by reflecting on the factors that have helped elevate architecture in Milwaukee. – Moderated by Carole Nicksin

On Talking:

Dynamic Dialogue

Ellen Gilligan, president and CEO, Greater Milwaukee Foundation
Carole Nicksin, editor and publisher, Milwaukee Magazine

photo by Matt Haas

There are a lot of conversations taking place in Milwaukee, and not just on the pages of this issue of Milwaukee Magazine. The Community Brainstorming Conference has had monthly talks centered on African-American issues monthly since 1986, and the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion was established here in 2006.

And in 2017, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation launched its annual On the Table event. On a single day, hundreds of small gatherings of people break bread and take on topics that matter to them. Underlying all of these efforts is the belief that discussion – about our differences, our similarities and our ideas – is the first step toward positive change for our community. I sat down with Ellen Gilligan to talk about the importance of … talking. – Moderated by Carole Nicksin

On Politics:

Inside the Wave

Mordecai Lee, urban planning professor, UW-Milwaukee
Charles Franklin, director, Marquette Law School Poll

Photo by Chris Kessler

November’s midterm election brought about a regime change in Wisconsin, in the form of a new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and a new Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul. At the same time, it left much of the state’s underlying political infrastructure in place. Republicans still control the state Legislature, and they and Evers will have to find a way to work together if they want to pass budgets and accomplish major goals.

To strategize (unofficially) about all this and pick apart what the election means long-term, former Democratic Milwaukee state Sen. Mordecai Lee chatted with Marquette pollster Charles Franklin. (Their conversation took place just after the election but before the Legislature’s controversial lame-duck session in early December.) – Moderated by Matt Hrodey

On Police and Community:

Complaints, and Snitches

Cynthia Adams Burrell, community activist
Alfonso Morales, Milwaukee police chief

Photo by Matt Haas

Alfonso Morales joined the Milwaukee Police Department in 1993 and has been police chief since February. Cynthia Adams Burrell spends her days working for Cristo Rey High School, where she drives students to and from internships at local businesses. She’s also a very civic-oriented mom, having started two community gardens in her Franklin Heights neighborhood, including one in memory of a young man named Reggie who was shot 18 times. Morales and Burrell both are born-and-raised Milwaukeeans and come from huge families – Morales is one of 10 children, while Burrell is one of 13. Their Conversation opened with Burrell sharing a startling experience with a cop. – Moderated by Dan Simmons

On Development:

The Lure of Luxury

Bob Monnat, chief operating officer, Mandel Group
Melissa Goins, developer, The Griot

Photo by Kenny Yoo

Luxury apartment buildings continue to crop up in Milwaukee, but only a few developments have addressed the pressing need for affordable housing. We asked Bob Monnat, chief operating officer of Mandel Group, a Milwaukee firm whose upscale apartment projects have included The North End and DoMUS, to chat with Melissa Goins, developer of The Griot, a Bronzeville project that offers affordable units and includes America’s Black Holocaust Museum. She’s also a vice president at development firm J. Jeffers & Co.

Their conversation took place in the DoMUS clubroom overlooking the Milwaukee River, and centered on the question of why so little affordable housing is being developed. – Moderated by Rich Rovito

On Drag:

Something for Everyone

Dear Ruthie, drag queen
Gary Olson, manager, Hamburger Mary’s

Photo by Matt Haas

Drag’s been around for centuries. But it’s really taken off in the last 10 or 20 years, as queer culture has gained more mainstream visibility and queens like RuPaul have helped popularize the art form. We sat down with Dear Ruthie, one of Milwaukee’s most established queens, and Gary Olson, who manages Hamburger Mary’s, to chat about the current state of drag in the city. – Moderated by Lindsey Anderson

On Being Biracial:

‘Why Do You Sound So Ghetto?’

Laila Branch, Shorewood High School junior
Freedom Gobel, Reagan High School senior

Photo by Matt Haas

Laila Branch and Freedom Gobel didn’t know each other before the September day they met up at Freedom’s school on Milwaukee’s South Side. Halfway into their hourlong conversation, they were finishing each other’s sentences – literally.

Freedom plans to study journalism next year at Northwestern University. Laila is president of Shorewood’s Youth Rising Up student group.

Both of their moms are educators, and they’re both part of their respective schools’ black student groups. Laila and Freedom are also both of mixed descent: Laila’s dad is black and her mom is white; Freedom’s dad is white and her mom is black. The teenagers bonded over that background and their subsequent shared experiences: unique hair issues; divergent family get-togethers; and being “kind of stuck in the middle” racially, culturally and socially. – Moderated by Adam Rogan

On Beer:

Barreling On

Mike Doble, owner, The Explorium Brewpub
Jim McCabe, owner, Milwaukee Brewing

Photo by Chris Kessler

Brew City has been riding high in recent years. More than a dozen breweries opened in 2016 and ’17, a few of which have become major players in the local beer scene. But that trend has slowed, with fewer openings in 2018 and three local brewers closing their doors since late 2017.

Mike Doble was part of that 2016 wave, opening The Explorium Brewpub at Southridge Mall, in what he calls the suburban “donut hole” of breweries. Jim McCabe, meanwhile, is part of the city’s landed gentry of craft beer. Milwaukee Brewing Co. started with the Milwaukee Ale House in 1997, and in September cut the ribbon on an enormous, sparkling new facility on Ninth Street, just three blocks from Fiserv Forum. Their conversation, with MKE Brewing’s new brewhouse and fermentation tanks just over their shoulders, began with a question: How many breweries is too many? – Moderated by Chris Drosner

On Small Business:

Bricks and Mortar

Kate Strzok, owner, Broadway Paper
Carolyn Weber, owner, Coast In Bikes

photo by Kenny Yoo

Kate Strzok dreamed of one day owning a stationery store. She landed a part-time shipping and receiving job at Broadway Paper in the Third Ward and purchased the business a short time later, in 2009. Since then, Strzok has seen the Third Ward transform into a hotbed of activity. Carolyn Weber operated Coast In Bikes in Walker’s Point for five years until recently moving the business to Riverwest, where she has plans, in a partnership with serial entrepreneur and developer Juli Kaufmann, to open a 53-bed travelers hostel in a former Milwaukee Public Schools building that would also house the bike shop. Strzok and Weber, who traveled by bicycle from the Northwest Side on a bitterly cold morning, sat down at Broadway Paper to discuss the challenges and strategies of operating a small business in Milwaukee. – Moderated by Rich Rovito

On Housing:

Desperation and Eviction

Kail Decker, assistant city attorney, city of Milwaukee
Raphael Ramos, director, Eviction Defense Project

Photo by Kenny Yoo

There’s something strange happening at the bottom of Milwaukee’s now notorious housing market: Properties in the city’s troubled central neighborhoods are being rented at exorbitant rates, relative to both their own values and to properties elsewhere in the metro area. The ripple effects of this – in evictions, quality of life, health, education and nearly every other measure of well-being – are profound.

Kail Decker has proposed a solution he believes hasn’t been tried before. He calls it rent correlation, a law tying the maximum monthly rent a landlord can charge for a property to its value – in Milwaukee’s case, 2.5 percent. On the eviction side of the issue, Raphael Ramos’ organization, part of Legal Action of Wisconsin, has provided legal aid to more than 1,000 people facing the loss of their home since 2017. But the need is enormous and continues to grow; Milwaukee County courts processed more than 14,000 evictions in 2017, eclipsing the record set the previous year. – Moderated by Chris Drosner

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the January issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 31.

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