When Adam Carr was young, he spent a lot of time looking out the windows of a white Toyota Previa minivan. There was a sort of unwritten rule in the family: Whether picking up eyeglasses or grabbing something at the hardware store, everyday errands were an opportunity for togetherness.
“We would just all go,” says Carr.
On those family driveabouts, he didn’t know where he was. He had no mental map of Milwaukee. Storefronts, highways, church steeples and whole neighborhoods were a mysterious blur, a video game-like landscape in which he was transported to more known destinations, like soccer practice. As the youngest of five, young Adam was along for the ride and never in charge. “All of the kids sort of self-organized,” he says.
Today, Carr, 36, is sometimes called a “Milwaukeeist,” and he is known for his mental map of our city. His particular way of synthesizing the past with the present, of connecting Milwaukee’s stories directly to the urban landscape via his public art collaborations or bus tours, has made him a go-to resource for organizations, civic leaders and everyday Milwaukeeans who want to better understand the place they call home. In recent years Carr’s expertise and community connections have also put him into rooms with power – closed-door conversations with civic leaders about what’s next for the city.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to suggest that Carr run for mayor someday. Others describe him as a next-generation John Gurda, the city’s beloved and de facto historian. As an occasional collaborator with Carr over the years, I’ve expressed these notions myself, even if they miss something pretty essential about him: his belief about authority.
In his view, Milwaukee is a city that loves singular voices of leadership, its city fathers, so to speak. He’d prefer a less paternal view, to “help grow an ecosystem where more people have authority over their own story.” Thinking back to that self-organized cabal of siblings, he says, “I think that maybe I like being subject to the will of a community.”
What Carr does is actually hard to characterize, even for him. He is a project-based freelancer whose work takes many forms – community organizing, in-depth tours, journalism, public art, history projects, mentoring, filmmaking, photography and dialogue. The people interviewed for this story have variously described him as a “social justice storyteller,” a “connector,” a “public artist,” a “story activator.”
During one Zoom interview, I asked Carr to share his screen and show me a typical day on his calendar. Up popped a week’s schedule jammed with little boxes, each one an appointment. He picked a random Wednesday, which, because of COVID-19, meant jumping from one Zoom to another – a bit more jammed than usual, he says, but not by much.
On the docket in the morning was a presentation with Marquette University professor Robert Smith on the history of Milwaukee’s housing marches for a group of high school students participating in a Black Lives Matter week of action. After that, he would interview a chef, Dominique Alvarado, about the “science of tortillas” for a project with SHARP Literacy, before serving as a tech for a MARNsalon, a discussion among artists.
After that, he’d go to an Arts @ Large meeting about the history of youth resistance; drop in on a virtual event Smith was hosting for a group of elders; attend a weekly meeting for Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where Carr is the deputy editor for community engagement; and, finally, participate in a brainstorming session for another SHARP Literacy project – a book about Wisconsin and how to bridge division, written by Black, Latinx and Hmong writers, for which Carr will serve as editor.
Carr got his start doing community-based work as a producer for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. He had done some radio at Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota where he studied math and philosophy, so he applied for an opening at 88Nine. Carr didn’t get the job but impressed Sam Van Hallgren, in charge of the station’s programming back then, enough to snag an internship that quickly turned into a paying gig as a producer in 2008.
Carr and Van Hallgren only worked together for six months, but it was a formative time of deep creativity. Van Hallgren, who had worked on “This American Life,” edited side by side with Carr, often late into the night or in the early morning hours, refining the bite-sized but potent storytelling segments the station became known for.
“He just had a really great storytelling mind,” Carr says of Van Hallgren, whom he describes as figuratively setting up the kitchen in which he was the first chef. The radio they produced was ambitious, non-linear, crafted. Then, suddenly, Carr was expected to be equally inventive on his own when Van Hallgren left the station. Carr was both exhilarated and brimming with anxiety, a dynamic that triggered some addictive tendencies, including 100-hour work weeks and excessive drinking.
During that time Carr developed his own house style, what artists sometimes call “platforming.” He invited members of the community to serve as on-air guides, to determine what was covered and how. It was an act of giving away the bit of authority he had, and it made his job more meaningful but more complicated, too, he says.
The stakes were not inconsequential, either. One of the station’s first missions was to center people of color in its storytelling, to tell the kinds of nuanced stories that other media outlets too often neglected. Carr was brought into some of the fundraising conversations and watched as people and organizations attached their names to his work as sponsors. As time went on, he wondered whether 88Nine, which had the tagline “diverse music for a diverse city,” was serving a truly diverse audience.
“The deadline was there looking me in the face every day, and I had to hit it,” says Carr, adding he put pressure on himself to make every story the best it could be.
In a little less than three years, Carr created more than 800 stories. His sense of Milwaukee was altered by the experience, having crossed so many of the city’s self-imposed boundaries. Still, at some point, the idea of walking away began to feel like a relief, so he resigned.
To decompress, Carr went to California to visit his brother, who gently asked him one day, while they were doing some house painting, how long he was going to rehash his worries over his professional life. His brother had some advice: Just go home, find people you admire and work with them. The rest will fall into place.
Within a few months Carr started working as a freelancer and got a job at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, initially as a web coordinator. He also spent a month exploring Minnesota in 2012 and created a self-styled photography-and-blog project called “January in Duluth.”
One of Carr’s earliest collaborators was Sonja Thomsen, whom he describes as perhaps his most intense and rigorous working partner. She had for years been working on a project called “Lacuna,” a word that means unfilled space or gap. That project included intimate moments isolated in photographs – berries gathered in a cake pan or a boy with a tub of worms – and was a deeply personal exploration of memory.
Thomsen wondered whether some of her ideas could be translated beyond the personal, to the scale of architecture and a community. This was the impetus for what would become “here, mothers are,” a public art installation that demystified the stories of motherhood in the Amani neighborhood, and “Listening to Mitchell,” Thomsen and Carr’s most ambitious project, focused on the South Side’s Historic Mitchell Street.
For the latter, Thomsen and Carr spent nearly 20 months on the bustling commercial corridor, a place that, a generation earlier, had competed with Downtown shopping thanks to department stores like Goldmann’s and Schuster’s. They recorded in-depth interviews and photographed meaningful artifacts, curious about the convergence of cultures there, the rich immigrant communities that had been drawn to the neighborhood for generations.
“On the bookshelf of our city’s story, many of our books are missing. So many important stories aren’t told or haven’t been written down.”
– Adam Carr
During the warmer months of 2014, their project was embedded into a seven-block stretch between the Modjeska Theatre and St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, an area that included bus stops, an appliance warehouse, shops displaying quinceañera dresses in their windows, and Pakistani and Indian grocery stores. Images of keepsakes – a communion dress and an eight-track tape of West Side Story, for instance – were displayed on buildings, in windows and near check-out counters like the transitory ads typical of the street. From 20 feet across to a few inches wide, these art-ads implored people to “call now,” with a phone number that led to interview snippets, stories about first bras, first kisses, tagging, marbles, wool suits and baseball cards.
One woman talked about cutting class to buy a bikini, and a man told of coming to Milwaukee from Colombia with two pairs of pants, $25 and three philosophy books. “I had everything I needed in these three books,” Germán Díaz, a third-grade teacher, told Thomsen and Carr.
It is hard to imagine the projects Carr has been part of in recent years – making films about neighborhoods with Wes Tank, networking with farmers in Sauk County for Rural Urban Flow, or guiding challenging conversations about race with poet Dasha Kelly Hamilton – without those years of developing his instincts alongside mentors like Van Hallgren and Thomsen.
He was “spinning” a bit in the early days, trying to figure out who he was, how to be self-employed, how to make meaning, Thomsen says. It was a time when he thought a lot about his own identity, his family, his public school education, growing up as a biracial kid in Milwaukee, she says. (Carr’s mother, Janet, is Chinese-American.)
Because of Milwaukee’s patriarchal tendencies, there were times when Carr was listened to and Thomsen was not, even if they were saying the same things, Thomsen adds. From the start, Carr has benefited from some of the city’s power dynamics while also remaining committed to pushing back at them, she says.
As a kid, Carr was sometimes uneasy about his dad’s outgoing ways. His father, Richard Peter Carr Jr., was a lawyer at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, and he’d often introduce Adam to his coworkers and the people at Eagan’s on Water, a restaurant on the first floor of the building where he worked.
“My dad would be like, ‘Adam, I want you to meet all of the guys in the kitchen,’” Carr says, adding that his dad knew everyone’s name. “I’d be mortified, but the guy genuinely knew everyone and had relationships with them.”
It wasn’t until Carr got part-time jobs canvassing as a young adult that he experienced the unique pleasure of chatting up strangers himself. “I spent a summer annoying people in the street for Greenpeace,” Carr says. “I’d be like, ‘Hi there, do you have a minute for the environment?’ It was so passive-aggressive. It’s so effective, though.”
Carr’s mother, meanwhile, studied to be an art therapist when her son was young and tried out her exercises with him. “My dad taught me to be fascinated by the world outside of myself, and my mom taught me to be fascinated by the world inside myself,” he says.
It’s no coincidence that Adam and his wife, Glenna Holstein, who is the membership manager for the Urban Ecology Center, ended up buying a house in the South Side’s Silver City. “The lines between you and your neighbor are a little bit fuzzier here,” says Holstein, “and those are lines that I want to be blurry. There is something fundamentally human about the way life happens in this neighborhood.”
Carr grew up on the East Side and went to various public schools, including Rufus King High School. That upbringing has afforded Carr certain connections, he and others say.
“I was just thinking today about how privileged I was growing up,” says Carr, acknowledging that his family didn’t have financial concerns, but that the notion of privilege means more than that for him.
“I think that I always felt like Milwaukee was a place that was big and where my voice could matter and where I was encouraged to speak up.”
Thomsen described his strong connections with powerful East Side progressives and to “all of the people who write the checks and are trying to make change,” she says. Carr has ties to important organizations like the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Zeidler Group.
Indeed, if Carr has a critique of Milwaukee, it is the way too many Milwaukeeans view it – and its history – as bounded, known, small, fixed. There are countless unacknowledged stories, he says.
Carr, who carried an old-fashioned flip phone until recently, hoping to avoid the temptations of high-octane digital environments, celebrates both the obvious and inexplicable in Milwaukee via a Facebook page called “Milwaukier Than Thou.” That personal photographic project is a way for Milwaukeeans to “dig for texture and depth … to celebrate paragons and secrets,” he told Molly Snyder in a 2013 interview for OnMilwaukee.com.
“I do think that on the aggregate … on the bookshelf of our city’s story, many of our books are missing,” Carr says. “So many important stories aren’t told or haven’t been written down.”
Gurda agrees. “Every generation sets its own frame,” he says of Carr. “When it comes down to it, history is the study of change. Things don’t stay put, so I don’t feel any sense of being challenged or kind of rewritten, because that’s what we do.”
Since 2014, Carr has organized and led more than 100 tours of Milwaukee, typically by bus, for a wide range of community groups and organizations, though his touring has been on hold during the pandemic. The sojourns are informed by history and demystify the city’s contemporary issues – its reputation for being among the most racially and economically segregated urban areas in the U.S., for instance.
Being on a bus with Carr is a little like being in that Previa minivan.
You are along for a ride and not at all in charge. While there’s comedy and treats to eat, like pasties from Reynold’s Pasty Shop or samosas from Asian International Market, there is nothing nostalgic or romantic about the framing of history.
It is often white Milwaukeeans who get on yellow school buses to explore Milwaukee’s rich and problematic past with Carr. He and Joaquin Altoro, today the CEO of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, co-created a tour about redlining in Milwaukee, the blatantly racist practice of preventing home ownership among people of color. Carr and Altoro explain how color-coded maps were used in cities throughout the U.S. to “grade” neighborhoods as “desirable” or “declining,” based on the number of Black and foreign-born people living in them.
Carr and Altoro ask people to consider those maps as they get off the bus and into the here and now. The aftereffects of past discrimination can persist for generations, and experiencing what’s transpiring at those sites today is a critical aspect of the tours, Carr says. Stops on the redlining tours have included Columbia Savings and Loan, Milwaukee’s first Black-owned bank, and a vacant building being turned into a start-up incubator in Washington Park.
They also stopped at Altoro’s grandfather’s house. His grandfather, who had 17 children, was one of the first Mexicans to come to Milwaukee in the early 20th century. He took a job as a scab at a leather tannery during a labor dispute he knew nothing about. The house is on the edge of a 1930s redlining map with a notation that is very personal for Altoro: “Mexicans are encroaching in the northeast.”
Carr also continues his platforming from the bus, delivering tour attendees to people as much as to places. Some of his favored co-hosts include Camille Mays, who grew up in Sherman Park and believes in block-by-block community care; muralist Reynaldo Hernandez, who shares firsthand knowledge of lesser-known narratives; and Venice Williams, the executive director of Alice’s Garden, who speaks to the regenerative power of growing food at a long-ago Underground Railroad site.
“When I started giving tours, I loved overwhelming people,” Carr says. “These are streets that people have driven on before or even on a daily basis … in places that they feel they really know.”
In the last few years, Carr has started talking about a need to “reauthor” Milwaukee’s story. It’s an idea that can be traced to the day he read an article by Erica Metcalfe in the winter 2014-15 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History. The piece was about the young, working-class Black activists in Milwaukee who became leaders of the civil rights struggles in Milwaukee in the 1960s. More specifically, the NAACP Youth Council and its security subunit, the Commandos, joined forces with Ald. Vel Phillips to advocate for fair housing practices, among other things.
While Father James Groppi, the beloved, white Catholic priest, is often remembered as the hero of those civil rights actions, Metcalfe’s article, “Commanding a Movement: The Youth Council Commandos’ Quest for Quality Housing,” makes clear how central young, Black voices were and the national impact they had.
The piece provided incredible detail about the housing marches, which began in August of 1967 when about 250 activists marched from the north end of the Sixteenth Street Viaduct to Kosciuszko Park on the South Side, where discriminatory housing covenants and federal policies restricted Black home ownership. The marchers were confronted by thousands of angry white citizens, some of whom threw bottles, eggs and bricks and carried signs that read “White Power” and “Back to Africa.” When a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the youth council’s headquarters, the Commandos formed to protect the activists during what would become months of protests.
“I remember where I was sitting when I was reading that,” Carr says of Metcalfe’s piece. “Something in me knew, this was the most important article I had read in my life.”
That night Carr started sending Metcalfe’s article to friends and colleagues. It felt like a history that was known in bits and pieces but rarely discussed in its essential and full context, Carr says.
“It was like, now I understand Prentice [McKinny], now I understand Fred [Reed], or at least I understand that these are people who should be legendary, who shouldn’t have to be advocating for their own story to be told,” says Carr, naming some of the Commandos. “We should be tired of hearing about them, and we haven’t even started cracking the first layer of that.”
What happened next: More than 100 people, organizations and institutions worked together to commemorate the semicentennial of the housing marches. Fifty years to the day after that first march across the bridge, Carr stood up and briefly recounted the story at City Hall before turning over the mic to poets, present-day activists and the people who had been there for the original marches. That event kicked off “200 Nights of Freedom,” a series of events that honored the 200 consecutive days of activism in 1967 and 1968.
When Carr talks about the housing marches these days, he often pauses to reflect on the massive white crowds that spewed hate, many of whom came from miles around to participate. Some of those people are certainly still living, and those racist signs are likely lingering in basements across the city, he says.
The day before Carr’s father died – or maybe it was the day before that – his dad said, in no uncertain terms, that he didn’t want to die.
“It was very, very, very sad to hear that,” says Carr, who has his father’s hazel eyes and was in his final months of high school when Richard died of brain cancer.
“That was something that imprinted on me. … Mortality and the freedom of life was present in my mind all of the time.”
Carr was always a worrier – he sometimes ripped his hair out as a kid – but the loss of his dad created a certain pressure to “be magical in the world,” he says. He experienced life’s fragility in other ways when he was young, too. A lot of his friends were suicidal, he says; one died by suicide in eighth grade, another attempted it in high school. Other friends cut themselves.
Carr developed anxiety and an eating disorder after his dad died, a time when he was starting college and beginning to look for his life. He lost about 75 pounds then. For years, he was terrified of simply not living up to his potential.
“As much as I have had this charmed, magical space of whimsy in my life, I am also grounded in suffering, too,” says Carr, adding that he still has compulsive tendencies and a certain lack of limits. “This is a weird way to state this, but I think that’s sort of who I have become. I am not a person who just looks on the bright side, and I am also not a person who says ‘life is pain.’ I can inhabit both of those consciousnesses.”
In his work, that duality means he’s neither a cheerleader nor a critic when it comes to Milwaukee, but a hybrid of both. He’s a “salesman for the complexity” of things, he says.
“I don’t know that I have anyone in my circle who loves the city more than he loves the city,” says Dasha Kelly Hamilton, who’s now Wisconsin’s poet laureate. “He told me that he loves the city, not with a cartoon heart … but with a real, anatomical heart.”
Carr takes inspiration from the example of Grace Lee Boggs, the late working-class intellectual, organizer, philosopher and feminist who was part of civil rights movements in Detroit. Boggs, who like Carr was of Chinese American descent, said people need to change themselves in order to change society.
That’s the spirit Carr tries to carry with him into those rooms of power, where civic leaders are too often centering themselves in the decision making, he says. He doesn’t criticize so much as try to set an example for self-reflection, he says.
Sara Daleiden, director of MKE-LAX and a cultural facilitator, believes Carr is at an inflection point in his career where he will need to decide what kind of a leader he wants to be – to what degree will he participate in existing power dynamics or challenge them, for instance. He has a talent for decentralizing power, she says, for promoting more collaborative and inclusive decision-making.
“He will naturally say, ‘As soon as I tell a story, there’s 10 other storytellers who could be telling this,’” Daleiden says. Thomsen describes a similar intention, that Carr inserts himself and then pivots the dynamic to acknowledge unacknowledged voices.
At this stage of his career, Carr is gentler with himself, and he’s been sober for several years now, too. Part of that comes from being rooted in a marriage, he and Holstein agree. Her interest in the natural world grounds him even more deeply in a sense of place, Carr says.
During the course of our interviews, I was curious about the engine that drives Carr. I returned to a question several times: “Why do you do what you do?” One day, during a conversation with his wife, an answer surfaced. He wrote it down and called me.
“Growing up here in Milwaukee, I had a family, a set of friends where I felt something that I’m going to describe as freedom … a kind of freedom that is unfortunately rare in Milwaukee. It’s the ability to pursue your curiosity and interest and your quirks wholeheartedly. That’s what I had in a city that can feel so bounded, that can feel so limited, that can feel like everyone’s in a cage.”
For that reason, he says, “I am interested in the stories of people being free here, whether those be in history or the present. … I’ve always been very attracted to stories of people insisting on their own freedom.”