From DNC to MVP to THC, the Milwaukee year that was in news, culture and food
The Evers Era
After Wisconsin’s eight years under Scott Walker, the beginning of Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’ ﬁrst term is marked by shifting priorities, a somewhat more Milwaukee-friendly state government and a diverse cabinet. Evers is hamstrung, though, by a GOP-controlled Legislature and limits on gubernatorial powers it passed just before Walker left office.
On the broad shoulders of NBA MVP Giannis Antetokuonmpo, the Bucks come up tantalizingly short of the Finals. Fiserv Forum shines in its ﬁrst season, offering a hugely upgraded fan experience inside and a great spot to celebrate with fellow fans outside. For the Brewers, it’s another year, another scorching September, another playoff berth and another MVP-caliber performance from Christian Yelich. Their postseason, though, lasts only a single day with a wild card loss to (World Series champion) Washington.
Joy Rides Downtown
Milwaukee ﬁnishes its ﬁrst year with the $128 million Hop streetcar averaging thousands of riders a day. (And for now, the rides are free.). While the tracks are laid, the fate of the new perpendicular Lakefront line planned to open in 2020 appears to hinge on the realization of the 44-story Couture apartment tower and attached transit center – a proposition looking increasingly iffy as the year closed. A less entrenched mode of transport is the talk of the town over the summer, as Bird, Lime and Spin dockless scooters begin zipping across town in their ﬁrst city-sanctioned run.
Up in Vape
The allegations detail a decidedly 2019 ﬂavor of drug trafficking: In Kenosha County, 20-year-old Tyler Huffhines built a million-plus-dollar empire by ﬁlling empty vape cartridges with potent THC oil from California and using Snapchat to market them to southeastern Wisconsin high school students. He even had branded “Wisco Bagboy” T-shirts, prosecutors say. The revelations come against the backdrop of a nationwide epidemic of a mysterious lung disease that Milwaukee doctors were among the ﬁrst to connect to such vapes.
The Big Party
There’s never been a better time to be an Airbnb owner in Cream City. After months of lobbying, Milwaukee is announced in March as the site of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, with the main action to take place at Fiserv Forum. Preparations, fundraising and hand-wringing continue all year – only to ramp up until the July 13-16 convention, which is looking pretty, pretty, pretty interesting politically.
The Races Are On
For the ﬁrst time in years, it looks like Milwaukee has two wide-open races for its top political posts. In September, state Sen. Lena Taylor joined Ald. Tony Zielinski and Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton in the mayoral ﬁeld. (Hamilton would later drop out.) At press time, Mayor Tom Barrett hadn’t announced a re-election bid but was widely believed to be running. But we hold our breath a bit more at a statement like that after County Executive Chris Abele’s October bombshell. His announcement that he will not seek a third full term creates an unexpected power void that will surely draw many contenders.
A Special Opening
The city’s only Syrian restaurant (operated by refugees uprooted from their homeland by civil war), Damascus Gate opens in early 2019 at 807 W. Historic Mitchell St. and fulﬁlls a critical mission: empowering Syrian refugees with the tools to succeed in a culture that’s completely new to them. And in a melting pot city like ours, the restaurant’s arrival – not to mention the terriﬁc grilled meats and vegetarian dishes – couldn’t be more welcome.
The Culture Space Race
Some of the city’s biggest cultural organizations break ground on or complete major construction projects this year. The Marcus Center chops down dozens of trees (amid many boos and hisses) for a renovation project. Milwaukee Film remodels the Oriental Theatre. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra creeps closer to opening its own concert hall. Milwaukee Ballet welcomes visitors to its new Third Ward dance center. Still looking for solutions in 2020 are the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Mitchell Park Domes. Some insiders have wondered whether the city can sustain so many cultural spaces. But for now, at least, the lights are still on.
RIP Joe Bartolotta
Joe Bartolotta’s passing, at age 60, in April is not simply a blow to the dining community, but a major loss to our community. The Wauwatosa native and MATC alum was the co-creator of 15 restaurants/catering facilities, beginning with Ristorante Bartolotta in 1993. His company has also served as a training ground for innumerable chefs, servers, bartenders and the like, some of whom own their own places now. Joe’s inﬂuence will never be forgotten.
The Foxconn Fizzle
Even as steel begins rising at the Foxconn construction site in Mount Pleasant, hopes have all but vanished that the Taiwanese tech company’s campus will have anything close to the $10 billion manufacturing facility and 13,000 jobs it touted in 2017 when the state approved a $3 billion incentives package. Throughout the year, the story pingpongs between reports of scaled-back plans and renewed promises by the secretive company. If anyone who works at Foxconn’s sparse office in Milwaukee wants to talk, give us a call.
A Lead Link?
Two of Milwaukee’s most insidious and intractable problems – lead poisoning and gun violence – appear to be far more closely related than we thought. A study by UW-Milwaukee researchers ﬁnds that more than half of both shooters and shooting victims tested for elevated levels of lead as children. Lead poisoning can cause developmental delays and neurological problems with sometimes signiﬁcant cognitive and behavioral effects. Milwaukee had 56 gun homicides in the ﬁrst nine months of 2019.
While Wisconsin’s arts programs are woefully underfunded, at least some of our state’s artists are making bank, and great work. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver releases his fourth album, weeks ahead of schedule, to rave reviews. The Madison-based cartoonist Lynda Barry wins a coveted $625,000 MacArthur “Genius” Grant. And two Milwaukee ﬁlmmakers, Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen, turn Give Me Liberty – a small-budget ﬁlm with a big heart – into a Sundance success story.
This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.
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