Milwaukee’s 2020 Year in Review

The crises, discord and pain of 2020 are well documented. But before we begin a new year, let’s look back at some of the good stories of the year that was.

We Lit the Hoan!

Photo by MKE Drones, courtesy of Light the Hoan

In an otherwise dark year, at least the Daniel Hoan Memorial Bridge along Milwaukee’s lakefront became a source of vibrant light.

After a few years of planning and the raising of about $3.5 million to install 2,600 colorful LED lights along the iconic structure’s city-facing west side, it came time for the bridge to shine in October.

“We know that lighting a bridge doesn’t solve our public health problems or our social challenges, but it does provide a moment of hope and some momentum for the future,” says Michael Hostad, who co-founded, along with Ian Abston, Light the Hoan, a local collective of businesses and civic leaders who view the illumination of the bridge as a source of unity for the community.

Hostad can’t help but speak … glowingly … of the lights.



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“What has exceeded our expectations is how cool these lights turned out to be,” he says. “They can move, change colors and dance to the beat of a song. We can even connect them to the scoreboard at Fiserv Forum to automatically respond to a big play. The lights can act as the pulse of the city.”

In January, the group will launch the Shine a Light program and begin illuminating the Hoan in honor of a nonprofit partner one day each month, while also donating 50% of that month’s bulb donation proceeds back to the charitable organization.

The organization is also working to raise another $1.1 million to eventually light the east side of the bridge.

And Hostad is confident that the project will continue to brighten spirits throughout Brew City. “Milwaukee needed this,” he says. 


A Star Was Reborn

A nearly two-year effort to preserve the historic Yerkes Observatory has finally came to fruition.

In 2018, the University of Chicago mothballed the 123-year-old Williams Bay landmark and its 40-inch refracting telescope, once used by some of astrophysics’ most brilliant minds but now obsolete. On May 1, the university bequeathed Yerkes and 48 acres of its wooded and beautifully landscaped surroundings to the local Yerkes Future Foundation and said it would donate part of the proceeds from an additional sale of nearby land to the foundation. In the short term, Yerkes’ future involves restoration, cleaning, fundraising and hiring staff. Foundation chair Dianna Colman says the observatory likely will reopen early next spring. “We really need time to make sure that we do it right,” says Colman. “We want people, when they walk in there, to feel good, to feel welcome, to feel comfortable and when they walk out, to say, ‘I loved it.’”

Although plans for the observatory were still uncertain, Colman says the goal is to reopen not just for tours but for researchers and students as well. “We are trying to build a new Yerkes Observatory, in the sense that it has to return to its vibrancy and the vitality that it had when so many amazing people were through there doing research, astronomy, science, education and tours,” says Colman. “The history in this place is just incredible.”


We Became Home Rec-ers

In Mid-March, while the rest of us panicked and binged trash TV, the Milwaukee Recreation Department put its collective head down and worked to shift its sweeping slate of classes to an online format for the first time.

It took eight days, with social media managers transforming into tech support experts, along with some ingenuity from instructors, to build the “Rec. at Home” YouTube playlist ( Recreation), which now sports 322 videos (and counting) featuring world-class instructors teaching tae kwon do, emotional intelligence, ballet and many other subjects. There’s also a “Therapeutic Rec. at Home” playlist for individuals with disabilities.

And yet most Milwaukeeans still do not know about the wonders of these playlists; many videos have just a few dozen views. That means not enough people are seeing Annie LeFort teach yoga by candlelight, Fred Bell paint a stunning landscape or Cherry Stark keep the whole family fit.

Those fortunate enough to have taken prior in-person classes from these and other instructors maintained their skills and relationships with their teachers through Rec at Home, according to marketing manager Brian Hoffer.

For the rest of us, it’s not too late; Rec at Home will remain on YouTube forever, a rich backlog ready to augment self-improvement. 


We (Finally) Honored a Community Leader 

Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson helped many young Black Milwaukeeans on the road of life. Now an actual road is named after her – but, like life, it came with some challenges.

Simpson-Robinson and her mother, Claretta “Mother Freedom” Simpson, founded Career Youth Development as a home-based after-school program in 1970. Over its 44-year life, CYD became a major social service agency helping young people in numerous ways, from giving out Christmas toys to running a school to providing job training. After the murder of her daughter and granddaughter, Simpson-Robinson founded the Victory Over Violence Initiative to support families of homicide victims.

Following her death in 2008, then state Sen. Spencer Coggs sponsored legislation approved in 2010 to name I-43, from North Avenue to Keefe and Atkinson avenues, the Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson Memorial Highway. Coggs, now city treasurer, says he picked that stretch to recognize the Black neighborhood razed to build the freeway. It’s the first Wisconsin highway named after a woman of color.

But state law requires private funding for memorial signs. Coggs says he was incorrectly told two signs would cost $15,000 to $17,000. A fundraising drive languished for a decade, until the question came up on a radio talk show hosted by Michele Bryant, Sen. Lena Taylor’s chief of staff. Taylor says further checking revealed the signs actually cost only $1,000 total – an amount that was quickly raised. The signs were installed in September.

“A lot of people were touched by Jeannetta, just as a lot of people are on the highway,” Taylor says.


We Won a Title! 

Milwaukee sports fans had high expectations that a local team would take home a championship in 2020. Although it didn’t turn out to be the major title they’d envisioned, it’s easy to feel good about the scrappy Milwaukee Milkmen squad, which captured the city’s first professional baseball crown at any level since 1957 while navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

The Milkmen became champions of the independent American Association in September with a win over the Sioux Falls Canaries in the title series, one year after a last place division finish in the franchise’s inaugural season.

Anthony Barone managed a roster dotted with players hanging onto slim major-league hopes, some who have already seen their big-league careers fizzle, and others simply playing for the love of the game. Among them: slugger Adam Brett Walker II, a former Minnesota Twins top prospect who grew up on Milwaukee’s North Side and earned regular-season league MVP honors; beloved goofball and former Brewers pitcher Tim Dillard; and Henderson Alvarez, who hurled a no-hitter for the Miami Marlins in 2013.

The entire season appeared to be in jeopardy on opening weekend, when two Milkmen players tested positive for COVID-19, but they were the only such blips of a most unusual season. “To accomplish all we did and for the local kid to be MVP, it’s a season that, as time passes, we’ll be like: ‘Remember that year?’ Not just the craziness but all the great things that happened, too,” owner Mike Zimmerman said. “I don’t want to say that it was lightning in a bottle, but it will be really tough to do that year after year.” 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.

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