Sneak Peek: “Milwaukee: A City Built on Water”

The latest work from John Gurda tackles Milwaukee’s most precious resource.

As we roll further into the 21st century, conversations surrounding water and its scarcity are going to become louder and louder, eventually (if not already) impossible to ignore. With each report from California more eye-opening than the last, it becomes readily apparent how lucky us Milwaukeeans are to be buttressed by Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. Despite talk of Asian Carp and ever-increasing difficulty keeping that water clean, it’s an abundant and valuable natural resource that brought our city to life and will continue to do so in the years to come.

Such was the backdrop for our special sneak preview of Jon Gurda’s upcoming documentary, Milwaukee: A City Built on Water – upbeat and optimistic yet never anodyne, fully aware of the fraught history that binds our city and the water it was built upon. In the selections we saw of the doc (portions that totaled up to about half of the running time), we saw Gurda operating within his wheelhouse: remarkable photographs and video of yesteryear blending adroitly with modern-day footage for a wonderful before-and-after effect. Particularly exciting was a selection about water-set recreation of the past, with remarkable still photographs of shore-set swimming schools (children inside inner tubes dangle from fishing poles getting acclimated to the water, looking like life-sized bait) and long-lost amusement parks (massive water slides and ski jumps amongst the highlights). There’s one particular reveal during a segment on ice skating too fascinating to spoil here.

Celebration tempered by concern is an appropriate descriptor of Gurda’s aim with this documentary. As the post-screening Q&A laid bare, Gurda isn’t shy about discussing the problems that lie ahead in making sure our rivers and lakes remain a renewable resource. And, as this documentary shows, there’s been a natural ebb and flow to our relationship with the water, beginning as an entryway that early settlers used as a means of transport and becoming nothing less than an open sewer in the early twentieth century. We’ve managed to turn back the tide in recent decades thanks to initiatives like The Milwaukee Riverwalk, but there’s always a fear of relapse looming over any developments (Waukesha’s contaminated drinking water being one such battleground). Gurda’s documentary makes certain that we’re proud and delighted of the amazing developments that water has allowed for our city, but it also aims to make sure we rethink this aspect of our lives that is far too often taken for granted.

Milwaukee: A City Built on Water airs on Earth Day, April 22 @ 8 p.m. on Channel 10, and April 23rd @ 9 p.m. on Channel 36.



Tom Fuchs is a Milwaukee-based film writer whose early love for cinema has grown into a happy obsession. He graduated with honors in Film Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has since focused on film criticism. He works closely with the Milwaukee Film Festival and has written reviews and ongoing columns for Milwaukee Magazine since 2012. In his free time, Tom enjoys spending time with his wife and dogs at home (watching movies), taking day trips to Chicago (to see movies), and reading books (about movies). You can follow him on Twitter @tjfuchs or email him at