Summer in the City: 21 Meditations on Milwaukee’s Best Season

Milwaukee has its own magic in the summer. When we asked local writers to reflect on the season here, they shared memories of experiences both universal and intensely personal.

This story is part of our Summer Guide from the June Issue of Milwaukee Magazine. To read our full guide to summer fun, order your copy today!

Photo courtesy of Julia Williams

The Wrong Turn 


In a general sense, I can’t be lost. The night skyline glitters the obvious route home. It is just that this particular road, surrounded by only the lake and a tangle of rusted train tracks, happens to end in rubble and a drop into the bay. Not ideal. There is nothing to do but turn my bike around. Wheels drag in a clumsy circle. I am suddenly too aware of everything. The dim orange light, the rails criss-crossing the street. I look around for threats. A face in the dark. Instead, there’s only trains.  My bike rushes along, a melody of softly turning gears. I find myself singing to the silent, empty trainyard a favorite song from childhood. To keep me safe, perhaps. Or just to mark myself as there, in a way beyond my two little flashing lights and my reflectors. I smile suddenly. The route home will find me soon enough.

Photo courtesy of Jim Stingl

Channeling Dick Bacon  


What if I say my new favorite thing about summer is that I’ve turned into Dick Bacon? You might think I stayed out in the sun too long, and that’s exactly correct. 

Bacon, dead now for 22 years, was a colorful Milwaukee character known for tanning year-round here in the land of short summers. This king of Bradford Beach harnessed the weak winter sun by sitting in an enclosure of aluminum foil to reflect the rays deep into his ripped physique.  

Let’s be clear. Bacon chased the sun to become a golden god. I do it because of an embarrassing skin condition with a ten-dollar name: polymorphous light eruption. 



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Somewhere in my 50s I began reacting to sun exposure with widespread bumpy rashes that persisted and itched for weeks. It was especially bad in the early days of summer after my arms and legs had been covered all winter. My doctor suggested skin hardening – exposing my flesh to the sun as deep into autumn as I could, starting again with the first 40-degree cloudless day of March. 

My neighbors are startled to see me sunning in my driveway even as Christmas nears, and again before St. Patrick’s Day. No Reynolds Wrap or Speedo for me, but I sit where the sun bounces off my white garage door. I wear shorts, a T-shirt and, on chillier days, a down vest.  

This on-purpose furnace for my epidermis has worked well, and I’m careful to limit time in the sun to maybe 30 minutes so I’m not trading an irritating disorder for a lethal one. The best part, as buff brother Bacon knew well, is that Wisconsin summer now stretches on and on.

The White Raincoat 


In the summer of 1963, cars would line up along Lincoln Memorial Drive with couples “watching the submarine races,” but other parks worked well for necking, too. About 10 p.m. on a 55-degree evening that September, I drove my girlfriend Joanne, a beauty with long, dark hair, to the middle of Kletzsch Park and parked my father’s Oldsmobile in an empty parking lot. We talked in the car for a while and then decided to walk the paths, ending up standing next to a storage building visible from the parking lot below. Joanne wore a knee-length white raincoat, cinched closed. Alone, or so we thought, we began a close embrace under the full moon. 

Out of nowhere, another car drove up. A police officer, brandishing a flashlight, walked quickly up the hill. “The park is closed,” he said in a forceful voice. Then,
he faced Joanne and told her to open her coat. “Good, she’s not naked,” he said. He wasn’t smiling. Without protesting, I took Joanne’s hand, and we walked down the hill. She simmered. I felt chastened and
had a new disrespect for cops.  

Today, Joanne lives south of Cleveland, married with three children. 

I doubt she has ever told them the story of the white raincoat.

Ashes to Ashes 


We’ve lived in Milwaukee for 16 years – or, only 16; we’ve struggled sometimes to fit in. But we’ve learned that Milwaukee’s is the best summer anywhere, and the South Shore Farmers Market is the best way to spend a summer Saturday: music, food, even beer. No wonder it’s a popular picnic spot. 

I raised my plastic cup to one such gathering as I passed – balloons, posterboard full of pictures. Then, a puff of smoke. Brat grill? Fireworks? Anyway: cinder in my cup. To show I had a local’s fortitude, I ignored the gray flecks and drank. A few steps later, I realized the partygoers were scattering ashes; I’d consumed some portion of the departed, who must have loved South Shore summer Saturdays as much as I. I’d wondered when I would truly feel part of Milwaukee and now I knew: It’s when part of Milwaukee became part of me.

Photo courtesy of Dan Murphy

The Summer Before the Real World


“Five lemon drop shots, please,” I shouted while barreling into Hegarty’s Pub on Wells Street with Teddy, James, Manny and Grace. It was midnight. We’d just finished pouring countless beers at the crowded Miller Lite Oasis at Summerfest and had nearly $100 in tips (mostly quarters; beers were $2.25) we urgently needed to spend. By bar time, we’d trade mounds of coins for average beer, mediocre booze and questionable decisions. 

It was 1993, a year removed from Marquette graduation. An unfriendly job market and an English degree meant I survived by stringing gigs together. A career would’ve interfered with hungover days sprawled on Bradford Beach, quality afternoons on The Harp’s deck and countless innings in the County Stadium bleachers. My four friends and I were busy fending off the real world. Eventually, we grew up, but it was fun taking our time getting there, and that blissfully irresponsible summer convinced me that Milwaukee was where I needed to stay.

Photo courtesy of Howie Magner

Young Giannis at the State Fair   


Nobody knew what was coming back in the summer of 2013. Many on the Wisconsin State Fair midway didn’t even know the
polite 18-year-old’s name, despite his layered
Bucks T-shirts and baggy workout pants, head periscoped above the masses. 

Even those who approached to shake his hand couldn’t know how he’d forever alter the Milwaukee landscape even beyond his sports realm. Because without his presence, Fiserv Forum surely wouldn’t exist, nor would the Deer District ever boom. And the Milwaukee Bucks would never become NBA champions, at least not in Milwaukee, because they almost certainly would’ve moved away. So no, nobody had an inkling what it meant that Giannis was upon us. 

He didn’t either, of course, and that innocence holds a warm nostalgia when I recall it today. I was there with him for a Milwaukee Magazine interview, and we eventually spoke in a cluttered service hallway in one of the fair’s pavilions. Drafted by the Bucks less than two months prior, he was preoccupied with getting his family into the United States from Greece and already foreshadowing his now-famous work ethic. “As hard as you work every day, then you’re going to go to the next level, because every day you’re going to learn something,” Giannis told me.  The phrasing was a hint that his English remained a work in progress – though better than one might expect. He credited that to watching subtitled movies. Giannis’ favorite? Coming to America.

Photo courtesy of Dan Simmons

The Stupid Water Slide   


Every day, three guarantees: The sun will rise, the sun will set, and sometime in between my daughter will beg me to erect the inflatable water slide. God, I hate that thing. Pure waste of electricity and water. Time, too – it takes me forever to put it up and longer to break it down. Every time it goes up, I swear loudly and gesture at clouds.  

One night a few years ago, I texted our neighbor Jackie. “Dinner over here tonight?” Minutes later, she was over with her kids. She texted our other neighbor Clare. Minutes later, she was over, too, with husband and daughters in tow. The other spouses joined us later, and our table, like magic, filled with grilled brats and chicken breasts, asparagus, crispy taters, some kind of quinoa salad. Like a potluck we all didn’t know we were planning. We sat at our picnic table guzzling wine, drinking beer and eating someone’s leftover cake.  

The kids went straight from dinner to the slide. Broke all the rules. Did flips down it. Went down three at a time. Tackled it from the side, flipping it sideways. Rolled around in an auxiliary mud puddle next to the landing spot. Dusk arrived. Then full darkness. The kids got only wilder. Their shrieks of glee got louder. The adults got more relaxed. When the kids begged for more time, we went way against type and said what the heck. On this night, we’d suspend our usual uptight ways about bed times and following rules and just agree that, summer, tonight you win. Who are we to fight against all the joy you bring?

Photo by Getty Images

Life Lessons


It was Summerfest 1994. My friend and I – 13 and 14, respectively – ventured to the ’Fest unchaperoned, two girls ready to run the world, starting with Henry Maier Festival Park. Under the Skittle-colored Skyglider cars, I’d meet the boy of my dreams, only to lose his number, and later be awestruck witnessing my first dance battle – Black boys in white T-shirts, freestyling in a circle to the Chicago hit “It’s Time for the Percolator.” 

Through my formative years, Summerfest would become a capsule of collected lessons, thrilling experiences and secret shame that shaped the type of person I wanted to be. I’d learn the importance of adapting to change while maintaining my beliefs and values through life’s stages during the Summer Chance college readiness program in 1997, a huge help in navigating life as a college freshman in Georgia. I’d cower in silence witnessing violence against an innocent woman at a crowded show – a guilt that haunts me still. Then, there was the summer after college, when I learned from a Children’s Area co-worker, 20 years my senior, that it didn’t matter how badly I wanted to succeed; the question was what I was willing to do to make it happen. 

At 42, that’s a lesson I’m still learning to master.   

Photo by Tyler Odeneal

The Resurrection of Butterfly Park    


One of the first things I saw, and knew, through hazy summer suns from my porch on North 38th Street was the park across the way. Butterfly Park radiated warmth, beckoning to my sister and me as kids and granting respite, joy, the fleeting sight of its namesake. On Sundays, we’d marvel at their fluttering wings, singing
“amen, amen, amen.” We would catch the colorful butterflies
in our brown hands. Set them free. We desired to fly like them. 

In 2019, the park was burned down, the playground structures left charred, distorted. That it might never be rebuilt weighed on me. Last summer, I drove by the park. The slides, play equipment, butterflies – this sacred place that I knew – were resurrected. There were children playing, running, sliding, jumping into infinity.
I exhaled. The park would become a summer haven for them, too. 

My Stripper Summer 


Jobs were easy to find in the summer of 1968. When classes ended for the year, some of my college friends delivered pizzas, others became office interns, and still others spent their days on assembly lines. And me? I worked as a stripper. 

The late 1960s were the peak of the freeway-building era in Milwaukee. Shortly after finishing my junior year at Boston College, I went to the top of the High Rise Bridge over the Menomonee Valley and had a job within five minutes. 

The bridge, which carries I-43/94, was nearly finished at that point. My crew’s task was to remove, or strip, the plywood forms on which the concrete had been poured and clean up any dings or spills. We worked second shift, from 4 p.m. to midnight, on a movable wooden platform clamped to the I-beams that supported the deck – under the bridge, in other words.  

The princely $4.50 an hour we were paid was well-deserved; the work was physically demanding and frequently hazardous. I can recall holding a ladder on the very end of the pier cap that supported the bridge and looking straight down to the valley floor 120 feet below – no belt, no net, no brains. “Someday,” I remember thinking, “I’m going to look back and realize that this was really scary.” I did, and it was. 

Hazards aside, the job was ideal for a kid brimming with testosterone, and not just for its physical rigors. When our shift ended at midnight, a group of us strippers would usually descend on the bars in nearby Walker’s Point and stay until last call. Some of the places we frequented were on the rougher side, but no one ever bothered a bunch of smelly, sweat-stained, hardhat-wearing roughnecks with hammers hanging from their belts. 

More than 50 years later, the bars are long gone and my fellow strippers are all retired or dead, but the High Rise Bridge still feels uniquely my own every time I cross it.

Photo courtesy of Laura Bengs

The Table Stakeout   


There are two treasured summer traditions among Phil Vassar groupies: catching his annual Summerfest concerts and staking out a table in front of the stage. Cold beer from cups damp with condensation and sizzling Saz’s cheese curds fill our stomachs and hearts as we pass time before the show with boisterous chatter and people-watching. As the sky fades from pink to orange to deep purple, anticipation gives way to what we’ve been waiting for. Shameless table-top dancing is a carefree surrender. 

The Jonas Among Us   


I was so close to pouring coffee for a Jonas brother. When I came in for my shift at the Third Ward Colectivo one afternoon during Summerfest 2017, several excited co-workers told me Joe had breakfast in our cafe. We had no way to verify it was actually him, but the sighting made sense: Our workplace was known to be a mini-Hollywood during the ’Fest, and Jonas’ band, DNCE, was scheduled to perform that night. One sighting I can verify: A customer with a long beard mentioned he was performing later with the band Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. Less star power than a Jonas, but I went to the grounds that evening, partly out of disbelief. He wasn’t fibbing.

Photo courtesy of Denny Lanez

Hometown Love Fest


Having been born and raised in Milwaukee, going to Summerfest year after year holds a special place in my memories, but that’s nothing like performing there. At 8:30 p.m. on July 5, 2018, I took the stage at the Uline Warehouse, opening for Aminé. I wanted to ensure everyone in the audience left with a memory, and I dominated that stage. I even dove into the crowd. I’ve performed to some great audiences, but there was nothing like the love of a sea of people in my hometown.

Foraging for Lunch 


Summertime meant a lot to us poor kids in the Midtown neighborhood. Some of us were facing the fact that we would no longer be able to count on our school lunch until at least September. Many of my friends were shipped to their families in the South all summer, and I’d imagine them at family breakfasts and barbecues and large dinners full of tasty dishes my family couldn’t afford to have. 

I was out of school, but my mother wasn’t out of work, and many of my friends – at least those still in Milwaukee – faced the same lack of a scheduled meal. It felt as if we were left to fend for ourselves, and we took that to heart. Fortunately, our Midtown neighbors were avid gardeners who grew a large variety of fruits and vegetables, from peas to plums. Not every house had a garden, but there were enough for my friends and I to forage just enough to fight our summer hunger pangs but not be noticed. We never got caught, but I always wondered if those gardeners knew about our secret harvest of the hood and just turned the other cheek, knowing we were hungry and letting us have our fill all summer long. 

Photo by Visit Milwaukee

The Back Home Night Out


“It’s the trifecta,” my friend Nicole explained: “Hammerschlagen, shot-ski and dancing on the tables.” “Not to be confused with the Nomad’s prix fixe” her friend added, referring to the shot-PBR-
cigarette combo deal. “Ooh, we should go to the Nomad.”  

It was summer 2008, and we were in the bowels of the Old German Beer Hall, kicking off One of Those Nights. I grew up in Brookfield, went to college out of state, and moved to New York upon graduation, so it wasn’t until that first visit home that I experienced Milwaukee as an adult and, like all proper Wisconsinites, spent the night drinking like only a 22-year-old can.  

I remember the evening in impressions, snatches made special by my newfound outsiderness: The first sip of a foamy IPA, as brisk and refreshing as stepping into the surf. Lights twinkling on the river as we sipped vodka-sodas at The Harp. The frenetic blare of Trinity, where we bumped into high school classmates and shot back into the night when a brawl erupted a few tables away. The long-voweled shouts of revelers (and all the “ope!”s that are, I’d learned, meaningless outside the Midwest). Drinks and darts at Wolski’s, where I demanded a free bumper sticker with the confidence only a 22-year-old can muster. The bartender ceded four stickers and a free hat. 

Fourteen years later, I still live in New York, where I’ve had plenty of hard-partying weekends and wild nights. But nothing beats the cheery camaraderie of being swept up in Milwaukee’s favorite pastime.  

Photo by Getty Images

The Duck that Sunk   


Summer of 2000. Lake Michigan, 50 yards from shore. Milwaukee’s brief flirtation with “duck” boat-cars. 

I stood in the back of the duck, next to the exhaust pipe, yammering on about Milwaukee while we headed back from our last tour of that day. 

Over the intercom: “First Mate Leah, please report to the front of the boat.” 

“Aye, Captain Dave?” 

He quietly replied, “We are taking on water.” 

At which point I noticed I was standing in water a foot deep. Eyes wide, I looked to the passengers and saw the boat pitching. 

The Coast Guard arrived and directed us to move passengers onto the pontoon to take them back to safety. Remember the episode of “Seinfeld” where George is at a child’s birthday party and the apartment starts on fire? Well, that was me – women and children first. 

From shore, we watched the Milwaukee Duck pitch and then sink straight down. It sank with my disposable camera – the only photographic evidence of my ever being the first mate of the Milwaukee Duck.

Photo courtesy of Jen Kent

The Hot, Fussy Baby


Four years ago this June, on an unbearably hot Saturday afternoon, my husband and I found ourselves faced with an entirely new-to-us challenge: A fussy baby whose woes were only exacerbated by the heat. In an act of parenting desperation, we drove toward the lake in search of cooler air. On the East Side, a neighborhood we previously called home, we found Good City Brewing and ignored onlookers’ stares, determined to enjoy a proper meal of burgers and IPAs.

His whines persisted, though, so we reluctantly closed our tab, scooped him into my husband’s arms, and set out on a walking tour, eventually crossing Lincoln Memorial Drive to Lake Park. Finally, after what seemed like hours of really, really hard parenting, our son fell asleep on my husband’s shoulder. I still remember the exact spot, too, and how a big, beautiful maple tree towered overhead as we took in sweeping views of the marina. I was reminded of how lucky I am to call this city home, and that, even in the difficult moments, motherhood is arguably best defined by great privilege and humbling responsibility.

The Trunk Filled with Teenagers 


The summer my suburbanite friends and I graduated from high school, with our first taste of freedom and no idea what to do with it, we usually ended up at the old 41 Twin Outdoor Theater. We’d load into the cars of the parents foolish enough to hand us their keys and pack them with blankets, snacks and lawn chairs my mom would never see again. The trunks were always filled, too, with giggling teenagers, enjoying the thrill of sneaking into the gravel parking lot far more than the few dollars saved on the price of admission. It was the last summer we were all together. Since then, some of us have died, others moved to far-flung places known or unknown. The 41 Twin is long gone. But we’ll always have the memory of those mosquito-filled nights when we still had one foot in our childhood and nothing but promise ahead of us.

Photo courtesy of Eddee Daniel

The Unexpected Adventure


We expected a pleasant, three-hour adventure, not an all-day ordeal! The Menomonee River, so familiar from the car and on foot, turned wild, almost savage, as soon as we shoved off in our kayaks near Hampton Avenue. Log jam after log jam sent us scrambling up the densely vegetated banks to portage. When finally we reached the serenity of Currie Park golf course, shoals rose up and we had to drag the boats, scraping the rocky river bottom. It took six grueling hours for our hardy, experienced band of kayakers to arrive, humbled and exhausted, at our destination in Jacobus Park.

The Not-Rained-Out Cookout   


Rule No. 1 for hosting a Milwaukee cookout: pick a date during the midsummer sweet spot, when rain’s less likely and the mosquitoes aren’t yet biting. For our first hosted event at our Bay View home, we settled on July 15, popping up a 10-by-10-foot canopy to protect from sun – or, as it turned out, rain. By 8 p.m., a violent storm pounded the backyard. Were it not my party,
I might have bolted to the car. But our 25 friends stayed, huddled under the tent, sharing a bowl of my black-bean-and-corn salad. Many met for the first time that night, bonded by splashes and rolling thunder. 

Love Rock on the Horizon   


I was sitting on my father’s shoulders at Bradford Beach, looking out across Lake Michigan. “See that?” he
said, pointing towards a flat-topped boulder in the distance. The word LOVE was crudely painted across the front.
“What does that say?”  


“What is it?” I asked, and
he tried to explain what a pumping station was to my 4-year-old mind. 

I thought about love and how my parents sounded when they said they loved me. That hot and hopeful day, I was happy in the clear, high altitude of my father’s shoulders. I always remembered that. For years after, Love Rock was my touchpoint – a reminder of a golden day when everything was perfect.  

The Love Rock was demolished in 1986, its shattered pieces left to sink to the bottom of Lake Michigan. My parents had been divorced for three years then, my father had moved, and I was just starting high school. My father and I struggled for several years as we navigated the unfamiliar landscape of our lives, until we began a new relationship, built on the memory of a perfect day when love was always on the horizon.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June Summer Guide issue.

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