What Is a Suburb? We Wanted to Know

Our Best of the Burbs April cover story invited this question – one that was surprisingly difficult to answer.


This story is part of our Best of the Burbs feature from the April Issue of Milwaukee Magazine. To read our full guide to the finest that Milwaukee’s suburbs have to offer, order your copy today


When my family and I relocated from Minneapolis, we wanted to settle in a suburb that felt like a city. Whitefish Bay fit the bill. In 15 minutes, we can walk to almost everything we need – even a beer garden – and on a good day, we can venture Downtown in that much time. Yet our tiny Cape Cod sits on a lot just big enough to accommodate a kids’ playset. And the property taxes? Painful, but not unbearable (largely thanks to said beer garden).  

To me, the Bay is just city enough to keep life fun, and just suburban enough to keep it quiet. For an Ozaukee County resident, though, the constant whoosh of traffic from the highway a half a mile from my house may not feel “suburban” at all – and for someone from Lake Country, my street probably feels downright urban.  

The dictionary definition is fairly obvious: While an urban area has a denser population, a suburb is a “district lying immediately outside a city or town, especially a smaller residential community.” So, theoretically, anything in Milwaukee’s orbit could count as suburban.  

But in the real world, it’s a much trickier concept, says Ivy Hu, a professor at UW-Milwaukee’s school of architecture and urban planning. For example, a few blocks away from my house is Milwaukee. Turn one corner and you’re in Glendale, and another, and you’re back in Whitefish Bay. These areas have different addresses, but they feel the same – high-traffic streets lined with mature trees and small, World War II-era homes. And nearby Shorewood, technically outside city limits, doesn’t feel suburban at all; it’s just as densely developed as much of Milwaukee. 

More than the arbitrary lines separating them from Milwaukee proper, Hu says, suburbs are about shared values. “A lot of people don’t have a choice, but many of us choose a community that meets our different preferences and financial abilities.” 

Mike Hallquist, a Brookfield alderman, says he sees suburban life as slower and more connected. “The way that the community collates and engages is a little different than the city,” he says. “You have your big four-day church festivals, Packer parties, people socializing at the local town bar and fish fry.” Suburban communities often have distinct identities more akin to city neighborhoods: As you have a Walker’s Point festival, you have a Grafton parade. 

Of course, all these perks come with a cost: You’re farther from the city, and maybe your job, and you’re probably going to depend on a car. 

But even what counts as a “cost” is elusive. For Hallquist, who grew up in Hartland, a good 40 minutes from the center of Milwaukee, Brookfield feels city-adjacent. “Cutting that 15 minutes down to be Downtown is a huge difference,” he says. “It’s relative to what you’re used to or expecting.” 

Just like people and their values or expectations, communities ebb and flow, too. At the turn of the 20th century, Whitefish Bay was a tourist destination outside the city, while Mequon was basically rural. These communities evolved along with society, and the suburbs expanded farther away from Milwaukee – and now places like Shorewood and West Allis feel so urban that we questioned whether to include such closer-in communities in this feature. (We opted for inclusion.)

All that is to say: City limits aside, it seems “suburb” is in the eye of the beholder. I pressed Hu at the end of our conversation, hoping for a more satisfying answer, but she didn’t fold. “I seriously can’t give an answer,” she said. “Readers should define ‘suburb’ for themselves.”


Illustration by Alamy

The Minority View

The experience of people of color in Milwaukee’s suburbs. 

THE SUBURBS MAY HAVE a reputation as a haven for white flight, but as people from all backgrounds prioritize suburban amenities, Milwaukee’s have only grown more diverse. Census data show Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington’s diverse populations grew significantly between 2010 and 2020, adding more than 33,000 people of color collectively and pushing their nonwhite population to between 9% and 11% of those counties’ totals. (The nonwhite population was about half for Milwaukee County.) Still, those minority residents say they don’t always feel welcome, and many face outright discrimination in their mostly white environments. We asked five people of color to share their experiences living in the Milwaukee suburbs. 

Carl Brown, Menomonee Falls 

FOUNDER, FRESH COAST JAZZ FESTIVAL 

I never expected I’d live in the Falls, but we moved here for the Sussex schools. I’m concerned about my daughter being the recipient of discrimination, and sometimes, when we’re out, people look at us like, “Are you lost?” Our friends jokingly ask why we’d subject ourselves to this, but I’ve gotten so used to it that I shake my head and keep moving. It’s not all bad. We have great friends here who happen to be white, and it doesn’t matter at all.  

Josseline Castillo, Waukesha 

ARTIST 

I wish I lived in a more diverse area. I grew up in Honduras, and now most of my neighbors are white. There’s an area of town with some Mexican restaurants and stores, and I go there when I feel overwhelmed to find some comfort and speak Spanish with the employees. Once, at a local grocery store, a woman in line was struggling to speak English, and the cashier wasn’t being nice. After I helped her, I sat in the car and cried, realizing that could happen to my own mom.  

Maysee Herr, Germantown  

CEO, HMONG WISCONSIN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE 

We assumed our subdivision wouldn’t be diverse when we moved here last year, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised. We have a couple of Asian families living around us, and white folks have been nice. At my son’s school, people who work in the building sometimes seem hesitant to approach me, but I haven’t experienced outright discrimination living here. I’ve been very careful in public, especially at the start of the pandemic with all the racial tension. I hope in the future we can all be ourselves and claim our identities without feeling ashamed.  

Chauna Perry Finch, Greendale 

RESTORATIVE PRACTICES SUPERVISOR, MILWAUKEE PUBLIC SCHOOLS  

When we lived in the city, my family and I sometimes saw things that weighed on our spirits. Here, we don’t see people stumbling on the street, but we also don’t have a sense of community. People don’t really talk to each other where I live. Before, neighbors having a barbecue would bring a plate for us. Discrimination sometimes comes up when I go out. My family went to a restaurant, and the man greeting everyone else didn’t greet us. Those microaggressions make us feel unwanted. I’m hoping to move back to Milwaukee, where there’s more of a natural feel of acceptance.  

Mushir Hassan, Brookfield 

INTERNAL MEDICINE PHYSICIAN 

Brookfield has become a lot more diverse since I moved here in the late ’90s. Coming from an Asian background, strong schools are a priority, so the Asian-American population here has grown. It’s also become more progressive, but I’d like it to continue moving that way. I joined the school board in 2020 and began working toward a diversity and equity inclusion plan. It wasn’t approved, and we faced accusations we were pushing critical race theory. When I was pushing for masking at school, one lady said I was pushing my religious beliefs and shouldn’t be in charge because I’m Muslim. But these people don’t represent the whole city. There are also people who want to do the right thing.


 

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

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.

Comments

comments