Xanadu Revisited

A decade after settling in Milwaukee, it’s time to stretch the local horizons again.

Illustration by Leslie Herman.
Illustration by Leslie Herman.
Ten years ago this summer, I took my family on a trip they’ll never forget. Everyone agreed I’d found the perfect summer spot: a bright blue sky that felt like you might fall up into it if you stared too long; Goldilocks weather – not too hot, not too cold; broad, sandy beaches; great eats; live music on every breeze; and sports of every stripe available round-the-clock round every corner.

This wasn’t summer; this was Xanadu.

And this was our new home, Milwaukee.

Milwaukeeans know one thing about visitors: They’re going to leave. And “visitors” means anyone from anywhere else. From early on, we found that native Milwaukeeans were incredulous that anyone would visit here, let alone live here. Never mind that my family and I loved it; whenever we crowed about some new Milwaukee find, we got three words in reply: Just you wait.

That beautiful lake? Just you wait until the algae starts to smell. Baseball? The
Brewers will blow that winning streak. And, of course, whenever I touted Milwaukee’s summer: Just you wait until winter. Just wait until you try to start your snowblower some subzero February morning before work. Then tell me what you think, they’d say.

I think my snowblower is the most amazing piece of equipment I’ve ever owned. And that winter’s fun so long as you’re surrounded by people who think it’s fun – and I am, I’ve got three kids – and the temperature doesn’t fall so low it freezes the beer you set outside to chill.

But mostly, I think this. That Milwaukee – its summers, its people, its parks, its lake, its brewers with and without the capital b – is great.

Still, it’s been 10 years. My family and I aren’t what we were 10 years ago. That first summer, Milwaukee could do no wrong. We discovered custard and church fairs and State Fair and Cool Waters, a county-run waterpark in West Allis. Not just a pool, a waterpark! Run by the local government! That offered, among other amenities, beer!

Back where we’d lived in Virginia, if you wanted access to a pool – and in those buggy, miasmic summers, you most definitely did – you had to dig one yourself or hope an expensive private club had room on its waiting list. And not only could you not buy beer at any local pool or park, you’d be arrested if you got caught with one while there. That first summer here in Milwaukee, I sipped my suds, the kids slipped down the slides, and I thought it would go on forever.

It didn’t, of course. We learned Milwaukee summers are fleeting. Our innocence was, too, along with a lot we liked about Milwaukee. Midwest Airlines and its cookies are gone, and so, too, Prince Fielder, and whatever bragging status came with claiming to be the headquarters city of one of the world’s largest breweries.

And we’ve not been back to Cool Waters. We live on the East Side; we came to find, or feel, that West Allis was too far away. Which is my diagnosis for what ails Milwaukee, for why Milwaukeeans then and still now challenge me about my love of this town: It’s not the oft-cited inferiority complex, especially with respect to Chicago. These days, Chicagoans seem to be jealous of Milwaukee. It’s cheaper, easier, friendlier here. A Milwaukee night out Downtown – dinner, a show, parking – doesn’t cost as much as a condo. A condo doesn’t cost as much as a condo.

What ails Milwaukee – what I didn’t predict – is that its horizons close quickly, that a 20-minute drive – to a pool, a park, a neighborhood we’ve yet to visit – comes to feel too far, that neighborliness is automatically effaced when a city loses half of its neighbors – that is, its population – over a few decades.

And those neighbors, and many of those neighborhoods, are gone. But here’s the thing. People like me, my family, and a surprising number of young, creative, curious, enterprising folks are coming to look, to linger, to live. They’re not blind. They see our challenges. But they also see how amazing life here can be – which helps me, in turn, see that all over again. Cool Waters, a cool new restaurant or block – I’m not sure where we’ll head this summer, but I’m vowing to push wide those horizons once more.

To find a new park, maybe new friends, to rediscover the city that lies outside our 1-mile radius. To live here like it was all new again – because, the more we look around, the more we realize that’s true.

A friend from New York City recently visited, and she marveled, as everyone does, as we did 10 years ago, how beautiful the city is. But she also marveled at how empty it is. Even the Third Ward, which we took for thriving, she found deserted.

“There’s your problem,” she said. “There’s no one here.”

Just like a New Yorker to say that.

I’m proud to say I answered just like a Milwaukeean.

Just you wait.

Liam Callanan is an associate professor of English at UW-Milwaukee. His newest book is Listen & Other Stories.

Hear Liam Callanan share this essay on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” here.

‘Xanadu Revisited’ appears in the June 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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