My Milwaukee

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All of this was very nice, the center of much better school trips than I had known. But I wondered … I wondered if it was possible that a waxy representation of Solomon Juneau, around whose trading post Milwaukee had slowly accreted, was still on display. I turned into a dimly lit corridor behind the ecology dioramas, and there he was, still frozen in time, as he had been when I was a boy, his wife doing chores in their little cabin, one side of which was open so we could study its pioneering primitivism, an Indian bearing some furs approaching Solomon, who eyed him in a manner neither suspicious nor particularly welcoming. Near this diorama were others showing pre-urban history: a British captain who had sailed through the Great Lakes to make a landfall here, French voyageurs , their canoes pulled up on a riverbank, treating with the Indians. It astonished me to see these childhood friends, if one may dare the word, on well-maintained display—beyond which, you will not be surprised to learn, was an “Old Milwaukee” street: fake cobblestones, slightly less than full-scale representations of nineteenth-century shops and houses. Peering in their windows, one glimpsed nineteenth-century artifacts: cookware and clothing, toys and dolls, bedsteads and sofas.

I don’t recall that street; it must be a later addition to the museum. But I wonder what a modern kid, used to the interactivity of contemporary museology, makes of that stasis? Does it stir his imagination, as once Solomon Juneau, in his enigmatic silence, did mine? Or is it one of those mysteries with which childhood is filled, something grownups think is good and to which one must assent, lest he be judged, as my father judged some friends of my childhood, “an odd duck” and not lovable in the way in which that much odder duck, Gertie, was?

Walking back to the Pfister along Wisconsin Avenue, past the faux skyscraper—just 21 floors—where once my father kept his office, I wonder how long Milwaukee, or any city like it, can sustain the kind of living relationship with the past that I’ve seen today. I’m not particularly talking about repurposed buildings now. That sort of reconstruction is fashionable everywhere (a friend of mine, an architect, recently told me of a deconsecrated cathedral in Europe that has been converted into an art gallery). I’m talking about the fact that modernism is, at the popular level, a homogenizing force. We all live today under the United Colors of Benetton. We may have, as Milwaukee annually has, a Circus Days parade, in which the old horse-drawn wagons rumble through the streets, calliope sounding. We may still happily tour the Harley-Davidson factory (imagine the historic home of the transgressive Hawg being in conservative Milwaukee). But these are rather idle exercises in nostalgia. I can’t believe they resonate deeply with the average local.

One night I was taken for dinner to the old Third Ward, which like nearly every former produce district in every American city, has been turned into a yuppie haven, all bistros and boutiques, but with the nineteenth-century buildings intact. I asked my hosts, old high school friends, how they would characterize the city, now that the breweries were mostly gone and the factories were mostly in decline, and they were somewhat at a loss. They guessed that noisy young people around us were employed in the service industries. Northwestern Mutual now occupies three vast buildings; the First Wisconsin National Bank has mutated into U.S. Bancorp, which is truly a national bank (with a skyscraper headquarters matching its aspirations); Midwest Airlines, a relatively new entity, has a spanking-new home office on Wisconsin Avenue. Information-age start-ups are everywhere. But their employees, at play, strike me as distressingly typical of their generation everywhere. They are of the higher clerkship, the modern equivalent of those glum and sweaty Polish factory workers of yore, though they are, of course, edgy and sweatless. They do not exude local character. You could plunk them down in a dozen other cities and I suspect they’d feel right at home.

Like my hometown, all the cities—Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis—are losing population and jobs, some of them at rates much steeper than those of Milwaukee, which lost about 6 percent of its population between the last two censuses and has an unemployment rate almost double the national average. Driving around the city, I saw huge neighborhoods that had once been tidily working class manifestly turning into slums. It’s true the suburb where I grew up, Wauwatosa, is preserved in amber. I checked, and the house I lived in and the houses of all my friends are still there, and as well kept as they were 50 to 60 years ago. Something like two-thirds of the metro area’s 1.7 million inhabitants no longer live within the city’s borders, though as I talked to my high school friends, it became clear to me that they are the contributors (and board members) who keep the downtown cultural center up and running. It is a new form of boosterism, and if they have to bring Doc Severinsen in to lead the Pops concerts series at the symphony, that’s all right with them. I am my mother’s son; it’s better—a lot better—than nothing.

Moreover, I think these institutions are sustainable. They have their deficits, I’m sure, but they also have their constituencies, and you can move a ball club more easily than you can a repertory theater or an orchestra.