Beginning this fall, I will have lived in Milwaukee for half my life. I moved here in 1996, an incoming UWM film student with a part-time job and a questionable haircut. I played in an equally questionable rock and roll band with my friends who had moved here the year before, and dated a girl who had done the same. I was 18 years old. Now, at 36, I’m a business owner and a publisher, a full-time writer, a husband and a father. My band played its final show in 2005. I still have my original hair. I still live in Milwaukee. I’ve lived here for 18 years and, barring the unforeseen, I will never leave.
There was a time when that last thought terrified me. Jesus, I’ve been here forever. Is this really where I’m going to end up? Surely I was destined for somewhere bigger and better. New York. San Francisco. Portland. Hell, maybe something was shaking in Des Moines. How sad would it be if I ended up like all those other poor bastards who were born here and would likely die here? What’s up with that old dude who still hangs out at Mad Planet every Friday night? He must be 30! No, not me. I had escaped my hometown after graduating high school, and I was sure to eventually escape Milwaukee, too. Maybe next month. Maybe next year. Maybe after this drink.
Like so many other college transplants, I spent my first few years here mostly confined to the area surrounding UWM. I didn’t own a car, and downtown was a long and arduous bus trip away. Riverwest was a baffling place that was better visited than lived in. Bay View might as well have been in another state. Not knowing any better, I bought into the image of Milwaukee that was sold night after night on the local news—that of a hellish Thunderdome where you were more likely to get mugged than find a decent place to eat, a place with a nice art museum and an even nicer freeway system to take you to a Brewers game and back out of town again. I stayed inside my dorm room (Sandburg Hall, North tower, 19th floor, single room), hung around the East Side, played some shows, got drunk, graduated, and waited for the next chapter to begin.
But then something unexpected happened: Milwaukee began to feel like home. The city became familiar to me. The people became familiar to me. A previously absent energy began humming, leading to new events, new initiatives, and new ideas. The city’s music scene improved drastically soon after my band called it quits. (Coincidence?) The Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall trifecta made Milwaukee a must-stop destination for national touring bands. The Milwaukee Film Festival hit its stride. Restaurants that were once Chicago-only started popping up around town. Bradford Beach came alive. New bars opened, and the ones I already loved remained open. What had initially felt like a temporary stopover began to feel permanent.
I explored my city. Shuddering at the thought of moving back in with my parents after a full-time film production job failed to materialize (though I did serve as 1st Assistant Director on a pair of disreputable Syfy-caliber flicks), I took any job I could find: cold caller for Milwaukee Public Television; copy machine lackey for the Central Library; courier for a series of downtown law firms; office manager for the International Clown Hall of Fame (long story). All the while I soaked in the sights, sounds, characters, and history of the city. I lived and breathed Milwaukee. I sometimes enjoyed Summerfest.
Other things began to happen. I met my future wife in Milwaukee, back in 2000. My band was playing a show at The Globe East (now The Hotel Foster), and she stopped by with a roommate who was dating my best friend. As was my band’s custom in those days, we ended our set with me putting a sleeping bag adorned with construction paper googly eyes over my head, after which I would dance around and leap off my guitar amp. (Don’t ask.) As my wife tells it, she took one look at the skinny dipshit jumping around on stage and said, “I’m going to date that dude.”
I began my career in Milwaukee, starting in 2005. I bluffed my way into a gig as a monthly arts columnist for the now-defunct Vital Source (now the Urban Milwaukee Third Coast Digest Daily Dial), a job that quickly devolved into me writing about going out, getting shitfaced, and feeling sorry for myself. Some people liked it; others (correctly) hated it. In late 2009, I began freelancing for A.V. Club Milwaukee, writing everything from concert reviews to ill-advised road trips to the mythic Haunchyville. In 2011, I was hired as City Editor. I began co-hosting The Disclaimer for WMSE. After AVCMKE was put out to pasture in late 2013, I began plotting—along with Tyler Maas—the site you see today.
I was married in Milwaukee, back in 2010. Looking for a wedding that was both quintessentially Milwaukee and quintessentially cheap, my wife and I decided to get married at the Milwaukee County Courthouse. I had become enamored with the hulking building during my years spent as a courier, its marble hallways and the slightly gone-to-seed Clas Park more in tune with our tastes than a hotel ballroom in the ’burbs. We invited our immediate families and a few friends. A judge married us in her quarters, in front of the American flag. Afterward, we headed south and ate at La Fuente.
I saw my daughter born in Milwaukee, just last month. She was born in a downtown hospital, in the wee hours of the morning. It’s a boring cliché to say that the birth of your child is the best day of your life, but I’ll say it anyway: The birth of my child was the best day of my life, and I’m glad it happened here.
But that’s all in the past. What interests me now is the future. (“For that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”) I’ve been occasionally critical of the path the city has been taking in the past, and have been accused of “hating” and—gasp!—“cynicism.” (“If you hate Milwaukee so much, why don’t you just leave?” goes the typical zinger.) I worry that for all the new and exciting changes the city has been going through, the simple things that make it unique—corner bars, funky restaurants, longtime dives, a no-bullshit attitude—are in danger of getting wiped away. I worry that empty marketing hype and tired national trends are being trumpeted over true homegrown movements and solutions. I worry about people who lose their shit every time Milwaukee makes a list. I worry about monumentally stupid ideas getting fawning coverage from the local press. Oh yes, I worry.
Still, as corny as it sounds, that criticism and worry come from a place of love. I love this city, and I want to see it succeed. And in many ways it has: You’d have to be completely insane or a complete curmudgeon to suggest that, culturally speaking at least, Milwaukee is worse off than it was five or 10 years ago—much less 18. The Milwaukee of today and the Milwaukee of the late ’90s couldn’t be more different, and that’s mostly a good thing. (R.I.P. Atomic Records.) There are huge, complicated, and systematic problems still to overcome, but by and large, the city is heading in a positive direction. There’s nothing “cynical” about calling out the occasional wrong move.
For many of you who have spent most (or all) of your lives in Milwaukee, all of this is self-evident. For those who are relatively new to the city, I can only say this: Milwaukee is a wonderful place. Challenging at times, sure, but wonderful nonetheless. Live here, work here, eat here, drink here, play here, fall in love here, and, if it’s your thing, raise a family here. Take it all in. The wonderful thing about Milwaukee is that its future is still up in the air, and the chance to make a positive difference in the city is very real, and very exciting.
But it also works the other way: The city has the power to change you. Before I came here in 1996, I was just another dope headed off to college, a gawky goof more interested in sleeping half the day than in getting to know my future home. 18 years later, the city has come to define me, and has given me experiences and perspectives I never thought I’d have. I’m proud to say I’ve lived in Milwaukee for my entire adult life. I’m equally proud to say I intend to keep it that way.