In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle important city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Sometimes.
Tyler Maas: Milwaukee Day came and went this week. The now-well-established holiday gave locals a chance to see some of the city’s favorite bands reunite for the occasion, and a specific reason to indulge in all the other distinct regional delicacies that coalesce to make our lovely mini-metro the best city in the world every day of the year.
But with the approaching summer season comes tourists. While I’m happy Milwaukee plays host to 81 Brewers home games a season, along with other events like Summerfest and the State Fair, I can’t help but feel as if certain factors are precluding people from seeing many of the city’s best attributes—the things, places, and people that truly make Milwaukee special. Knowing that there are various exceptions to this (admittedly broad) statement, the vast majority of popular Milwaukee sites are either set on the outskirts of the city—Miller Park, Mitchell Park domes, State Fair Park—or smack dab in the city’s downtown which, as we both know, grants a far from apt representation of our city as a whole.
Combine that with an oft-panned transit system and a downright atrocious cab “service” (and assuming not every visitor is aware of new services in town like Uber and Lyft), and I’m left fearing tourists will see Milwaukee as a one-and-done destination, having seen the Bronze Fonz, the MAM, Safe House, Milwaukee Public Market, and [insert downtown or Third Ward business name]’s elaborate Bloody Mary. As a transplant, I was lured here five years ago by the promise of Brewers games and touring entertainment at the ready, but I fell in love with Milwaukee by way of harder-to-find attributes that aren’t found on “100 Milwaukee Things…” lists. Having tons of great stuff spread throughout town is a great problem to have, but is having the most outwardly accessible tourist attractions confined to the outskirts or, arguably worse, a downtown that’s not emblematic of the rest of the city ultimately hurt Milwaukee’s tourism stock?
Matt Wild: Wait. You’re saying downtown is “arguably worse” than the outskirts of town? Like, Milwaukee Street is less “emblematic” of the city than some no-name neighborhood in the ’burbs? Yup, you’ll definitely get an argument out of me there. But more on that in a minute.
First of all, I don’t know that having tourist hot spots located in out-of-the-way places is something unique to Milwaukee. Any time I’ve visited cities like Cleveland, Indianapolis, or, god help me, Des Moines, I’ve always noted how the out-of-towner draws seem to be surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. And you always hear the same thing from locals: “Dude, there’s so much more to this city than the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame!” The same goes for Milwaukee: “There’s so more to this town than just Summerfest and the Bronze Fonz!” But, barring an act of God (cough cough new downtown arena complex), it’s just the way it is.
As for Milwaukee’s downtown, I think you have a far dimmer view of it than I do. (There’s a Rocky Rococo and a Culver’s in the Grand Ave. food court!) But I do see your point: One of the only reasons for visitors to head downtown is to watch a game or see a show at the BMO “Dead Man Walking” Bradley Center; and aside from Turner Hall and, I dunno, Major Goolsby’s, the surrounding area looks like something out of Fallout: New Vegas. Would a proper downtown convention center help? Would a proper downtown arena help? Hell, would a downtown strip club help? Of course they would. But again, that act of god thing…
I think there’s a bigger issue here, though: Why is Milwaukee so good at selling itself to itself, and seemingly so bad at selling itself to others? Things like Milwaukee Day and the “Dear MKE” video series are more or less designed to be insular love letters—Milwaukee celebrating Milwaukee. That kind of self-affirmation is great, but where are the shouts of Milwaukee pride aimed at the rest of the state and beyond? Two years ago, VISIT Milwaukee was selling Milwaukee as “Chicago’s Upper, Upper North Side,” for Christ’s sake. Do you think Milwaukee needs to reassess how it presents itself to others, regardless of where its tourist traps are located?
Tyler: Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you how Milwaukee presents itself at this point, which can’t be a good sign. The only outward promotion of the city I’ve seen of late was a Travel Wisconsin spoof on Airplane! that featured a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar cameo. Essentially, Wisconsin—and Milwaukee by extension—was being sold using a 34-year-old movie that only people already living here knew had any local ties whatsoever, and using a celebrity ambassador who, if you’ll recall, requested to be traded from the Bucks to a larger market, citing the city’s lack of diversity.
If promoted at all, I feel Milwaukee is leaning too much on its beer and brats and “remember this bygone pop-culture thing with tacit regional ties?” reputation. Don’t get me wrong: I love that Milwaukee is proud of its rich brewing and encased meat tradition (sometimes to a fault), but the city needs to do a better job touting its tremendous craft and micro breweries, its woefully overlooked culinary landscape, as well as the innumerable great festivals and block parties without the “Summer” prefix or “Fair” suffix in them. And most of those aforementioned points of pride are nowhere near downtown which, I’ll agree—save for a select few venues, restaurants, and… well, Swingin’ Door Exchange—is pretty brutal.
Essentially, I fear that Milwaukee’s lackadaisical reliance on bygone Hollywood half-connections, well-worn industrial clichés about our collective “blue collar,” and other broad strokes doesn’t paint a fair picture of what a fun, artistic and—I’m gonna say it—VIBRANT place this is to both live and visit. Unless tourists sift these abundant gems from the murky depths of Yelp reviews and “OMG Bloody Mary with food on it!” Pinterest posts, we’re the lovesick locals defending our fair-yet-misunderstood maiden Milwaukee, saying “We swear, she’s amazing once you get to know her!” However, a second impression (and the revenue that comes with it) isn’t guaranteed.
Matt: You’re right about the “She’s amazing once you get to know her!” problem. In a recent WUWM report, a talent acquisition manager for Johnson Controls had this to say about the phenomenon: “I would say that if I could get somebody on a plane, I can sell them on Milwaukee. But getting them on a plane is the most difficult thing.” He was talking about attracting and retaining fabled “young professionals,” but the same could easily be said for tourists.
So how do we get tourists on that hypothetical plane, and how do we show them there’s more to Milwaukee than whoever is playing on the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage at 2 p.m.? Strangely, I wish tourism groups like VISIT Milwaukee would take a cue from—and I can’t believe I’m about to say this—local TV news. More specifically, the fluffy, feel-good local news that’s oh-so easy to mock. An example: There’s a new-ish promo for FOX6 called “This Is The Place,” where Brad Hicks is doing yoga and Ted Perry is kayaking down the Milwaukee River or whatever. The first time I saw it, I rolled my eyes and laughed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was exactly the kind of thing more out-of-towners needed to see: Milwaukee as a living, breathing place. Yeah, the spot includes requisite shots of far-flung tourist traps like the zoo, but it also makes Milwaukee proper seem like a city where people live, work, and play—a place with character and, yes, VIBRANCY. It’s simple stuff, but it goes a long way in repairing the damage non-fluffy local TV news does to Milwaukee on a nightly basis. (A subject for another A-side/B-side!)
Still, at the end of the day, there’s only so much tourism groups can do. You mentioned earlier that you were initially lured here by the promise of Brewers games and live entertainment, and that you decided to stay after falling in the love with the harder-to-find stuff. And that’s just it: discovering that stuff takes time. We can’t expect out-of-towners to roll in and instantly discover the good stuff for themselves. You know who has to help them? Us. Call us “lovesick locals defending our fair-yet-misunderstood maiden Milwaukee” if you want, but the burden still falls on us. The ones who live here, the ones who work here, and the ones who play here. In short, the ones who stayed here.