Twenty-eighteen was kind of a big year for Milwaukee, wasn’t it? Like, an honest-to-goodness, no-kidding, no-hyperbole “transformative” year? Seriously! There was the long-awaited opening of the Fiserv Forum, a world-class home for an increasingly world-class team. There was the long-awaited opening of The Hop, a modern streetcar system that, while currently limited, is bursting with potential. There was the long-awaited opening of the Sherman Phoenix, a small business hub built from the ashes of the Sherman Park “unrest” of 2016. There was the metric ton of other new shit—new apartments, new hotels, new restaurants, new everything—that continued to transform a once dumpy Midwestern burg into a gleaming modern city. And hey, how about those Brewers!
Now, your opinions on the above items may vary (ask my Disclaimer co-host Ryan Schleicher about the Fiserv Forum if you’re in the mood for an impassioned lecture on the raw deal of taxpayer-backed arenas), and there were plenty of awful things about 2018 (lead crisis, continued segregation and inequality), but it’s hard to deny that Milwaukee had a big, or at the very least, an incredibly busy year. It’s practically a full-time job just keeping up.
And yet if you talk to someone who lives outside of Milwaukee, you might not get such a glowing report. Here’s a recent exchange I had with an out-of-town friend:
Friend: “How long have you lived in Milwaukee?”
Me: “Twenty-two years.”
Friend: “Wow. I don’t know how you do it.”
Family friend: “How’d you get that dent in your car?”
Me: “I don’t know. I think it happened while I was parked.”
Family friend: “Good thing it wasn’t stolen and trashed. I don’t know how you can live in Milwaukee.”
And here’s another, which occurred during deer hunting in a shithole dive bar Up North:
Bartender: “Where are you from?”
Bartender: “I’m sorry.”
How could they not be excited about the streetcar? The Fiserv? The food hall coming to the Shops of Grand Avenue? Didn’t they see that Vogue article? Mind you, all three of these exchanges happened in Wisconsin. If you’re anything like me (a transplant from a small Wisconsin town), you’ve probably had similar exchanges. And if you’re planning on spending time in your hometown this holiday season, you’re probably bracing for more.
And it’s not just worried moms and ignorant family friends. Elected officials have long taken a dim view of the state’s most populous city. In the 2012 recall election, Gov. Scott Walker took a shot at Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett with this doozy: “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee.” And just last week, Wisconsin State Representative Robin Vos farted out this tweet: “As we said. [Governor-elect Tony] Evers win was due to Dane County and the City of Milwaukee.”
Walker’s intent was clear: “Milwaukee is scary and awful and different.” Vos’ statement was equally unsubtle and, at the same time, dumb as dirt. (“If all the people who voted against my guy weren’t allowed to vote and/or didn’t exist, then my guy would have won.”) How to respond to such anti-Milwaukee dog whistles? This has been my go-to response:
Like I said. Go fuck yourself. https://t.co/kC1WIpgnQR
— Matt Wild (@ByMattWild) December 11, 2018
Okay, so maybe that’s a little extreme (and juvenile). Sue me. But the last few years have found the city snapping back, too. In January 2017, Barrett and Ald. Ashanti Hamilton penned a piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that painted the city as the proud “backbone of Wisconsin’s economy.” But the piece had another message: Despite what your crank uncle or state representative might say, Milwaukee is giving more than it’s receiving:
Milwaukee is proud to lead the state of Wisconsin forward. In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue calculated that the amount of state revenue generated in Milwaukee far exceeded the amount of state aid provided to Milwaukee governments—more than $460 million from the city of Milwaukee alone, and an additional $605 million from the rest of Milwaukee County. These contributions promote Wisconsin’s sustainability and provide a range of economic opportunities well beyond our borders.
Wisconsin’s taxpayers residing outside of our county are benefiting by more than a billion dollars in tax revenue from Milwaukee. With only 66% of what the city generates and 57% of what the county generates returning to our communities, we are providing a robust and growing “Milwaukee dividend” to our state’s coffers.
“If anyone tells you Milwaukee is a drain on the state, please correct them immediately,” Barrett reiterated in his 2017 State of the City speech.
The “Hey! Wisconsin! How about a little something, you know, for the effort?” movement has continued into 2018. In October, the Milwaukee County Board and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele announced the creation of “Fair Deal for Milwaukee County,” a workgroup asked to “identify and propose options for enhancing the long-term fiscal stability of Milwaukee County, enhanced public services and increased state funding of mandated services.” Not into parking meters in Milwaukee County Parks? The city wouldn’t even have to consider such awful ideas if the rest of the state ponied up:
“Each year, we strive to pass a responsible budget that balances the needs of our constituents with the limited resources available to Milwaukee County, but each year that balance is harder to strike. Milwaukee County is overdue for a ‘Fair Deal’ with the State of Wisconsin that properly funds mandated services, provides us the tools to meet our long term obligations and invests in essential quality of life services of health and safety, transportation, and parks,” said Lipscomb.
“The existence of this imbalance and its impact aren’t new—this has been a drag on our budget and services for years. What is new is a unified Milwaukee County position, embraced by all leadership at the County, on the urgent need to find a solution and our shared resolve to work with the State to do it,” said Abele.
While “forming a workgroup” doesn’t exactly inspire excitement, I like the “unified Milwaukee County” part. And I like that Milwaukee is finally—finally!—sticking up for itself after years spent as the state’s punching bag. It’s an attitude I plan to carry with me throughout 2019. At a time when the city seems so obsessed with letting Chicago/Portland/Seattle/Vogue know how peachy keen it is, it’s important to remember that plenty of in-state minds need changing, too.
Oh yeah: I had a simple and effective rejoinder to that Up North bartender asshole. The full exchange went like this:
Bartender: “Where are you from?”
Bartender: “I’m sorry.”
Me: “I’m not.”