A few weeks ago, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal interviewed me about the ongoing drama surrounding the Milwaukee city flag. What, the reporter wanted to know, was the deal with the “People’s Flag of Milwaukee”? From whence did the gold and blue, App Store-aping visage come? What did its existence mean for the 64-year-old and awful—just awful!—official flag? What was to become of that old flag’s obscene mix of outdated landmarks and baffling symbols, all an affront to both good flag design and the unquestioned taste of some knob with a TED Talk? Why was the city now rallying around this new “People’s Flag”?
And why, the reporter finally wanted to know, did I hate the thing?
The ensuing article, “Surprise! Your City Has a Flag and It’s Terrible,” was published earlier this month. I was cut out of it. (Quotes from my Disclaimer co-host Evan Rytlewski were included, as was the tattoo of my Milwaukee Record cohort Tyler Maas.) It’s just as well. After nearly five years of getting worked up about the dubious effort/contest to design a new Milwaukee city flag, and after nearly two years of living with the winning design—”Sunrise Over the Lake,” by Robert Lenz—I’m officially giving up. I don’t care anymore. The old flag is dead. The “People’s Flag” has won. May its Corona beer label colors fly atop Milwaukee businesses and luxury apartment balconies for years to come. Also, be sure to pick up your very own pair of “People’s Flag” leggings, available now for $39.99.
I haven’t come to this place of vexillological surrender lightly. Don’t get me wrong: I still kind of hate the thing. Not the “People’s Flag” per se, but the original impetus behind it. Hey! A guy with a podcast said our flag is terrible! Let’s design a new one, only let’s do it as a publicity-garnering contest that adheres to needlessly restrictive rules! And when we arbitrarily pick the winning design—after amassing a mountain of press that will look great on our CVs, of course—let’s slap it on every piece of merchandise we can imagine! And if anyone dares question the “pride and unity” the new flag so un-cynically represents, let’s brand them as evil old Milwaukeeans who are “stuck in the past” and “scared of change” and probably racist too because we just noticed there’s an outdated Native American symbol on the old flag. Boooooo! Oh, and don’t forget the old “If you hate it so much why don’t you design your own flag” chestnut. Also, be sure to pick up your very own 6×10 premium sewn nylon “People’s Flag,” available now for $50.
No, the reason for my surrender is simple: the damn thing is everywhere. It’s all over the East Side, all over Bay View, all over downtown. It’s on beer bottles and bicycles. Businesses and residences. Men and women. Young and slightly less-young. In two years’ time, the “People’s Flag” has gone from a pet project of Milwaukee’s designer class to an ever-expanding default icon. More and more Milwaukeeans are embracing it. Its cookie-cutter “here’s a sun over some water” design may not exactly scream “Milwaukee!” but its growing ubiquity does. And hell, if Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl is starting to see the thing everywhere, you know the war is over.
And it’s that war that has always bugged me the most about the “People’s Flag.” From its very beginnings as a grassroots campaign, the charge to design a new city flag—led by graphic designer Steve Kodis—created two “sides” of Milwaukee: the old and new. You were either for the gleaming Milwaukee future promised by the “People’s Flag,” or a crusty relic who clearly didn’t subscribe to Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible podcast.
But as time has gone on, I’ve realized that war has mostly been in my head, and whatever battles were left were mostly being waged by one person: me. How many people, I’ve wondered as I’ve passed dozens of “People’s Flags” near the UWM campus, know its backstory? How many people, I’ve wondered as I’ve driven past the umpteenth Bay View restaurant flying the flag, care about its backstory? The folks behind the “People’s Flag” were right about one thing: you almost never saw/see the official Milwaukee flag (though one flies at UWM, coincidentally). Isn’t it enough that a new generation of Milwaukeeans finally have a symbol of their city pride? And that they’re not afraid to show it? Get the fuck over yourself, old man.
And there’s that, too. I turned 40 last year, and the fear of finding myself old and obsolete, griping about those darn kids and their hula hoops or whatever, is very real. Sure, I can lay out a convincing and impassioned case against the “People’s Flag” that has nothing to do with “It’s new so I hate it!” but maybe that impulse is still buried in there somewhere. Maybe it’s better to look around, admit defeat, realize the children are not wrong, and simply say “yes” to the new. Or at least “okay, fine, you win.” Act your old age, relax, this won’t hurt. Get busy accepting a “People’s Flag” that may have come from a cynical and marketing-driven place but has since come to symbolize the hope and future of an evolving 21st century city, or get busy dying.
A few months ago, someone posted a photo of downtown, as seen from the harbor, to the Milwaukee subreddit. “She’s gorgeous in the winter, too,” read the caption. Those words struck me. Could you possibly imagine someone saying that about Milwaukee 30, 20, or even 10 years ago? Calling this city “gorgeous”? Calling it “she”? When I washed up on these shores in 1996, Milwaukee was primarily known as the blue-collar, down-and-out, beat-up home of a serial killer. How unlikely that now, amidst unprecedented change and development, new and new-ish residents were waxing poetic about its beauty? Clearly, something has changed.
And if the “People’s Flag” has come to represent that change, if it has transcended its questionable origins as a resume- and money-making marketing exercise, who am I to piss and moan about it? Am I throwing in the critical towel because I don’t want to be seen as foolish and out of touch? I don’t think so. My pissings and moanings about the flag still stand—I’m just admitting that they’ve become increasingly irrelevant. Am I burying my head in the sand, like that guy who has completely ignored the news since Trump was elected? I don’t think so. (LOL at all the shit that guy and the guy who wrote the article have received, by the way.) I’m simply moving on.
Now, am I going to buy a “People’s Flag,” and maybe pick up a “People’s Flag” beach towel (available now for $38.99)? Not a chance. But I’ll no longer begrudge anyone who does. Instead, I’ll take the message of the “People’s Flag” to heart. “The sun rising over Lake Michigan symbolizes a new day,” says the flag’s creators. It’s a simple, three-color reminder to do my part to make that new day a good one.