Reflections of Remarkable Milwaukee
11 Feb, 2012
by Ed Makowski
Last Monday January 28th an event was held at the historic Pabst Theater,which is just a stroll down the avenue from the Pfister and Intercontinental. The evening was titled Remarkable Milwaukee and gathered many of Milwaukee’s innovative business leaders, successful creative types, and championing envisionistas. The group relaxed on stage while seated on Victorian couches to discuss their visions for our city’s future over coffee and cocktails. The occasion was also a fundraiser for Historic Milwaukee, a non-profit whose goal is to both increase awareness of Milwaukee’s architecture and preserve our built environment.
In front of a packed house the participants discussed issues and positives within our city. Many issues which are not unique to Milwaukee. Ways to maintain our unique existing architecture while making it fit inside the box of modern use. How to attract and retain both businesses and skilled labor to the city. How do we make productive space out of industrial buildings which may no longer house the industry they were built by (This always makes me think of our enormous Cold Storagewarehouses sprinkled along the riverbanks). The urban education elephant in the room. How to rebuild any city’s areas of urban blight. The discussion was a unique gathering point for intellectuals who wanted to do more than demonize cities with a fast attack of scary soundbites. I gathered that they viewed cities were a gathering point of culture, art, work, and living and there was no need to work in an environment miles away from where one lives. That this city is a great trove of activity and history, which is and will be as fantastic as we decide to make it. Our quilt, per se. Within the hour of conversation nobody arrived at rushed conclusions, and I don’t think it was the goal.
The Pabst Theater was an entertainingly appropriate location to discuss Milwaukee’s health and future. Before existing as The Pabst the venue had been called The New German City Theater, and had been built by Frederick Pabst. However this structure burnt down in 1895. When word reached Captain Pabst he wrote back from a European vacation, “Rebuild at once!” and within a year the Pabst Theater stood.
It seemed serendipitous that exactly one week later I met a couple named The Williams’ from Philadelphia. We were sitting in the Pfister lobby lounge and a conversation struck up about beer. Talk regarding microbrews between a bartender and two fans of what made Milwaukee famous pours easy and quickly spills over into other topics.
They were well-versed in restaurants around the Downtown area, microbreweries, the East Side, Bay Vew. This lovely retired couple was already familiar with nearly all over my favorite corner establishments. I finally asked how they’d become so acquainted. “Oh we own a condo over near Brady Street. We come here several times throughout the year for a week or two at a time. Milwaukee’s our retirement city.”
I asked what drew them to Milwaukee as a retirement town. They don’t have any family ties and neither of them had spent much time working in Wisconsin. It was more simple than I might have guessed. They’re big baseball fans so they come in to watch games and like to ride their bikes to the stadium. From Brady Street they can take the Lakefront trail through Lakeshore State Park (the park between Discovery World and Summerfest grounds) and bounce around to connect with the Hank Aaron Trail just across from the Harley Davidson Museum, which heads straight by Miller Park.
Ms. Williams explained that they’d shopped around in Florida and Arizona but they found that although those states offered Baseball’s Spring Training the climate was too harsh for any daytime activity other than sitting and watching baseball. Plus, when they do have to get in the car Milwaukee is an easy and quick place to navigate.
In addition we have restaurants and night spots offering a level of quality to which they’ve grown accustomed on the East Coast. Galleries, museums, other sporting events, music festivals. Culture, I suppose, if you want to boil it down to one word.
After shaking hands and saying good night talking with the Williams’ made me chuckle. It seemed they epitomized many of the points this discussion panel had been trying to touch on the week previous.
In the early 1960’s the Pfister Hotel reached a crossroads. After years of neglect and mismanagement the landmark was scheduled for demolition. To the chuckling whispers of many Ben Marcus purchased the Pfister. He saw the value in this building and decided to not only save the structure, but invested in the future of the location. To him the Pfister Hotel was more than a stack of bricks and a number on paper. It represented a potential. Now here I am sitting in the lobby lounge. Talking with a couple of transplants who enjoy remarkable Milwaukee as their retirement playground.
All these years later it appears that if you build it they will come.