“Remarkable Milwaukee” at Pabst Theater
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I’ll admit that I went into last night’s “Remarkable Milwaukee” discussion with a few reservations. Would the informal chat between 14 Milwaukee movers-and-shakers be an eye-opening revelation, or a world-class wank-a-thon? Would each participant bring something unique to the discussion of Milwaukee’s future, or would they simply plug their own interests and rehash shop-worn platitudes? What could a night dedicated to tackling “the future of our built environment and its impact on our culture” from the comforts of the Pabst Theater stage (complete with a bar!) really accomplish?
Quite a lot, it turns out, though not exactly the things I was expecting. Less a think-tank than a casual and surprisingly entertaining pep-rally, “Remarkable Milwaukee” proved that a little talk among a few (mostly) well-heeled guests can go a long way. In front of a packed Pabst audience, folks like former mayor John Norquist, urban developer Gary Grunau, Sweet Water Organics co-founder James Godsil, Pabst Theater Foundation executive director Gary Witt, and restaurateurs Joe Bartolotta and Mike Eitel lounged on plush chairs and couches, holding forth on Milwaukee’s downtown, and their hopes for its future. Concrete plans may not have been hatched, but it was impossible for anyone to walk away from the evening without a sense of swelling civic pride.
Though never blatantly expressed, the theme of the night seemed to be “Fuck the suburbs.” The most outspoken in that regard was Norquist, who has long championed Milwaukee’s downtown and battled against suburban sprawl. Nearly a decade out of office and clearly in his “I don’t give a shit” mode, the former mayor stole the show with plenty of jabs and candid asides. “You mean you still can’t bike over the Hoan Bridge?” he asked in mock puzzlement near the end of the night.
Beyond the downtown cheerleading, youth was a big topic. (The young/old cutoff was either 35 or 42, depending on the speaker.) At one point, Bartolotta urged young people to start taking the bull by the horns when it comes to urban renewal. Author Jill J. Morin quickly (and correctly) countered that Milwaukee’s youth were in fact already doing that, though not in the ways folks like Bartolotta expected. The revitalized Shops of Grand Avenue were pointed to as an example.
From a purely technical standpoint, the night was an unqualified success. Though the conversation was clearly semi-rehearsed, it never felt canned or stale, and rarely fell into the uncanny sound-bite valley. There were, however, a few bum notes. A strange “time to move aside, old, white CEOs” thread kept popping up, especially among the younger members of the panel. (Artist Reginald Baylor correctly noted that those same old, white CEOs were the ones with enough money to buy art.) At only an hour, there were also plenty of subjects barely touched, or avoided altogether. Milwaukee’s undeniable racial segregation was never broached, and the biggest culprit of Milwaukee urban flight—MPS—was only casually mentioned. It should also be noted that save for Baylor and UWM associate professor Grace La, the 14-member panel was lily-white.
So what’s next? Damiani hit the nail squarely on the head during her wrap-up, noting that groups like hers need to stop simply hanging out and (shiver) tweeting up, and start putting some real plans into action. Though the panel may have only briefly touched on those plans, the takeaway message to the audience—and all of Milwaukee, regardless of age—was clear: The city is here, and it’s ours for the taking.