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The Changing Face of Milwaukee

Homecoming leads to discovery of city's new look

Aug. 22, 2012
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Let me be clear: Milwaukee is not my hometown. However, it often feels that way. After living outside of a teeny town my entire childhood, I was pretty excited to head to the big city (complete with stoplights) as a college freshman. I managed to stay another decade post-graduation. Not only did I learn the city well, due to my work, I also lived and played throughout it. I was an East Sider, a Downtowner and a Washington Heightster.

Then I took off for New York City, then Berlin, only to return to good old 'sconsin a few years later after my first case of real-deal homesickness. Due to family connections, I chose to settle in, ahem, that other big(ish) city, about an hour west, aka Universitlandia. Although I love the "liberal bubble" some say I live in (insert exasperated sigh here), a few recent weekend trips to your fair city has made it painfully clear that I am missing out.

So Milwaukee... When did you get all fancy?

When I left five years ago, you were still a Pabst-swilling (in a mostly non-ironic, hipster way) kind of town. Now as I drive around the East Side, I'm startled to see places like Schwartz and Lixx long gone and additions of Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods instead. Even your bad-ass Harley-ness has resulted in a museum with a hotel across the way. The Third Ward, handsome but surprisingly desolate for years, seems to have fully come alive. Foot traffic abounds. Brunch? Public Market shopping? Drinks? Folks are out in full force with money to burn.

Walker's Point also appears to be exploding. I first learned of the area years ago, after many late nights at The Dubliner. Although my heart has been hurting ever since they closed those doors, the area now seems invigorating, full of art and antique spaces and some lovely new restaurants. Braise has gotten all sorts of attention, not only because the food is amazing, but also because of Dave Swanson's commitment to using locally sourced products. The local, sustainable food movement is infiltrating the local restaurant industry as well as the food deserts of the inner city. Some of these projects have been in the works for years, but how many of us knew about them until recently? Growing Power, Alice's Garden, Fondy Food Center, the Johnsons Park project currently under way via the Center for Resilient Cities—the ex-social worker in me is absolutely thrilled to see healthy foods reaching these communities.

Milwaukee, you are both progressive and posh. You used to be kind of grimy, but you've slowly been transitioning into quite the mecca for art and music. Turner Hall has been revitalized, bringing in some fantastic music groups. I've also been hearing, loud and clear, about all of the Milwaukee Art Museum's fantastic exhibitions. The addition of Discovery World to the area also seems to be ramping up out-of-towner tourism.

But back to my old stomping grounds on the East Side: I recently wandered around Brady Street after a wonderful dinner at Cempazuchi and quickly went from, "Oh, I miss this!," to, "Am I a dinosaur?"

Do 30-somethings like me even live on the East Side anymore? Or maybe they never did? A poll of friends in the 30-plus crowd seems to indicate that we all bailed from the East Side due to noise, escalating rents and the desire for green space. We still like to play there, but we chose to live in the peace and quiet of Bay View or Washington Heights. We suddenly wanted to make babies and garden and none of us had the money to move to Shorewood to do that.

Some say that Bay View is the new East Side. It does seem less American Apparel-y, with more comic book stores, funky boutiques and a smattering of new restaurants. (Of course, this could all change as more condos come in.) I've gotten rave reviews from friends about Odd Duck, Honeypie and Pastiche, and I look forward to stuffing my face at all of them.

On the other hand, some things haven't changed much at all. Riverwest is still Riverwest, although it seems really odd not to be enshrouded in a cloud of smoke at any of the bars. There are a few new places like Café Corazon and ReThreads, but I can still get "killer coffee" from Fuel and one of the cheapest beers in the city at the Uptowner. For that, I am very grateful. I mean, Milwaukee, you can't get too fancy on me. It's great that you are evolving, but there's a reason Laverne and Shirley were stuck on you. You are modest, hardworking and loyal. Forgiving, too. Thanks for welcoming me back.

Rachael Nachtwey enjoys working with families at her day job in Madison but remains a hopeless adventurer, mostly in the realm of Milwaukee these days. She enjoys fun friends, good food and drink and hopes to one day actually go on a brewery tour. Yes, she realizes that she has just lost all of her Milwaukee cred.


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