Aug. 9, 2009
After the yellow Blatz buildings sat empty for twenty-five years,
rich guys from Minneapolis came to town and hired
a PR firm to explain their benevolent plans for reclamation –
things they would do to the abandoned brewery.
We learned retrofit. It was a religion in the Rust Belt in the Eighties:
our vision of fragile, windowless shells filled with something else.
First was Schlitz Park, glimmering at the foot of Brewers’ Hill:
exposed Cream City brick, mauve carpet and track lights,
the sawdust smell of newness imposed upon the past.
Cable TV station, social workers and fundraisers where once
there had been horses and hops. Then the Blatz –
offices and apartments wrenched from yeasty silence.
Retrofit doesn’t mean you put a new drug store where there
was an old drug store. It means you accept the archaic,
suggestive outline of the possible, wade through pigeon shit and
hanging wires to find that unexpected alcove where diners will look
out over city streets; kick aside rubber boots the workers wore
to clean the vats, imagine the right lighting for the piano bar.
It means you see through what’s real and ugly to the art of what
could be. The grain elevator that becomes a condo. The stable
that says boulangerie. This is where architects and seekers waded
through rubble, honing their dreams. Plumbed and wired their will
upon these discarded resources, fitted ideas into bricks
until there was a forest of retrofitted buildings in Brew Town.
Apartments, offices, trattorias – a trendy sphere of commerce
carved out of the bodies of past employers. Schlitz and Blatz,
gutted and reclaimed. Pabst, waiting in silence for the inevitable.
No employer lasts forever. The brewmeisters misjudged
something essential. One day in 1963 brewing stopped
and hundreds of men walked out of the Blatz without looking
back. The brew house filled with ghosts and guano, exploding
bottles of old beer, vagrants who lit little fires in the corners.
This is the cycle of business in Brew Town and everywhere.
Big ideas work, big ideas go bad, then there is the long
wait: sleet falling winter after winter on the empty, useless
building that the dreamers drive by. Then someone stops.
Former Milwaukee resident Deborah Fries is a columnist for Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. Among her print and online journal publications are North American Review, where she was a winner of the 2008 James Hearst Poetry Prize, and the premiere issue of Cream City Review. “Retrofitting” is from her book Various Modes of Departure, which Carolyn Forche selected for the Kore Press First Book Award.