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Milwaukee’s Decade of Change

The city has made great strides since 2000

Dec. 16, 2009
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It’s easy to focus on all of the negatives of this decade—the unending wars, the historic terror attacks, the financial instability, the lingering recession. But in spite of these challenges, in many ways Milwaukee made great strides since 2000, and is in the midst of forming its 21st-century identity, one that will keep involved residents in the city while attracting new blood from the rest of the state and country.

Here’s a roundup of the best changes made in Milwaukee in the 21st century.

The Calatrava Addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum

Officially, its name is the Quadracci Pavilion. But Milwaukeeans simply—and proudly—refer to it as “the Calatrava.”

It’s hard to imagine Milwaukee’s shoreline without the graceful white wings, lake-reflecting windows and grand gardens of Santiago Calatrava’s design. But it didn’t exist a mere decade ago. After years of planning, the addition was opened to the public in 2001 and has since become the symbol of the city.

Not only has the Calatrava beckoned and awed Milwaukee Art Museum visitors, but it’s also had a huge influence on other structures, like the neighboring Discovery World and the Sixth Street bridge. More importantly, it’s raised Milwaukee’s spirits. If we can host world-class architecture, then surely we rank with other great American cities that may be bigger or wealthier or warmer. The Calatrava just may be the thing to help Milwaukee shake off its low self-esteem, stand up a little straighter, and demand more respect and attention from its peers.

The Revitalization of the Milwaukee Brewers

It’s always game day for the Milwaukee Brewers of 2009. But back in 2000, the team was still playing in Milwaukee County Stadium, a much-loved old-school ballpark that lacked a retractable roof to prevent inclement weather from delaying games. That all changed with the first pitch on Opening Day 2001. People still gripe about the stadium tax, but we think Miller Park is worth the investment.

Ownership of the team has changed hands since then, too. In 2005, Mark Attanasio purchased the Brewers from longtime owner Bud Selig for $180 million. The transaction breathed new life into the franchise, which had been struggling to survive and reclaim the glory of the 1982 season. At the beginning of the decade, the Brewers hadn’t yet signed Prince Fielder, Corey Hart or Ryan Braun. Attanasio showed that he’s willing to fight to the finish with the short but effective acquisition of CC Sabathia in the home stretch of the 2008 season.

The revitalized team and state-of-the-art stadium have drawn fair-weather and die-hard fans back to the ballpark. We can’t wait for Opening Day 2010.

Milwaukee as a Technology Hub

Remember those round blue lights that indicated the 150 or so high-tech firms clustered in Milwaukee’s Downtown? Some of them still shine in office windows, a reminder of a 2002 marketing effort highlighting Milwaukee’s overlooked strength in emerging technologies. The city doesn’t track the number of tech companies located here anymore, since almost any company can claim some sort of high-tech component, but the metro area is home to a vibrant tech sector that encompasses medical devices, video and animation production, biotech products, and water technologies. In fact, Milwaukee-area businesses generate as many—if not more—patents than UW-Madison. And a recent Milken Institute study found that Milwaukee ranks 16th in high-tech economic growth from 2003-2008. Maybe we should bring back those blue lights…

Generational Change in the Criminal Justice System

This shift didn’t happen until 2006, when longtime District Attorney E. Michael McCann decided to retire after almost 40 years as Milwaukee’s top prosecutor. That once-in-a-generation opportunity opened the door for John Chisholm to put his stamp on the place. The result: Chisholm reorganized the office to create a community prosecution division, with community prosecutors who are more in touch with neighborhood needs. He also worked toward better identification of truly dangerous criminals versus folks who made a bad decision and are willing to change their behavior. At decade’s end, the district attorney’s office will, when it’s appropriate, send nonviolent offenders to drug or alcohol counseling rather than jail—a better use of taxpayer resources and a more effective way to reduce crime and repeat offenses.

The Local Food Movement

Sure, Milwaukeeans have been gardening forever. And Will Allen bought a farm on Silver Spring Drive and transformed it into Growing Power back in the 1990s, but the concept of the organization really came into its own in the 2000s. Moreover, this decade has been notable for the rise of urban gardens, local food and farmers’ markets. Even the brutal cold in the winter doesn’t hinder local food shopping, not with the Third Ward’s Milwaukee Public Market and the new Milwaukee County Winter Farmers’ Market held at State Fair Park on Saturday mornings from November to late April.

Not only has the local food movement increased our awareness of the variety of animals and vegetables grown or raised—or brewed—within a stone’s throw of Downtown, but it’s also spurred an appreciation for the greenspace preserved by these gardens and their devoted gardeners. Local food cures what ails the body, mind and spirit—an idea that undoubtedly will continue blooming long into the next decade.

Appreciation of Our Waterways

Milwaukee is fortunate to be located on such incredible bodies of water. But the city’s industries haven’t always treated them well. That mind-set began to change in the late 1990s, when the North Avenue dam was removed, the toxic sediment was cleaned up, and the Milwaukee River corridor began its incredible rebirth. Now, it’s home to more than a hundred plant and animal species—many of them endangered or threatened—plus hikers, bikers, dog walkers, birdwatchers, kayakers, rafters and anglers. And as the Milwaukee River goes, so do the Kinnickinnic and Menomonee rivers, as well as Lake Michigan itself.

Thank the river-watchers, neighbors, engineers, scientists and advocates for the revitalization of our waterways and beaches. But also note the addition of the RiverWalk through the Beerline, Downtown and Third Ward neighborhoods—begun in the 1990s and continuing through this decade—for helping to boost residents’ connection with the Milwaukee River. Adorned with sculptures and opening into the outdoor decks of condos, bars and restaurants, the RiverWalk provides a completely unique experience of the city.

In the next decade we’ll no doubt see the increasing commercialization of water and water technologies. Hopefully the spirit of these grassroots activists will inform the business decisions that will make Milwaukee a leader in the water industry.

UW-Milwaukee Comes of Age

UWM’s roots reach back to the end of the 19th century, but the university really hit its stride in the 2000s. Once confined to a small corner of the East Side and catering to commuting students, the university’s enrollment has reached an all-time high of 30,400, up almost 30% from the 1999-2000 academic year, and is now branching off to all corners of the county. That capital building expansion, which the state has bonded for $240 million, isn’t without some controversy. But under Chancellor Carlos Santiago’s leadership, UWM is aiming to become a leading research institution and now garners more than $50 million in research funds per year. That will have a welcome ripple effect on the rest of the region’s economy. According to UWM, about a third of its 97,000 alumni live in Milwaukee County, while about two-thirds live in Wisconsin. While UW-Madison may get most of the state’s attention, UWM is a diverse urban university that reflects and enhances its community.

Expanded Nightlife Options

Milwaukeeans will always have a soft spot for shot-and-a-beer corner taps with a decent cover band. But in the past decade the options for imbibers and live performers have expanded.

Back at the turn of the 21st century, historic venues like the Pabst and Riverside theaters and Turner Hall were waiting for their face-lifts. They now attract national acts that would otherwise skip over the city. Bay View has exploded with small clubs that book up-and-coming bands before they make it to the bigger venues. And Milwaukee Street transformed into a nightlife destination, with a variety of hopping clubs and stylish eateries. Amid all the changes, city institutions like Shank Hall and The Rave continue to thrive.

In addition, local restaurateurs—and the Milwaukee Public Market—have greatly enhanced our culinary experiences, from the high-end Bacchus to the down-home Honeypie and inventive Satellite Crepes. Whiskey Bar, Sugar Maple, Café Brcke and Nessun Dorma are just a few welcome additions to the food and drink scene this decade.

And What Still Needs To Be Done
  • Although Milwaukee has much to offer, the city still needs to make improvements in these critical areas:
  • An unacceptable racial gap: The divide between black and white isn’t diminishing as fast as we’d like. African Americans in the city are far more likely to be unemployed, live in substandard housing, endure violence and have poor health outcomes than white residents.
  • Struggling schools: It’s too easy to point the finger at the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) for low student achievement. But MPS doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The state’s ineffective funding formula, instability caused by the experimental voucher schools and the city’s poverty all have a negative effect on the district’s performance. A change of governance won’t solve that. But sustained attention, community involvement and adequate resources will.
  • Transit: Sadly, the region is missing opportunities to build and operate 21st-century transit options because of a lack of political will. While major freeway projects get greenlit without plans for enhanced public transit, Milwaukee County’s efficient and reliable bus system—and its riders—feel the squeeze. We need dedicated funding, now.


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