After reading the A.V. Club’s commentary regarding the JSOnline blog, “This is My Milwaukee”, I was inspired to share the specifics of my own nostalgia and love affair with this fine city. Milwaukee and I have had a tumultuous relationship akin to anything or anyone you have known your entire life. I’m a native, born and partially raised. I went through a series of in-your-face-loyalty, to resentment and claustrophobia, and landed at a healthy level of love and appreciation. Milwaukee is why I’m obsessed with old buildings and wanting to share that fascination with and reverence for historic architecture is why I wrote Milwaukee’s Early Architecture. The Henry Harnischfeger Mansion beckoned to me while I was still floundering around in undergrad and sparked my interest in preservation. Gipfel Union Brewery is why I hope to find myself in the position to adapt and reuse historic buildings. Milwaukee’s abandoned tannery buildings are a part of why I started Razed, and Humboldt Gardens-Zak’s North Avenue is a daily reminder of why I continue with this cause. Milwaukee is my home; it will always be my home. If for some reason I relocate, I would hope to return every summer, not for Summerfest, but for Locust Street Festival.
My family has lived in this city for generations. My grandfather grew up on Sherman Boulevard. My grandmother grew up in Clarke Square at South 19th and Scott, and when I drive her past her old house, she can still recall all the details of where Alice lived, and whose porch she played on. She gasps and grabs my arm when we drive past Ascension Lutheran on Layton Boulevard and she swoons at the thought of the Eagles Ballroom because that’s where she met my grandfather.
I lived for the majority of my pre-adolescence on Milwaukee’s north side at 67th Street and Villard just south of Silver Spring. My stepfather taught me to ride a bike in the parking lot of Lancaster Elementary School. My mother and I made frequent trips to Northridge Mall on Saturdays where we window-shopped and munched on Buddy Squirrel cheese popcorn, which I still purchase for her whenever I go to visit. I remember frequent trips to Builder’s Square as my stepfather took to fixing up our first house. I went to school at St. Peter-Immanuel on 76th and Acacia, watched fireworks in Noyes Park, and posed for many a picture with the bronze statue of a deer in Brown Deer Park. My family moved in 1994, but I remember coming back periodically to visit the Milwaukee County Zoo and driving along I-43 passing by the densely constructed houses as we crossed Keefe, North, Locust, Highland, thinking that this was the city that I was really from. This was my home.
In 2003, I returned for college. As it goes, I was a teenager entering into adulthood. I was moving back to the city to be near a downtown. No way I was moving to Madison for college. As the progression would have it, over the four years of undergrad Milwaukee got smaller, running into people from various aspects of my life on a regular basis. At first I hated it, I was losing the anonymity that I had when first moving back. I studied abroad, traveled Europe anonymously for a month, and I began touting the greatness of Milwaukee to everyone that I met. Though I supremely enjoyed Europe, I couldn’t wait to come home. I’m pretty sure I got off the plane and went immediately to Comet, something that has become an unofficial tradition for me.
Why do I love Milwaukee? This is where my family is from, blue collar through and through, generations of ironworkers, machinists and seamstresses living and raising their families. Because when I was eating Ramen and baked potatoes, I would drive along Lake Drive to feel better about life, marveling at the elaborate houses all the way to the “witch’s house.” Because every house that I lived in represents a pivotal point in my life where I figured something out about myself from Oakland and Greenwich, to Astor and Land, to Fratney and Hadley.
Milwaukee and I grew up together. This is where I came to understand, appreciate, and revere this city for all that it is, like coming to understand and appreciate your parents after years of senseless rebellion. Milwaukee is one of the few places where I could think that my German heritage is dull and commonplace. Milwaukee is the only place where I could learn to love that German heritage because I am from Deutsch-Athens lauded once for its wealth of arts, literature, music and culture, and as I blast my Juniper Tar record, sipping Anodyne coffee in my tiny alley house in Riverwest, I can say the same today.