Return of the Native
A returning Milwaukeean is stunned at the changes in the city of his birth.
I hadn’t been back to Milwaukee in over three years, and then it was in the summer.
Not this time. I’m returning to my natal city on what must be the coldest day of the year. Flying over Lake Michigan, its icy surface looks like brittle shards of green bottle glass, visible through the wisps of winter vapor.
Waiting outside the airport arrivals, bitter gusts of wind bite sharply into my cheeks. But, hey, this is winter in Milwaukee, not Baja California, right? I was born in January during one of Milwaukee’s worst blizzards, so these blasts of Siberian air should be second nature for me. But such is not the case. When it’s this cold, it’s like you’re cold for the first time.
I was back to celebrate my birthday with close friends. I hoped the warmth of friendship, bolstered by great food, wine and laughter would be hearty enough to overcome the frigid air.
After 15 years of living in New York I’m still excited every time I come into “Miwaukee” (the dropped “l” a sure sign of a native). When you mention it to New Yorkers, their usual first response is: “Oh, yeh, “Laverne and Shirley” or “Happy Days”. I smile and nod, even though I’ve never seen a single episode from either series. I’m closer to the generation of Liberace, Hildegard, and John Neumeier, all Milwaukee natives who went on to fame and fortune. For me, Milwaukee conjures up memories of my youth: buses we’d ride to go downtown, the Alhambra Theater, Shuster’s delicatessen, Gimbels Tasty Town, kielbasa, bratwurst, German and French potato salad, raw ground beef on rye, Fred Miller Theatre, the pervasive smell of yeast from Red Star and the breweries, swimming at Bradford and McKinley beaches, skating at the Blatz Pavilion on the Milwaukee River.
Those kind of remembrances of things past are pretty common among Milwaukeeans who grew up in the 50s, preserved as if part of an aspic left over from 1965, the year I left for college. Well, Liberace, a god in the pantheon of camp, was recently in the news because “Life Behind the Candelabra” with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas was panned for being “too gay”, Hildegard’s lieder live on in YouTube and Hamburg Ballet choreographer John Neumeier is alive and well, still in Hamburg. So even the past doesn’t remain static. However strong my memories, it’s the present Milwaukee that grabs and intrigues me.
Coming in from the airport, looming in the distance, I see the stark figure of a single wind tower, only one, generating power and getting someone off the grid. Incremental change in a city that moves in slow, calculated steps, I tell myself. That is, until we hit the streets of Bay View. Has someone dropped me in Bucktown, Chicago? This formerly staid south side Milwaukee neighborhood is unrecognizable. It’s got verve. Boulevard Players is still happily there, but now concentrated along KK are restaurants, cafes, and bars. What were once empty streets full of parking spaces are now a parking challenge. People, even in this arctic air, are on the streets. What must it be like in the summer, when Milwaukeeans love to be outside at one of its many festivals?
My first night back, my friends take me out for dinner to The Odd Duck (for some reason I keep calling it The Ruptured Duck which is what my grandfather used to deride the old North Central Airlines). The place is thronging with a young crowd, both at the bar and seated around 15 or so tables. The menu is eclectic, making use of a wide range of local products. The martini is flawless. I order trout which arrives as if it swam over to my plate, deliciously done, perched on a puddle of braised red cabbage, a whiff of German cookery brought to a nouveau level. I love it.
Lunch a few days later, shared with old friends introducing me to new, takes me to another Bay View spot, Pastiche, a small French bistro where the Scottish salmon is done so purely that its rosy translucent flesh not only excites the palette but delights the eye. Another day finds us ensconced for a good part of the afternoon in the Bay View Alterra coffee house. It’s bright, spacious interior looks as if it had been designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. It puts their cramped counterparts in NYC to shame. The staff is friendly, and engaging. The young woman behind the counter is purpled haired, her skin a canvas of tattoos. I tell her my neighbor in Newburgh is an icon in the world of body art and she insists she will look him up. I believe her.
Next morning, we’re off to a surprise located just over the city border in Wauwatosa on North Avenue. Above a brightly painted facade, I see it is a bakery, whimsically entitled “Rocket Baby”. “This is going to be good”, my friend assures me. After my teeth sink into the buttery flakes of an almond chocolate croissant, well…it’s like I’m sitting on the rue Lepic in Paris at 9 a.m. and the sun is shining. Their pain de mie could compete with any other in the country. Who knew? Milwaukee’s gain is San Francisco’s loss as I learn the couple who opened this toasty space recently moved back to Milwaukee.
Later, I find myself in Riverwest, at the eclectic cooperative, The Peoples Bookstore, where the staff is well informed and helpful in my search for a specific work. I am happy to see they have kept themselves afloat since the days I lived in Milwaukee. As we criss cross the streets in another city neighborhood that has come alive, we pass what had been, back in the ‘80s, The Saint Michael’s Waiting Room café where I did a one man show as Garcia Lorca, written by local playwright, Henry Timm.
Bounding down Brady St., I see that anchor, Sciortino’s Italian bakery with its same mosaic façade, still standing on the corner of Brady and Humboldt. We stop in the newly expanded Glorioso’s with its shelves teeming with wines, cheeses, condiments, antipasti from every region of Italy. I have a conversation with a young woman working there originally from Hungary who also lived in New York. We both agree that Milwaukee has fewer of everything than New York, but what it has is no less good.
As we head downtown along Water Street I am amazed by the bright new urban living spaces, the blocks of abandoned tanneries transformed into apartments with balconies overlooking a much cleaner Milwaukee River. As I witness all this change around me, I am still aware that all is not burgeoning. Selective visits back home can be deceptive. I know of the high unemployment rate, of the vanishing manufacturers that once employed thousands of workers. Nonetheless, I am proud of my hometown, of its neighborhood reinventions. I sense that even with the changes, it has maintained something of its own character, not Chicago, nor Minneapolis and certainly not New York. Even with the occasional parking problems, it is still more accessible than many other cities of comparable size and population. And when you walk into a restaurant, staff interacts with you and is not intent on rushing you in or out.
When I return next, I’d like to again try biking the Hank Aaron path winding its way alongside the Menomonee River, no longer a stream of industrial effluvia, but the centerpiece of a meandering, often pastoral vista that will take me all the way from Kletzsch Park to Miller Park (I was going to say County Stadium) and beyond. I look forward to discovering more changes during my next visit, but I will plan on August rather than January. It’s pleasant to see old friends in the city of my birth, that, even as it changes, remains one of the country’s best kept secrets.