A discussion without limits
Historic Milwaukee Inc.’s creative discussion looked more like a play than a panel on Monday, but the issues laid out on stage at the Pabst Theater bared some very real changes happening within the city’s borders.
Remarkable Milwaukee was an experimental call for conversation in an era where partisan bickering has marred public debate; an effort to circumvent the “limitless limitations we put on our thinking,” said Anna-Marie Opgenorth, Historic Milwaukee‘s executive director.
Sitting on Victorian-style furniture with cocktails in hand, fourteen of Milwaukee’s creative and business leaders contested the city’s future, broaching topics from segregation to the incorporation of art and design in real estate. Ultimately, the premise was clear: Milwaukee’s younger generation is redefining the city as a vibrant, livable and cool city to inhabit.
It’s a far cry from the days when young people married by 22 had children and headed for the suburbs, said Gary Grunau, an urban developer.
“Younger people see the city differently,” said Gary Witt, executive director of The Pabst Theater Foundation. “They’re going to see and focus on what the beauty of Milwaukee is. That’s why younger people are flooding into and using the city. They are not scared away by the old methodology.”
Jill Morin, author and former principal of Kahler Slater, said the changes young folks are bringing to Milwaukee are inevitable.
“I think what is exciting, is (the change) is being generated by young entrepreneurs, creative talent who have realized that we have a lot of big city amenities and that it is easier to live here than many other places,” she said “They didn’t wait for the (Greater Milwaukee Committee) to say “We’ve blessed this area of the city. Now go and develop it.” They’re just doing it.”
How to pursue development, both public and private, was a hot topic throughout the discussion, especially regarding West Wisconsin Avenue and the elephant in the room, the Grand Avenue Mall.
Angela Damiani, vice president of ART Milwaukee was optimistic saying the creative agencies, like Spreenkler and MiKE, who moved offices to the Plankinton building are bringing energy and vitality back to the mall, something she says not enough people know about.
“It could be the epicenter for creativity and innovation,” she said.
But former mayor John Norquist insisted the American shopping mall was a dead concept. Norquist said businesses owners should come out of their shell and back to the streets, something that could be made easier with street curbs and streetcars.
“I think Milwaukee needs to embrace urbanism,” he said.
That includes not only embracing public art and design but also diversity, whether that be age, sex, or race, said artist Reginald Baylor.
“You can develop downtown but if you don’t develop the inner city, you create isolation,” Baylor said. “That’s like having the meat without the potatoes.”
In a state of self-deprecation and gentle ribbing, many of the panelists urged the city’s “old, white men” to tune into the message young people are giving.
It is a message restauranteur Joe Bartolotta said he heard loud and clear when he began to see his patrons aging. The restaurant group recently opened The Rumpus Room to target the younger demographic.
The next step is to get businesses on board, said John Kersey, executive vice president of Zilber Ltd.
“We need to get the CEOs to recognize the value of being downtown,” he said. “Nobody goes to downtown Manhattan because it’s the cheapest.”
Witt agreed. “Somehow all these people that are going to restaurants, bars, and clubs and shows — that message has to trickle up,” including to Milwaukee’s political leaders, he said.
Photo intern Benjamin Wick covered both events for us in images; take a look through our slideshow below or visit our Flickr set here.
Participants in “Remarkable Milwaukee” included: Joe Bartolotta, The Bartolotta Restaurant Group, Reginald Baylor, Artist and Partner at Plaid Tuba, Bruce Block, Chair, Real Estate Practice at Reinhart Law, Sara Daleiden, Artist, MKE-LAX: Importing Milwaukee to Los Angeles Initiative, Angela Damiani, VP Art Milwaukee, Mike Eitel, Co-Owner of Lowlands Group, James Godsil, Co-founder Sweetwater Organics, Gary Grunau, Developer and Principal at Grucongroup, John Gurda, Milwaukee Historian and Author, John Kersey, Executive Vice President of Zilber, Ltd., Grace La, Founding Principal of La Dallman, Jill Moran, Former CEO Kahler Slater and Author, John Norquist, CEO of Center for New Urbanism, Former Milwaukee Mayor, and Gary Witt, Executive Director of the Pabst Theater Foundation.