Embrace Brew City’s Beauty
Jim Gaffigan, renowned comedian and native Milwaukeean by marriage, does a routine about how much easier life is for beautiful people. “Think about it,” he says, “If a stranger smiles at you and they’re attractive, you think, ‘Oh, they’re nice,’ but if a stranger’s ugly, you’re like, ‘What do they want? Get away from me, weirdo!’”
Yes, one man’s beauty is another man’s ugly, but it’s a funny joke mostly because it’s so true. All of us have crossed the street to avoid humanity’s ugliness, and – truth be told – the majority of people do the same thing when it comes to bypassing ugly cities, towns and neighborhoods.
Grace La, who designed the wonderful marsupial bridge near Lakefront Brewery, made that very point at last week’s “Remarkable Milwaukee 2012” event, which was sponsored by Historic Milwaukee and held at The Pabst Theater.
“I think beauty is a concept that we don’t talk about enough, partly because it is so abstract,” said La, a principal at La Dallman architects. “And yet at the same time, healthy cities are measured by this very concept.”
The only difference between Gaffigan’s act and La’s insight is that she wasn’t being funny. At least, I don’t think she was; I didn’t have the chance to attend Remarkable Milwaukee, but her quote jumped out at me in Journal Sentinel art and architecture critic Mary Louise Schumacher’s follow-up coverage of the discussion, which included other local luminaries, such as former mayor John Norquist, artist Reginald Baylor, historian John Gurda and roofer Jim Godsil. (OK, Godsil does a little something with aquaponics, too.)
We talk about stimulating our economy, improving our business climate and increasing job opportunities – laudable goals, of course, that hopefully translate into food on the table for more Milwaukee families – but what if we’re going about it all backwards? Rather than forcing people to invest in our city through mandated public policy, maybe we should be casting a vision for potential investors via our architecture, art and overall atmosphere.
What if the thing we need most of all is something as seemingly superfluous as splendor? What if the best thing Milwaukee has going for it is the beauty of its built environment?
I mean, why does anyone choose a city over a suburb or an exurb in the first place? Part of the reason just might be that turn-of-the-century bungalows constructed with true craftsmanship are more attractive than prefabricated subdivisions that make the American dream look like a Chinese assembly line. You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that most people would rather spend an evening strolling through the old-world charm of the Historic Third Ward than scurrying over the endless asphalt of Brookfield Square.
Design. Craftsmanship. Architecture. Aesthetics. Beauty.
Washington Park’s brilliant bandshell, surrounded by rolling hills. The Basilica of St. Josaphat. A law school’s curving wall of a thousand windows. An art museum’s outstretched wings over Lake Michigan. The old water tower on the east side. KK’s colorful commercial corridor. More than 230 acres of pristine natural beauty throughout Havenwoods State Forest – smack in the center of the city.
These things that draw people into the city are the very things that often keep people in the city. On a summer night in Sherman Park, neighbors walk outside under the green canopy of mature trees, with friendly conversation hanging in the air as heavy as the smell of barbeque. Milwaukee’s mosaic of varied backgrounds and ethnicities is a kind of beauty by itself. What’s more appealing – a bakery stocked with brown baguettes, golden challah, savory sourdough and wholesome multigrain? Or one that can only offer row upon row of white Wonder Bread?
La (and Gaffigan) are onto something. Beauty is more powerful and more transformative than we suspect. When we recognize and cultivate the intrinsic beauty of Milwaukee, what we are really saying is that our city is valuable. It’s worth something. Relying on the sympathy (or worse, pity) of outside communities is not a sustainable solution – and I don’t think that’s what we want to build our foundation on, anyway. Milwaukee is already a beautiful city. The problem is that many of us don’t think of it that way.
Think Milwaukee and Rome aren’t comparable? Does the idea of Brew City as an unfolding fountain of grace seem absurd? Maybe that’s our biggest problem. We can choose to be Milwaukee the overlooked, the average, the insignificant. Or we can see our city for what it really is: Milwaukee the beautiful.
Guest post by Alex Runner
Alex Runner is a resident of the historic Sherman Park neighborhood. He formerly worked in city hall. You can follow him on twitter at @creamcity