Humility hogs all the attention at “Envisioning the Seen”
Is Milwaukee too modest?
It’s often said that Milwaukee is void of visionary discussion about the future of our city. Well, believe it or not, that vacuum of forward thinking is being filled by some folks who love to look backward.
Yeah, you read me right, and you know exactly who I’m talking about. They can’t keep away from historic preservation committee meetings. They go gaga over leaded glass, insist on mothballing every old building and handle sepia-stained photographs the way normal people handle newborn babies. Now this cast of characters is creating high-profile forums to chart our course as a community.
Should we be concerned? Outraged? Actually, the results so far have been pretty fantastic.
There’s something about people who know their history. They tend to pick up on patterns, cycles and seasons better than the rest of us who are too busy trying to be the mayor of Miller Park on foursquare. Yes, they ramble on about “sewer wars” and French fur trading, but they have a knack for noticing when society skips a beat – when something’s missing from a place like Milwaukee.
What are we missing? According to the dozen panelists that Historic Milwaukee Inc. invited to be part of “Envisioning the Seen” Monday evening at the Pabst Theater, our sin of omission is obvious. We are bereft of bravado.
“If we don’t brag enough, what’s the solution to that?” asked Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy.
“Brag!” answered 88.9 Radio Milwaukee’s Tarik Moody.
Murphy moderated one half of the Pabst stage. His group included Melissa Goins, Randy Crump and Daniel Holter – in addition to Fowler and Moody. Their discussion was the second act, following a Ted Perry-facilitated talk with Young Kim, Laura Bray, Kalan Haywood, Ian Abston and Juli Kaufmann.
Both groups seemed to skew a bit younger than HMI’s previous Pabst Theater panel discussion, “Remarkable Milwaukee.” Kim, who runs the longstanding and irreplaceable Fondy Food Center, said at one point: “It’s funny that one of the oldest guys here is named Young.” Age, race, money and government were all touched upon, befitting their status as usual touchstones. But Milwaukee’s aversion to thinking highly of itself took center stage as the main character.
“Do you see those letters behind you?” he yelled at the panelists. “What are you doing about it?”
Kaufmann, who has received personal threats in her relentless quest to improve the S. 2nd Street neighborhood of Walker’s Point (if you were at the recent grand opening of the Clock Shadow Building, you know of her amazing work) patiently listened to Skowronski’s lecture. “It’s a great building that I would love to save, but it costs money. Do you have $5 million to do what needs to be done to restore it?”
“You don’t need $5 million! All you need is an idea!” he screamed.
Kaufmann was right, of course, but perhaps Skowronski wasn’t interested in logic. While you have to appreciate his passion, he seemed unaware that he was speaking to many ardent members of the preservation community. Did he know about what Kaufmann has done for Walker’s Point? Was he aware that Haywood, Goins and Crump have worked tirelessly to uplift once-dangerous neighborhoods? Was he paying attention when Bray’s expertise revitalizing the Menomonee Valley was shared in detail?
Or did any of that even matter to him? After the fifth or so time of cutting off the panelists with righteous indignation, Boy Interrupting finally relented and took his seat.
I’ve lived in Milwaukee for three decades and have always liked the Sidney Hih building, but if someone would have come around at that moment taking up a collection to fund its immediate demolition, I would have made a contribution to the cause. Skowronski didn’t win me to his side; he turned me off. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the respectful exchange of ideas continued.
One of the outstanding HMI leaders said something later that evening to me: “You obviously love Milwaukee, but you’re not a preservationist, are you?” I suppose that all depends. If being a preservationist means shouting people down and being unwilling to listen to reason, then I think I’ll pass. But if it means protecting the legacy of our built environment and emulating the thoughtful, pro-Milwaukee problem-solving of Monday’s panel, then sign me up.
Yes, too much humility can haunt a city. But when advocating for a position, it’s an admirable attribute.