Alex Runner

Humility hogs all the attention at “Envisioning the Seen”

Is Milwaukee too modest?

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Jun 22nd, 2012 01:35 pm
Envisioning the Seen.

Envisioning the Seen. Photo taken June 18th, 2012 by Erik Ljung. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Lincoln Fowler, an owner and founder of Alterra Coffee Roasters, put it another way: “We have a dangerous amount of humility.”

“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.

At least one audience member was none too happy that Sydney Hih was relegated to supporting actor status. Large letters spelling out the building’s name served as the discussion’s backdrop. But Noah Skowronski  – who has emerged as a passionate advocate for saving the building – made it clear that he would rather see those letters in front of the panelists, instead of behind them.

“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.


9 thoughts on “Humility hogs all the attention at “Envisioning the Seen””

  1. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Great aritlce! You guys should be running the JSOnline…

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @Tyrell Ha…working on it:)

  3. jeff Jordan says:

    As one of the guides that conducts historical tours for Historic Milwaukee, I can tell you that some of the consistant comments I get from out of town visitors is how great our city is and how did we preserve and save all of these wonderful old buildings. From Milwaukee residents it’s more like a reawakening. Many Milwaukee residents are not unlike people in other cities that begin to take for granted the attributes of their city. There is a pall of negativity seems to revolve over a helpless feeling that things like our education system and lack of funding for city streets, parks and transportation will never be resolved. and yet many of us wouldn’t want to live any other place. The thing I’ve noticed is, like many of the panelists at Envisioning the Seen, the biggest boosters of Milwaukeee and it’s future are transplants or people who moved away and have returned.
    Let’s start with some positives. While k-12 education deserves to be revolutionized, this city is second to none in Advanced education options. From Marquettee to MIAD there are many top institutions available to our young people. Our parks, public transportation and may be down but not out. A concentrated effort to secure dedicated funding for all of them would move their programs forward and secure a future for them.
    Not only do we have to become boosters for Milwaukee, we need to be boastful and insistant that the negativity of the people inside and outside of this city do not deter or discourage us from realizing the potential of Milwaukee.

  4. Christine McLaughlin says:

    This is an excellent account/interpretation of the evening. Thanks.

    I was so impressed with the grace with which the Sidney Hih discussion was handled. Normally, the audience member gets shut down or succeeds in diverting the discourse. Neither of those happened.

    Most of us no longer young Milwaukeeans grew up being told not to get a swelled head. (Translation: you’re not all that, really!) So we need a little practice on the bragging thing. Give us some bragging points and maybe we’ll work on it!

  5. Dave Steele says:

    Great article, Alex, and a fantastic summary.

    I felt that this panel discussion was a lively one, with a lot of good dialogue about the ins and outs of developing Milwaukee. But it seemed like while the right people were on the stage, it just didn’t get as far as it could. It’s almost like the discussion was a strong team, made up of dynamic players, who for one reason or another just couldn’t get the ball into the endzone.

    Part of the rub for me is around the question of modesty. Should Milwaukee brag more about the things we have? Of course. But not at the expense of owning up to and working to fix those issues that hold us back. It’s hard for some of us to “root” for Milwaukee and toot the city’s horn when those divisions and mindsets that hold us back are so evident, everyday, all around us.

    That being said, I hope HMI continues this productive series. I believe that they’re helping us get somewhere, though at the moment it might not be clear “where” that is.

  6. Noah Skowronski says:

    “..but perhaps Skowronski wasn’t interested in logic..”

    I respect you for taking a stance on my outspoken position on Sydney Hih. I’ll be the first to admit that the tone of my questioning and my repeated attempts to get my point across did not reflect the positive energy that all of us in the Save Sydney Hih movement have been trying to convey. It has been a long stressful and exhausting two months of personal sacrifice and diligent work to get where we are today. Our hard work has successfully delayed the demolition of Sydney Hih with little to no help from anyone in the preservationist community in Milwaukee.

    With the exception of Dawn McCarthy and Megan Daniels of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, no organization dedicated to preserving our built environment has helped us. Not a single member of Historic Milwaukee attended the June 7th Historic Preservation Commission meeting to discuss the Interim Designation Petition that myself and two other concerned citizens turned in, (it was nearly ten pages long describing in detail the importance of Sydney Hih spanning over 130 years). Our citizen Petition changed history when it was approved by the HPC, and it sent a clear message to the City Development Commissioner and the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp. that it is not okay to secretly plan the demolition of our cherished historic landmarks.

    Seeing those letters on stage with little or no discussion taking place about the Save Sydney Hih movement brought to the surface a mixed bag of emotions for me. I had come to the meeting to ask for the help of some of the guest speakers and not to disrespect or blame them for anything. This cause has taken over our lives and the level of personal sacrifice that we have put in to save the building is overwhelming. I do regret a lot of what was displayed by my abrasive line of questioning on June 18th, but the points I made were real and rooted in logic, not ignorant of it. The pure emotion that exists in my heart related to Sydney Hih was the driving force behind what I said. I am also fully aware of the speakers own passion for the City of Milwaukee and their continued efforts to preserve our built environment; I KNEW EXACTLY WHO I WAS TALKING TO.

    I would like to speak to you personally, if possible, and hopefully I can redeem myself and change your negative view of me. Some times you need to say what needs to be said, and you need to say it loudly. Some times people need to be shook around a bit and made uncomfortable in order to get them to act. If you bothered to truly learn what is happening regarding the demolition of Sydney Hih, I think you would be filled with the same kinds of emotions that currently exist inside of me. Our taxpayer dollars were used to secretly purchase and demolition Sydney Hih for no reason at all. The secrecy was purposeful to prevent what is happening right now with our Designation Petition, this was admitted by the City Development Commissioner.

    The Preservationist’s in Milwaukee were angered by Ald. Terry Witkowski’s proposed changes to the Preservation Ordinance. They fear that it will take away their power to protect and preserve our historic built environment. Yet, we lost the oldest brewery building in 2009 because of a technicality, and we are about to lose a 130 year building built by a world famous surgeon because of purposeful deception and misuse of public dollars. Both of these buildings are victims of an already existent push to eliminate our ability to preserve Milwaukee history. It doesn’t make sense to me and others why Sydney Hih is becoming a sacrificial lamb because preservationists are unwilling to support our cause out of fear. The fear of being labeled a hindrance to development.

    Please respond to me. You have a right to your opinion, but at least give me a chance to respond to your accusations. It saddens me that my mishandling of my emotions as they relate to Sydney Hih caused you to move away from supporting our cause. I just think you need to learn what is really going on, you would be just as angry as me.

    Learn more:

  7. Juli Kaufmann says:

    This event just touched the surface of so many important topics and I appreciate that Urban Milwaukee allows a forum for extending the discussion. This sort of dialogue is valuable for our city and I delightfully note that each commenter so far has used their real name, and as I have come to expect, offers input with civility. We really need to talk more with each other and not just preach to our respective choirs. I also appreciated getting perspective from @Alex Runner, a talented writer and engaged citizen. I encourage Urban Milwaukee to continue to welcome diverse guest authors to your ranks.

    I am grateful to Historic Milwaukee for their leadership in bringing this series of conversations to life. I was sorry to have missed the first session but distinctly remember my reaction when I first read about it – WOW! What a brilliant idea! I was humbled (yes, sorry) to be a part of the second try. I agree entirely with the analysis provided by @Dave Steele. I hope we don’t let an evolving execution of a marvelous concept dissuade us. From what I heard, the second try got some process things better, and its clear improvement can continue. I felt the group size was perhaps a bit too large to get into the meat of some topics, yet it was the breadth of perspectives that really excited me. I also wondered if narrowing the focus to specific issues could have allowed deeper dives, yet at the same time I would not have wanted such constraints and think it might have diminished wide audience engagement. Let’s keep trying. Let’s continue talking about this last session and I will look forward with anticipation to the next session.

    Finally, to the issue of Sidney Hih. Honestly, what surprised me most was the strong backlash Noah Skowronski received. Yes, his emotions got the best of him, but I, for one, understood his frustration. He had a very appropriate perspective, topic, and reason for debate. I admire his passion and am grateful for his courage and hard work as well as that of his compatriots. I understand how hard it is to go in front of established institutions and fight for beliefs. It takes guts to stand up, day after day, and keep pushing. Its hard when it feels like nobody is listening and when others seem to hold all the power. The effort takes significant personal sacrifice and it is rarely recognized or appreciated. Often, tragically, we lose our battle and the toll of such a disheartening experience can have life-changing consequences that are often negative. I don’t know Noah, but it is a testament to his love of these issues and his maturity, that he offers such a reasoned comment above. He is still willing to fight and we should thank him for that. Its clear he knows we are not really the enemy and we should understand why he felt disappointed in us as friends.

    Perhaps we don’t all choose to fight for Sidney Hih, but let’s not fight with those who are clearly working to make Milwaukee a better place. Let’s start from the assumption that we each care and want a great city. We each aren’t always willing or able to pick every battle. And even when we do draw up arms together, our battle tactics don’t all look the same. We need all the champions we can get Milwaukee.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Noah Please understand I love the passion, personally I was just worried that you hurt your effort with the approach. And please don’t take Alex’s article an attack, just advice really, as I personally hope you are successful and trust me when I say there are others (around here) working to try and help save the Sydney Hih as well!

  9. Alex says:

    Noah, I’d love to meet. My email is But there’s no need to “redeem” yourself. I’m not down on you personally — I just took issue with your particular style of advocacy on that specific evening. Let’s get coffee or whatever. Who knows, maybe you’ll set me straight on some things.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us