All Hail Milwaukee’s New City Flag
Robert Lenz’s creation is the winner. Will Common Council make it the city’s official flag?
Last night at the headquarters of 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, a new “Peoples’ Flag of Milwaukee” was unveiled, replacing the 1954 flag that Roman Mars bemoaned in his TED Talk as “one of the biggest train wrecks in vexilological history.” The older Milwaukee flag was designed by Alderman Fred Steffan, who cobbled together submissions from Milwaukee residents, squeezing together depictions of City Hall, County Stadium, a ship, a church, a factory, grain for brewing, a giant gear, and much more into one cluttered creation. It’s been called the worst city flag in America. At last night’s unveiling of the new flag, Commissioner of City Development Rocky Marcoux offered his own take down, deriding the old flag as “an inventory of what’s in the city that was dying under the weight of its symbols.”
The project to design a new Milwaukee flag was spearheaded by graphic designer Steve Kodis, who partnered with nonprofit Greater Together. Greater Together is a subset of AIGA (a national association for professional designers) that works to promote racial and economic equity in Milwaukee. Both Kodis and Greater Together believed that a new flag would only get widespread support if the community itself was engaged in the design process. So Greater Together organized flag design workshops for youth around the city, both to introduce young people to the idea of design as a possible career path, and to convey how powerful design can be. They also organized panel discussions for businesses, encouraging them to tap into the talent of the inner city. Graphic designer Xavier Ruffin described the flag initiative as a “symbol of hope and togetherness,” and a way for residents to “take ownership of their city.”
In the end, 1,006 flag entries were received, from a mixture of the public, youth, and professional designers. These were whittled down to 45 semi-finalists and five finalists by a panel of five judges (local historian John Gurda, flag expert Ted Kaye, designers Ruffin, Kodis, and Jena Sher). The five finalist flags were flown in May at City Hall, and Milwaukeeans were encouraged to vote for their favorites.
Over 6,000 votes were cast before last night’s announcement, and the final winner was “Sunrise over the Lake” by Robert Lenz. His flag features a white sun emerging out of a dark blue lake into a golden sky. The bottom half of the sun is covered by three light blue horizontal stripes, which Lenz says symbolizes both the three rivers in Milwaukee, and the city’s three founders. The gold of the sky represents the city’s brewing history, and the white is meant to symbolize the unification of Milwaukee. According to Lenz, “This flag is all about unity and coming together within the city. The founding fathers didn’t like each other and built streets at odd angles to each other, but now we are coming together.”
Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton attended the unveiling of the five finalists in May, and Barrett has called the city’s current flag “outdated,” but it remains to be seen if the Common Council officially adopts the new flag.
During his speech, Marcoux declared, “Until you can travel the lengths of North Avenue and National Avenue from east to west and see the same relative level of affluence throughout, our work is not done. We need to continue to have conversations about inequity, and this flag is important because it is a symbol of diversity and togetherness.”
And also a heck of a lot more attractive than the old flag, he might have added.