Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wandering Milwaukee

Cities are intrinsically cool. Why? Because there are people scurrying hither and yon who live there, amid tall buildings, traffic, energy, restaurants, and history. We relish dynamism and bigness, diversity, style, and the occult. Blade Runner and the Emerald City meet, and let’s face it, you’re not in Kansas anymore, not at work, but hoofing around in some glamorous place where deals are done, money is spent, drinks are drunk… Some effort has been made to beautify, generate an ethos, create an impression.

Glamorous? Milwaukee?

We went to find out.   

It’s hard to judge the size or “weight” of a city at first glance. Looking at Milwaukee, with its East and its West, I was immediately convinced that it’s bigger than Minneapolis. But that isn’t true. (I was surprised to read later, online, that Minneapolis ranks fifth in the US in skyscrapers, after New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and a few other towns… So much for the internet.)

What Milwaukee has that Minneapolis doesn’t have is wide, beautiful boulevards.  It also has a Great Lake to look out on. It has an intimate river snaking through it (unlike the mighty Mississippi) and a warehouse district (the historic Third Ward) that retains vestiges of its blue collar roots.

There is little point in pursuing a comparison between the two cities, which probably don’t have much in common, and don’t want to. The point is that if you’re from Minneapolis, you can have some fun wandering Milwaukee for a few hours.

We had the good fortune to book a room in the cozy County Clare Inn a few blocks west of the big lake, a few blocks north of the Milwaukee Art Museum. This room was considerably above our standard, with 13-foot ceilings and a whirlpool bath. But with two nights of camping and a Priceline motel deal behind us, we were still on budget. Throw in free parking and a breakfast omelet made by a mustachioed gentleman with a French accent, and who’s complaining?

After admiring the statue in Juneau Park and glancing down the hill at Lake Michigan and the striking metal “wings” in front of the art museum, we headed up Wisconsin Avenue.

This is a very fine street, hardly marred by the fact that the world’s ugliest building, The US Bank Building, faces it from the south.

This building was designed by the Bengali architect Fazlur Rahman Khan, the “father” of tubular construction—a  method that has made possible an entire generation of ugly but very tall buildings, including the Sears Tower in Chicago. Looking at the US Bank building reminds one of Filene’s Basement—cookie-cutter functional cross-bracing without a hint of aesthetic appeal. (The John Hancock Building ain’t so great, either.)

The nearby Wells Fargo building, though it carries a whiff of Phillip Johnson-esque pre-post-modern historical allusion, is fairly handsome, and to some natives it might even call to mind the 14-story Pabst “skyscraper” that previously stood on the same spot.

But the main thing about Wisconsin Avenue is how wonderfully wide it is. It’s almost a boulevard. It might even have flowering trees. There are other interesting buildings here and there, but the overall tone is historic and even genteel, rather than fast-paced or futuristic. It’s a nice street. One you want to walk down.

Then you come to the Milwaukee River, which has been made into a Riverwalk. It seems they’re still working on that. Construction everywhere. Many sidewalks and restaurants closed. But if you head south along the river and dip under the freeway, weaving and bobbing your way on foot, you’ll come at last to the Historic Third Ward, anchored by the Milwaukee Public Market.

This building houses a number of festive food stalls, which will remind some visitors of the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles or the West Side Market in Cleveland, though on a much smaller scale. It’s a great lunch stop—no doubt about that.

A few blocks west through some handsome warehouse structures will lead you to the river again, where half-empty tour boats take conventioneers downstream or upstream past breweries beyond number. It’s all in good fun.

We wandered upstream to the park where Father Jacques Marquette may have camped for four night in the early 1670’s.(If you've read the Jesuit Relations from the period, or even Francis Parkman's synopsis of the era, you'll know how far mosquito control has advanced since those times.) 

We were camping on the Rock River two nights earlier, just south of Horicon Marsh, where Indians had camps for countless generations. The frogs were peeping, and as we sat by the fire, Hilary spotted a great horned owl drop down into the trees on the far side of the river. It delivered its five-note hoot, and I could see its white necklace with binoculars in the dim evening light.

We should have gone into the elegant, triangular Wisconsin Historical Society building near the park, but we really didn’t want to look at exhibits. We were heading for the Turner Hall a few blocks away, past a street or two of slightly run-down German restaurants.

The Hall was closed, though we wandered upstairs as far as we could, and saw the famous beer stein collection through the glass in the bar. Such Old World associations are kind of corny, but they’re also cool, especially when you consider that the Public Market is brand new, and Pere Marquette Park was called Zeidler Union Square a mere fifty years ago. The Turner Hall has been going strong since 1883, and in various ways its gymnasium, beer hall, meeting rooms, and two-story ballroom continue to promote the Turner ideal of a sound mind and a sound body—through exercise, right reason, and beer.

After a restorative Starbucks coffee, we headed back down to the art museum on the waterfront. I found the Calatrava entry and foyer to be antiseptic—exactly what fine art shouldn’t be. I tried my best to get the receptionist to let us in on the strength of our Minneapolis Art Institute membership—reciprocity and all that—but she utterly failed to rise to the occasion. So we saved $34 and walked around the front of the building, then up the hill through the nice grass, then down the street to our lovely inn.

The evening light was golden. From the restaurant we watched people pass riding mountain bikes, carrying yoga mats. (Gone are the days of the boom-box, perhaps.) The corned beef and cabbage was far inferior to what my mother (nee McIlvenna) used to make, but it was good enough.

One last wander through the neighborhood. We're looking forward to a bike ride along the coast in the morning.        

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