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Back to the future: Milwaukee
I'm guessing the last time you approached downtown Milwaukee, you did one of two things.
You hung a left just before you got there, stayed on Interstate Highway 94 at the I-94/I-43 split and enjoyed a ballgame and a brat and a couple of beers at Miller Park.
You stayed on I-43 at the split, slid past downtown and sped north to Kohler or Sheboygan or Door County.
There's a real good chance, if you're from the Chicago area, you've been doing this for a generation and thought nothing of it.
Well, here's what we've missed.
Here's the old Milwaukee:
Deteriorating, largely deserted (especially at night) downtown, four major breweries, Summerfest, and, for dinner: Sauerbraten. Marinated for 10 days and oven-roasted. Served with red cabbage and spaetzel. Mader's, since 1902.
Here's the Milwaukee waiting for us:
Recovering, increasingly lively downtown (especially at night), one major brewery, thousands of new downtown condos (at booming prices), the nation's coolest art museum building, a RiverWalk, virtually non-stop festivals (including Summerfest), resurgent neighborhoods and, for dinner: Tuna au Poivre. Ahi tuna, grilled to temperature and served on wasabi mashed potatoes with spiral julienne beets, enoki mushrooms served with a mirin gastrique and a chive-infused olive oil. Sauce, since 2000.
Fortunately, enough old Milwaukee (the city; we're not talking about that beer brand) is still left to give the onetime "Cream City"named for the prevailing brick color, not the Wisconsin cow juicea sense of place. We'll talk about most of those things later, but first, let's go back to Mader's, which is still around, still doing sauerbraten right and riding the revival.
Owner Victor Mader, 62, grandson of the restaurant's founder, has watched his hometown emerge from an image of economically challenged cultural backwater rocked by brewery closingsan image that's largely accurateto what it's becoming today.
"The town's changing," he says. "We're a little late with the condos and people moving into the city, but it's been happening, I'd say, for between 5 and 10 years.
"There's musical stuff going on all the time. Between June and Labor Day you don't have to wait over 48 hours to have some sort of musical or cultural event going on. We've got so many new restaurants. We've got people who are well-educated and well-traveled who have begun restaurants, particularly in the Third Ward."
The Third Wardnow marketed as the Historic Third Ward Districtwas, until maybe five years ago, largely a collection of underutilized warehouses and factories separated from the rest of downtown by expressway structure. Now bursting with condo conversions and other signs of upscale life, it's catching up to the Skylight Opera Theatre, which has been doing amazing things in the ward's 358-seat jewel box called the Cabot Theatre since 1994. (On next season's schedule: "Man of La Mancha," "Carmen" and the Marx Bros. comedy "Animal Crackers.")
Just walking around this district of buildings dating mainly from the late 1890s (at least one, the Jewett & Sherman Company Building, is from 1875) and seeing what's being done here, and sampling its restaurants, is seeing what happens when people understand possibilities.
These days, you see that all over Milwaukee.
The former Blatz brewery downtown is apartments. The former Schlitz brewery, just north of downtown (and across the street from Golda Meir School, named for one if its star pupils), is a middle school and office park.
Ken Zdroik, 35, works maintenance at the Schlitz Park.
"I remember when I was a kid, you wouldn't even want to come down in this area, it was so bad," he said. "I mean, right up the street over there you had drug dealers and prostitutesit was just horrible."
Now, he says, some of those streets have $450,000 condos.
"I couldn't afford to live down here," he said. "There's a lot of new things brewing at Schlitz now . . . "
The former Pabst brewery, which bottled its last Blue Ribbon in 1996, is being redeveloped as PabstCity, a $317 million residential, commercial and entertainment complex.
In the heart of downtown, on Wisconsin Avenue, the former Grand Avenue Mallwhich foundered as an early attempt to keep retail alive in the centerhas been reborn as the Shops of Grand Avenue and is 85 percent leased. Recent openings during this remarkable renaissance, credited in part to the new and anticipated flood of residents: Lane Bryant, Old Navy, TJ Maxx and Linens 'n' Things.
There are still dead patches (Milwaukee isn't Boston or San Francisco yet), but you can feel the energy everywhere.
David Gordon, director of the dazzling Milwaukee Art Museum (see accompanying story), said the addition to his building (opened in October 2001) has generated its own boom.
"See that crane?" The crane, idle in the late afternoon, was just south of the museum's lakefront campus. "They're building million-dollar condominiums overlooking the lake, and the selling point is the view of the lakeand the art museum."
The standbys haven't left.
The Capt. Frederick Pabst Mansion, built in 1892 by the onetime beer baron and eventual residence of Milwaukee's archbishops (including twoSamuel Stritch and Albert Meyerwho would be cardinals in Chicago), remains one of the country's more fascinating home tours. The theater the brewer built, the Pabst Theater (1895), is still a prime showplace across from the appropriately Teutonic City Hall that was dedicated the same year. Nearby, the Pfister Hotel, opened in 1893, continues as the city's most elegant hotel.
The surviving big-boy brewery, Miller, is still producing suds under its own labels and some others (including Pabst), and still doing tours. Once you get past the obligatory propaganda film ("Beer drinkers have always longed for [dramatic pause] Miller time!"), it's a pretty good tour. (Actually, the movie does have a highlight: The Bob Uecker Lite Beer commercial, in its entirety. "Oop, must be in the front row . . . ")
All over town are remnants of the other age. If you're walking the RiverWalk (a work in progress but with major potential), check out the building west of the Milwaukee River on Michigan Street. The massive Mitchell Building, completed in 1878, may be the most blatant (and splendid) ripoff of classic Parisian architecture in America (aside from maybe Philadelphia's City Hall).
A reminder: We're talking Milwaukee here. It's like French-speaking space aliens somehow grabbed this building off the Champs and plopped it in the middle of this once-German-dominated town just to annoy them.
Along the streets facing Lake Michigan, or facing the parks on bluffs above Lake Michigan beacheshow many of you knew Milwaukee had beaches?are mansions to gape at. Here's one: the Miller House, at 1060 W. Juneau Ave., across from Juneau Park, built in 1886 by department store magnate T.A. Chapman for his daughter Laura as a wedding present. It's now headquarters of the Junior League of Milwaukee, and if you think it's a looker from the outside, you should see the inside (but you can't . . .).
Then there are century-old (and older) commercial facades, blocks of them, all over downtown. Many, five years ago, were empty storefronts and vacant storage. Today they're slick restaurants and throbbing clubs full of beautiful people that, again, blast Milwaukee stereotypes to smithereens.
One place on Milwaukee Street near the Pfister, called Tangerine, at 9 p.m. had as many servers (all gorgeous females, in black) as customers.
"It doesn't get going until, like, 10:30," said one, named Cathy.
I suggested this sounded very un-Milwaukee.
"I know," she said, failing to suppress a delighted giggle. "It's so . . . urban!"
It's a Milwaukee that, for too many of us, has been bypassed since the Interstate Highway System made the city just another traffic bottleneck to squeeze past. It was different when, to go north, traffic had to drive through Milwaukee.
"In summer," remembers Victor Mader, "we were just killed with business. We had waiting lines every lunch in summer, usually with the Chicago-area people.
"Then first they had 94. Then they had 594. Now they don't even get near downtown."
That's already changing a little, thanks to the art museum. When the word spreads, that will be good for Mader, and for Mader's, and for you.
"They're skipping a real treasure by not stopping in the city and spending a few hours," he says. "Checking the art museum, stopping for lunch . . . "
Or the opera. Or the ballet. Or the symphony. Or the beach.
This is, after all, Milwaukee.