Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Unexpected Coolness of Cream City (aka Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

When I first saw that Milwaukee’s nickname was Cream City, I assumed this was a reference to the dairy industry. After all, the one thing I knew about Wisconsin is that cheese comes from there. (It is, in fact, the number one cheese producing state in the US, with more than 600 varieties of cheese produced.) But that’s not what Cream City refers to. It’s a special type of creamy-golden-yellow brick that was produced in Milwaukee in the 1800s and used to construct many of the city’s well-preserved historic buildings.

This revelation was one of many last weekend, when a group of friends convened in Milwaukee. I realized that not only did I know nothing about this metropolitan city of 1.5 million – apparently a shared condition given that I would tell people I was going to Milwaukee and they’d wish me a great time in Minnesota – but I really couldn’t explain why. It simply wasn’t on my radar. Inexplicably, Milwaukee has the same (lack of) appeal as say Baltimore or Detroit.

But the truth of the matter, as I’m prepared to set straight today, is that Milwaukee is a very cool place. First, Milwaukee has a lovely setting right on the western shore of Lake Michigan. That means vast ocean-like views, clear water, sailboats, waterfront parks and biking trails, and nice beaches within walking distance. Then there’s the wide Milwaukee River cutting through it, creating an impressive downtown River Walk area with stately riverfront buildings and tons of dockside eateries that you can visit by boat. I personally think it eclipses the San Antonio River Walk, which is far better known. As if that weren’t enough, there’s another smaller river – the Kinnickinnic River – which is quite fun to say.

Beyond this aquatic bounty, there are great urban areas like the Historic Third Ward, where industrial buildings have been transformed into hip lofts, food markets and rooftop restaurants; or the Old World Third Street area, where modern wine bars abut multi-generational sausage shops; or East Town, an upscale district full of parks and museums. Frankly, I didn’t see any downtown area that wasn’t comely, and I was looking for it. For a city with a declining population (another hallmark of a poor reputation), I saw no rundown areas, strangely. Instead, I found Milwaukee immaculately landscaped, carefully preserved and more lively than depressed.

The fact that the cost of living is so reasonable (e.g. luxury three-bedroom waterfront condos between $200-$300K) doesn’t hurt. Another major ingredient is that this is a young town, which I definitely noticed. The median age is 30.3 years, which is six years younger than the national average of 36.8 years. Fittingly, Milwaukee is only second to Las Vegas in the number of bars, clubs and restaurants per capita. It was also named one of the top ten best places to be single by Forbes. As a result of all these surprising things, as well as the fact that its population loss has slowed to a trickle in the last decade, The Street recently named it one of the “America’s Five Most Underrated Cities.” I couldn’t agree more.

Read Part II of my head-turning date with Milwaukee here.

1 comment:

Masala Chica said...

VERY cool. Glad you guys had fun! Post some pictures soon.