My home town of Milwaukee was an industrial center in the Midwest - brewing, manufacturing - and struggled as most such centers did once those industries couldn't sustain it anymore. It is now going through a slow but unmistakable cultural transformation. It's not fully there yet, but there are several vibrant pockets of community and cultural life, and lots of possibilities on the horizon.
Here are just a few of the things I've heard about recently:
- The Rotary Club, a service organization for Catholic business people, is collaborating with some foundations and the Urban Ecology Center to revitalize a portion of the post-industrial riverfront area, transforming it into an arboretum and "living forest classroom." It will include hiking trails, a canoe launch and several distinct outdoor learning areas for kids, and will apparently be the "most significant and biologically diverse native ecosystem in Southeastern Wisconsin." Its location is great, too - it connects the vibrant east side of the city with the more economically challenged north side. I'm sure there will be lots of programming drawing in central city kids, who would benefit greatly from what they plan to offer. I think this is a pretty cool thing for a Catholic organization to do to celebrate its centennial - a true gift to the city.
- One of the last great movie palaces of the golden age of cinema is located in downtown Milwaukee, but it's been basically abandoned for years and is in a state of disrepair. Its shabby former glory has really contributed to the general atmosphere of seediness and decay in the city center, which has continued to struggle even as other neighborhoods are revitalized. Just recently the downtown tourism board moved into the theatre's old box office and started using it as an information kiosk. It was nice to see some sign of life, but obviously it is still not being used to its full potential. Now it sounds like a trust is being created to restore the theatre and re-open it as a performance venue, to be used for community arts programming and even possibly as a second concert space for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
- Downtown Milwaukee is also home to a decrepit shopping mall of sorts. I believe it must have been built with the intention of bringing some commercial life to our city center, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. Half the stores are closed, and there are constant rumors that it's being sold, torn down, or converted into condos. Now arts organizations are staging a quiet coup and moving into to some of the abandoned retail spaces. The Milwaukee Public Theatre has taken over one large space that has been vacant for years, and has created a spacious new theatre learning venue. The mission statement of the Milwaukee Public Theatre talks about the arts as a "healing resource," and they do a lot of educational and outreach theatre programming, particularly for public school kids whose education in the arts has been all but eliminated by budget cuts. It's great to see them with some elbow room and new opportunities. Across the rotunda, a coalition of small, independent Milwaukee theatre groups has created the Underground Collaborative, a shared theatre workspace which includes an art gallery, administrative offices, a black box theatre and a dance studio. My husband has gotten involved with one of the companies that shares the space, and they seem to really have their act together - they are energetic, creative and organized, and the space is in constant use.