Milwaukee: Something's Brewing

Milwaukee, which is pouring more than a billion dollars into new projects to polish its image, draws visitors to its lively riverwalk area lined with restaurants.
Milwaukee, which is pouring more than a billion dollars into new projects to polish its image, draws visitors to its lively riverwalk area lined with restaurants.

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By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005

Raised Baptist, I never did get the hang of dancing. But I can stamp my feet along with the best of them, and enjoy watching other people make damn happy fools of themselves.

The polka dancers at Art's Concertina Bar in Milwaukee get so happy that I'm tempted to join in. When an older gentleman invites me to be his partner, I allow my klutzy self to be led to the floor. It hardly matters if you miss a step because there'll be another one just like it a split second later.

Being in a town where no one knows me only partly explains my loss of inhibition. Fact is, it's easy to get caught up in the spirit of a rousing concertina number. And Art's is both the best, and claims to be the only, concertina bar in America.

Art's is part of old Milwaukee, that familiar Midwest city of breweries and bratwurst, bowling and polka. But there is also a new Milwaukee of high culture and chic.

A $1.5 billion investment in private and public funds has paid for major new attractions, including a grand centerpiece -- the $121 million addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum by the highly lauded architect/engineer Santiago Calatrava. Other old buildings have been refurbished and new ones built. And in the next few years, another billion dollars' worth of projects will be added, including a big development along the Lake Michigan waterfront, with two aquariums and a Great Lakes educational center.

On my only previous visit to Milwaukee 20 years ago, I left with an overall impression of a rather downtrodden Midwest city suffering, like Detroit, from the downturn in American manufacturing plants. Last summer I returned to find that the brick warehouses along an oily river had been transformed into trendy restaurants, with alfresco dining along a new riverwalk of brick and stone. The downtown galleries, shops, museums and free concerts reminded me more of a mini-Chicago than a factory town turned to rust.

Although the number of visitors to Milwaukee has remained at about 6 million per year over the past five years or so, their spending patterns suggest that they're coming for different reasons. Tourism officials calculate that visitors in 2000 spent $19 million on arts and culture; two years later, the figure jumped to $33 million. Milwaukee boasts 56 performing arts and culture groups, and in 2003 readers of AmericanStyle magazine chose it as the 10th best arts destination in the United States.

Milwaukee has managed to create new things without bulldozing what it already had. I found, for instance, that Mader's, the 103-year-old German restaurant I enjoyed years ago, is still serving big plates of sauerbraten and still displaying what seems to be the world's largest beer stein. You can still get a great Serbian meal served by the children and grandchildren of an elderly man who says his goal in life is to make sure Americans get a chance to experience Serbian hospitality.

Milwaukee still has a brewery and a Harley-Davidson factory tour. There are still unpretentious bars, and bowling alleys, professional baseball, basketball and hockey teams, cheese stores and, of course, the concertina bar with thrice-weekly polka dances. But much has changed, and for the better. In fact, if the old sitcom girls Laverne and Shirley returned to Milwaukee, they, like me, would barely recognize the place.

I'm not a great admirer of modern architecture, and I sometimes feel like I'm on the verge of seeing one museum too many. But I make an exception in both cases for the gleaming white marvel overlooking Milwaukee's Lake Michigan waterfront.

Calatrava's addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum -- his first completed work in the United States -- is not only an architectural standout but a feat of engineering. A pair of enormous, angelic white wings spread for the opening of the museum at 10 a.m. and close when the museum does. Like a preening peacock, the building also shows off its steel and concrete wings, flapping open and shut each day at noon.

Light streams inside the wide, open foyer of Calatrava's addition. The filtered light reflects off Lake Michigan outside and bounces off the white marble floors inside. In the end, it's as if outside and inside have merged, and you feel a bit as if you're walking on water.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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