Earlier in the week there was a "civic conference" event held at the Pabst Theatre where various city leaders would lead open and frank discussions about how to "think big" about the future of Milwaukee. It's called "Envisioning the Scene" and it as held on Monday night. I wasn't able to attend but have read several of the write up's from people who were there, including James Carlton from Milwaukee Magazine:
Third “Envisioning the Seen” discussion generates little besides old and empty ideas.
The overarching topic this time was the “Milwaukee malaise,” a term coined in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January. Audience members were encouraged to interact directly with the debate, texting and tweeting questions for the Q&A session.
Although the dialogue touched on matters of genuine importance – how to better engage local citizens, how to build young leaders, how to address racial segregation and tackle economic problems like unemployment, foreclosure and urban dereliction – it often seemed to lose momentum, rolling back down the hills it had just started climbing. Or it simply became irreverent.
The problem with the event is fairly simple. It is trying to do too much at once. Ostensibly, it was a discussion about the "Milwaukee malaise," a term coined in an editorial in the Journal Sentinel about lukewarm leadership, and the notion of placemaking, a term with multitudes of definitions. It was also about the individual and disparate blue-sky ideas of the panelists. And, it's about the built environment, hence the reference to the "seen."
Because the parameters are all over the place, the conversation was, too. As others have said, every time the conversation seemed to move in a productive direction, someone would change the subject and take the air out of it. Placemaking, a subject I was looking forward to seeing this group sink its teeth into, was not discussed in any meaningful way.
It's unfortunate that despite the constant desire for people to want to drag this City out of it's mostly self inflicted maliase, it never quite seems to happen.
I've lived in this City for half of my adult life and found myself nodding along as I read both accounts of the event, and agreed with a few friends that attended who relayed pretty much the same thing verbally. I've often agreed that we have a "leadership gap" in the City, but over the past few years have moved away from that theory.
My theory: we have plenty of strong potential leaders in Milwaukee. The problem comes when they try to lead and promptly get beat down by the "established leaders" because they dared stick their necks out and get something done, often times because it's at odds with those "established leaders".
Leaders by their nature like to get things done, get results. Milwaukee seems to have an adverse reaction to meaningful change and forward progress. That ends up frustrating those very "leaders" we're often waiting to materialize to the point where they either give up or leave.
The problem with the "Scene" event that both Schumacher and Carlton point out is the exact same problem we have with the city. We talk a big game and have lots of meetings about why nothing is getting done and "where are our leaders?!" while other cities are welcoming those leaders and enabling them to get things done instead of theorizing about it while drinking PBR and checking our watches to make sure the after party starts on time.
At the end of the day, the "Scene" event isn't about solving problems or thinking big, it's to talk about why we aren't solving problems or can't think big. The difference is huge.
I recently asked myself, "What's the last really big thing we've done in Milwaukee?" and was hard pressed to come up with a whole lot. Ask yourself the same question, what do you come up with?
Miller Park is great to be sure, but that's not really a "big thing" as dozens of other cities also have new baseball stadiums. Even there, look at how hard it was to get Miller Park done. Look at what's happening anytime the discussion of a new stadium for the Bucks comes up.
We built a nice new freeway exchange a few years back. We have a big party every summer so a lot of people who don't live here can come to our beautiful lakefront and throw up on it.
We seem to go gaga anytime a building with more than 10 stories is proposed for our downtown, something that would certainly get Omaha or Nashville excited, is that who we're on par with?
The new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum is great to be sure, and probably the one thing that most people would point to as a (rightful) source of pride for the city. But it's closing in on 15 years old already.
Which brings me back to the question, what's the last big things we've done as a city or region?
After thinking about it for some time, I came to the conclusion that in Milwaukee, we don't really celebrate what we do so much as we celebrate what we don't.
Certain large segments of Milwaukee and surrounding communities cheer openly at our lack of a modern mass transit system.
We don't want to focus on the problems with race and class in this City, but we absolutely don't want to move past it either.
We'd apparently rather lose a major league basketball team to another city (and there are more than a few in line, begging for the opportunity) than fork over even a half a penny extra in sales tax.
We don't want to undertake massive infrastructure projects in the city (combined sewer anyone?) because that also might result in an extra $25 on our property tax bills.
And we absolutely don't want to have a serious discussion at the local or State level about how our over reliance on an archaic property tax impacts the funding for nearly everything we do.
It's like in our desire to thumb our noses at the rest of America's cities to give them a, "Ha! We're nothing like you! We're Milwaukee and unique!" we are in fact becoming nothing like other cities who don't seem to have a problem with mass transit or building new stadiums for their professional sports teams.
In our desire to say "screw you" to other cities, we've only managed to screw ourselves.
One thing we do seem to want to continue doing is trying to analyze the reasons Milwaukee continues to fall behind other cities. Is it leadership? Racial issues? Proximity to Chicago?
Events like the "Scene" one are happy to perpetuate that, I would imagine, because it gives the small number of people who participate the warm fuzzy that they're trying to address the problems that the city they live in doesn't seem willing to confront.
So we continue to talk it out at cleverly named conferences with gimmick participation and theorize about what exactly is holding Milwaukee back. And that's good enough because even if we don't accomplish anything, at least we can say we tried to accomplish something and start the after party for the event where we'll pat ourselves on the back for all our hard work while lamenting that if only the rest of the city would get off it's ass and get involved like us by having their own "visioning sessions", we'd get things turned around.
I should add that I don't mean to be overly critical of the people involved with this and other similar events. I may be falling into that age group that has tried something similar with no real results and bemoans the cheery naivety of another group that thinks they've got the answer. I just find it frustrating that as a City, we collectively continue to beat our heads against the wall when it comes to "big ideas", because I just don't think we're all that interested in them.
We're Milwaukee. Big ideas may just be too big for us. And we're OK with that, because we're Milwaukee.
When that's the (for the most part) accepted mantra of a city. You can't be surprised when people who don't subscribe to that theory or who don't want to be a part of it move on. And that's a cyclical problem which will only get worse. It's why we have a "malaise" and why, unfortunately, I don't think Milwaukee is all that interested in doing anything about it.