When I was growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, I never thought particularly highly of Wisconsin’s largest city. I loved visiting the lake and the harbor with my dad for his Wednesday night sailing races, but aside from that, I found the city to be somewhat boring. Standard. Dare I say, basic.
Upon graduating high school, I quickly moved to Milwaukee’s rival city, Madison, which I promptly fell in love with, never looking back to my roots in MKE. I would visit my parents and cousins who attended Marquette University, enjoying the family time and sense of home that those trips would bring, but I never felt that same “in love with” feeling that I got from Madison.
I can’t exactly put my finger on why I didn’t feel any particular kinship to Milwaukee. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Wisconsin. In fact, I really loved Wisconsin. I left Wisconsin for all of four months when I attended the University of Delaware for a semester, only to immediately return the next semester when I was too homesick to function. To this day, I feel a deep sense of pride about being raised in Wisconsin. I often get a little weepy when I drive back saying something like “Wow, I really missed Wisconsin”.
The reason for my lack of pride wasn’t that Milwaukee was a city either. There were plenty of other cities that I loved. Nearby Chicago always captured my heart, and I used to get really excited when we would visit my grandparents at their downtown apartment or take excursions to a Cubs games at Wrigley Field.
Perhaps I didn’t fall in love with Milwaukee because it felt too familiar, too close. I actively chose not to spend time there as a young adult, opting for other Midwestern cities first because Milwaukee was not nearly “exciting” enough for me at the time. I would occasionally visit the Art Museum in Milwaukee or Collectivo on the lake, but I still didn’t feel any sense of the pride about the place that I was from. It was just a place.
It wasn’t until I returned to Milwaukee for the Women in Travel Summit in 2017 that I felt a connection with the city. The conference brings traveling women from around the world to learn, grow and travel together. Being surrounded by travelers in a city that felt so familiar to me was an interesting contrast that caused me to look at Milwaukee through a new lens.
Whether it was hearing everyone’s excited feedback about exploring the local beer scene or taking a sunset walk along the newly opened riverwalk, I started noticing places, foods and museums like a traveler, not a local. The things that were so familiar to me all of sudden felt new again, and that sense of newness is one of the qualities of travel that I love so much.
I think one of the things that stood out to me during that conference was how strong the sense of place in Milwaukee was. It previously felt enigmatic to me, like I couldn’t identify what the vibe of the city was. But upon hearing other traveler’s impressions of the city, it clicked for me.
Milwaukee is a city that embodies Midwestern culture in a humble, unpretentious way with residents that feel strongly about their identity, their city and their food but don’t need to talk about how much they love it all the time. Milwaukee is that self-confident friend who knows that it they are cool, but doesn’t feel the need to brag about it.
I developed a sense of pride for Milwaukee during the conference, saying to other attendees things like “I grew up here!” or “Isn’t Milwaukee cool?”. The WITS conference opened my eyes to how Milwaukee had transformed over the years since I grew up there, and I took a step back to simply appreciate that Milwaukee was a city on the rise, a city to be proud of. My pride in the transformation of Milwaukee was groundless, considering I had no stake or responsibility in how the city had changed, but I felt the feeling nonetheless.
Like so many other cities around the midwest, Milwaukee is in the throes of urban renaissance. Naturally this development comes fraught with challenges like gentrification and displacement of low-income residents. Urban redevelopment is a massive challenge facing our society and I don’t want to sugarcoat the disruption and harm that result when neighborhoods turn over.
But with urban development also comes positive changes, particularly when independently-owned businesses, boutiques and bespoke craft studios open up around the city. It is exciting to see restaurants and businesses thriving as Milwaukee redevelops the downtown neighborhoods.
Since the conference, I have a led a day trip to Milwaukee with female travelers from Chicago and have visited several more times. Each time, I make an effort to discover and enjoy something new about the city, which continues to foster the sense of curiosity and excitement I feel for Milwaukee. Now when people ask where I’m from, I feel a different sense of pride in saying “I’m from the Milwaukee area”.