Home Again, Home Again

I’ve been back home from Milwaukee for a week and a half. So why am I posting now? Well, truth be told, it’s partly in response to my mother saying, “So I’ve been waiting to see more about your trip to Milwaukee on your blog.” Really? Well, then, I guess I’d better get to it.

Problem is, I tend to have ideas for blog posts and sometimes write them down along with a couple of thoughts in the moment. Those are the ones I feel guilty about when I don’t end up writing full posts. I come back to them later and… wait, wait… nope, nothing happening. The post ideas that vanish before they are even half-formed in my head are just casualties of the fleeting thought process. The ones I later delete because they are no longer timely or what I thought I had to say no longer has any energy behind it are the ones that make me feel bad.

So, Milwaukee. The ICMA conference has been in a few cities that I have come away from thinking, “I’m glad I got to go there because it’s not a place I would have thought to go otherwise.” The first conference I attended, for example, was in Cincinnati in 2000. No offense to the good people of Cincinnati, but it’s not the kind of place you say to your partner over breakfast one morning, “I know! Let’s go to Cincinnati!” But that’s exactly one of the things that makes it so much fun; finding the little treasures and unexpected pleasures in the ordinary. Minneapolis and Pittsburgh were similar; Charlotte and San Diego (except for the zoo, being there with my daughter, and being part of Red Sox Nation during the 2004 ALCS) not so much.

Among the things I like to do when I attend a conference is find things that communicate something of the city’s personality. Often, as in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, San José, and Montréal, as well as Cincinnati, it’s a church. Cincinnati’s Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, the Cathedral of St. Paul and its magnificent pipe organ in Pittsburgh, both Marie-Reine-du-Mond and Notre-Dame-de-Montréal, and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San José have been the most memorable.

In Milwaukee I went to the Church of the Gesu (left), surrounded by the campus of Marquette University. Religious affiliations aside, churches are a reflection of the communities that build them, their heritage, their ethnicity, and their artistry.  Religious affiliations considered, I have been inspired by the welcome I have often received from complete strangers and surprised by how much I immediately feel at home. The familiar structure of the liturgy has something to do with that, of course, even when it’s in French (Montréal) or Spanish (San José), but the vibrant life of each of these communities has something to do with it, too.

At other times it’s been local architectural or landmarks of another nature that I find to tell me something about a place; the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s in Phildelphia or Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania; or local restaurants (think “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” without the spiky hair and Camaro) that give me a glimpse. A visit to San Antonio’s Schilo’s Delicatessen in 2006 really got me hooked on trying to find something authentic in each of the cities I visit. In Milwaukee I got a two-fer.

Since the restaurant in the Ramada Inn City Centre was so disappointing (not bad, really, but disappointing enough that I had no interest in going more than once) I decided to find a place to have breakfast once or twice while I was in Milwaukee. Sure, the conference provides complimentary breakfast items on a couple of days, but that doesn’t really tell you anything about the city. Convention center food is convention center food pretty much everywhere I’ve been so far.

So I was determined to find a place that the locals would go, and the Michigan Street Diner seemed just the thing. Since my hotel was on Michigan Street, and so was the diner, I thought, “No problem, it’s just a few blocks away.” Well, it was just a few blocks away, but on East Michigan, and I was staying on West Michigan. Doesn’t sound like a big difference and, truthfully, it wasn’t, but when it’s beginning to rain and you didn’t bring a jacket or umbrella, a couple of blocks can be a big deal. When I finally got to the Michigan Street Diner on the other side of the Milwaukee River in what appeared to be the remains of Milwaukee’s Loyalty Building, its street presence didn’t say much, statues of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley aside:

As an example of an authentic local diner, though, I couldn’t have been more pleased with it. The food was exactly what I expected, which was a good thing, and I wrote all about it in a conference notepad holder I lost almost immediately afterward. But I digress, as usual. After I finished my breakfast, I wandered out the door that came in from the lobby of the building, instead of going right back out to the street, and got an even better treat:

I just love finding local treasures like this atrium. There is absolutely nothing on the outside that would make you think you’d find something like this. And walking around Milwaukee I got hints of other treasures like this in other buildings. Sure, a lot of those buildings and storefronts were empty, no doubt like a lot of older cities around the country. Things weren’t great for northern, formerly industrial cities before the Great Recession, and they certainly haven’t gotten any better. Even so, I didn’t get a sense that Milwaukee was spending a lot of time feeling sorry for itself, but was getting on with it. The city seemed lively and, despite the times, seems to have a lot to be proud of.

The only major attraction I went to while in Milwaukee was the Harley-Davidson Museum. I read about it a couple of years ago in Cycle World magazine but didn’t immediately think, “I just have to go there!” When my mother went to a conference in Milwaukee earlier in the year, she scouted it out. She is as much a non-motorcycle person as you could imagine, but she enjoyed it. Having been there now myself, I’d like to go again and take more time with the exhibits than the conference social event allowed.

I’m sorry I didn’t get to Discovery World, the Milwaukee Public Museum, or the Milwaukee Art Museum. Maybe another time.

Next year’s conference, assuming I’m still in this crazy business, is in Phoenix.

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