Friday, September 14, 2007

Memo to Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Common Council: Time for a field trip


It's been a long time since UW-Madison (you were a semester ahead of me) and your career took you to the state legislature, congress and now you're the mayor of Milwaukee.

I knew you were politically inclined and upwardly mobile but never thought of you as a masochist who'd take on the task of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But, as someone has to do the dirty work, and the last real mayor Milwaukee had, Henry Maier, is dead and gone, it's about time you got some help.

I suggest that you take a field trip down to Kenosha. And bring the Common Council, too. (Well, except for one guy who is presently tied up with another pressing commitment.)

Why Kenosha?

20 years ago Kenosha was just beginning to get its head out of the sand and work toward diversifying the economy away from American Motors Corporation but those baby steps were amplified once Chrysler, which bought out AMC, announced it was pulling the plug on making cars in Kenosha, something that had been done here since 1902.

In the AMC days we were used to the disease that when AMC caught a cold, Kenosha got pneumonia. That was common in the auto industry and, as a result, the city didn't make much progess back then nor did many people see it as a necessity.

That changed when pneumonia was the least of the city's worries.

Just when things started to look up the city got its coronary and was put very quickly on life support.

Compounding the problem was the fact that Kenosha had become the gateway to the Wisconsin welfare magnet which led to a burgeoning population of the poor, racial division so deep that a mayor once publicly referred to Rev. Jesse Jackson as a "spear chucker" and a crime rate fueled by the migration north of Chicago gangs.

There were some things that worked in Kenosha's favor.

The community never had an "our you-know-what doesn't stink" mentality so it was a bit easier to secure consensus that changes had to be made (Racine is still debating whether there's a crime problem in the Belle City). That became easier when the city's economic condition moved from critical to grave.

High housing and energy costs in Chicago and Northern Illinois forced many businesses and home buyers north. Creation of industrial parks in the city and Pleasant Prairie and outlet mall traffic couldn't have happened at a better time.

The state had a governor interested in welfare reform and the city a police chief who realized that it was critical to get a handle on gang activity.

Forced kicking and screaming into the 20th century, Kenosha began to pull forward. New jobs were created but most of the community shifted to working elsewhere, mainly northern Illinois. Chrysler stabilized and slightly grew its engine production. Workers were retrained. The "factory town" mentality was broken. The lakefront was slowly -- too slowly -- redeveloped. New residential and commercial development in the western part of the city and Pleasant Prairie took off. The welfare migration slowed and with more affordable housing, a new migration from Illinois of quality workers and home buyers began moving into the suburban areas. We now have a growing middle class black population that is welcomed by most of the community. Although there is still room for improvement crime has been managed and criminals held accountable.

All of this, however, is relatively meaningless if all that happened was westward expansion while the central city was ignored. This is where Kenosha really shines.

Mayor John Antaramian, a former legislator who is not without some controversy, nonetheless earned significant stripes by realizing that you can't turn your back on the central city. As a result new homes were built, schools were remodeled and replaced, infested city blocks were removed and recreated, blighted housing rehabilitated, graffiti removed and, as a crowning accomplishment, a new suburban style grocery store was built on the old American Brass site, the first grocery store to serve that area in three decades. Two banks -- one inside the new Pick-N-Save and the other in a free-standing building -- followed. Additional construction is underway.

What happened in Kenosha isn't perfect but definitely worth studying. The central city is being redeveloped despite westward expansion. Crime and gangs are relatively under control. Some new jobs were created. Public transportation has been somewhat expanded. Welfare checks are being replaced with paychecks (though housing costs have skyrocketed with a correction long overdue). Slowly the downtown area is being somewhat revitalized although more needs to be done.

The moral of the story is that you can't fiddle while the city burns and thus you can't neglect the central city in spite of more glitzy development and expansion away from it. You have to attack the cancer or the central city will become diseased and that disease will spread -- just as it has in Milwaukee. And you can't put a $400 suit on an alcoholic and cure him. You have to attack the disease at its source.

So, Tom, it's only a 40-45 minute drive and about the only thing you might have to worry about is whether the police might stop an alderman's car and discover an outstanding warrant. (Another note: Kenosha didn't have aldermen on the take and none were ever indicted, period, let alone for any of the shenanigans some of your council members pulled). Let us know you're coming and we'll take you to Wendy's or maybe even over to Mangia's to break some bread (by the way, we took the plunge on smoke-free dining more than five years ago while Milwaukee still fumbles the ball).

It's your call, Tom. Do you have the brains -- and the guts -- to make the trip?

1 comment:

RAG said...

A comment was deleted because it violated the comment rules.

The writer suggested that there are good things going on in Milwaukee as witnessed by new downtown construction and additions to the skyline.

The writer missed the point.

Glitzy expansion in the downtown (or in Brookfield or Pewaukee) isn't neighborhood revitalization.

That's the difference.

And yes, I've seen the difference in downtown Milwaukee, especially the increasing difficulty in finding a good place to park!