10 June 2006

From beer to champagne

By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 10 June 2006

A Chicago weatherman once delivered a radio report on the "mountains of Wisconsin". He referred to some resorts not far beyond Illinois' northern border - getaways frequented on weekends by Chicagoans wearying of the big city: Alpine Valley, Wilmot, a few others.

There was just one problem. Wisconsin has no proper mountains and along its southern frontier, nearest Chicago, there is barely a hill. The only "mountains" within easy driving distance from the city are mere wrinkles in the prairie, rigged up with gondolas. But if they feel like the Alps to northbound pleasure-seekers from Chicago, who cares?

The lesson is that "mountains" are relative, as is so much else in travel and tourism. A tourist's experience has a way of rushing up to satisfy his expectation. The cold hard truth is that Wilmot is a pile of dirt, dumped and grassed over for recreational purposes. But maybe only the locals know it.

As recently as two decades ago, many people from southern Wisconsin - myself among them - were still bewildered by the way world-weary Chicagoans seemed drawn to our state like Israelites to the land of Canaan. No milk, no honey, no giant grapes, yet still they thought of our humble home as the Promised Land.

When state tourism officials tried to capitalise on the cross-border enthusiasm by distributing free car bumper stickers urging visitors to "Escape to Wisconsin", locals cut out the "to" and used them that way.

The misused marketing ploy illustrated Wisconsinites' admirable penchant for smirking self-deprecation. But it also highlighted a certain self-doubt that plagued parts of the state and, above all, the cities - especially Milwaukee, the state's biggest.

It has always been easy to understand why Chicagoans flock north to immerse themselves in Wisconsin's natural beauty: its vast forests and pristine lakes, its hospitable red-barn farm country and splendid golf courses.

But Milwaukee - a proud, brick-built brawler of the 19th century - has been another story. It suffered as many smaller Wisconsin cities did through the middle of the 20th century from a terrible double whammy of modern uglification and early post-industrial failure.

When Chicago was still busy preening itself, teaching the world about skyscrapers, two hours north along Lake Michigan's shore Milwaukee was looking ragged as the giant breweries that once helped to power its economy fell on hard times.

One could have been forgiven for wondering back then if Milwaukee, earlier renowned as America's thriving "Beer Town", would ever again amount to anything more than being Chicago's poor cousin "up north". It was not hard for pessimists to imagine an ignominious fate of monotonous middle-class oblivion for this miniature Mitteleuropa perched precariously in the heart of the New World, with its Germans, Slavs, Scandinavians and Italians mixing with its Africans, Latinos and Irish. The industrial revolution tossed them all together. But where were they going?

Milwaukee has spent the past two decades gradually proving any such pessimism wrong.

Although the big breweries are gone, apart from Miller, the fabled motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson remains, and the city's extensive light industry has so far proved itself adaptable in the age of globalisation. Local wealth did not collapse as many once feared it would - it changed.

A certain energy seems to have saved this city of 580,000 from the mediocrity that bedevils other metro centres of similar size in the American Midwest. Visitors find Milwaukee blooming in new and exciting ways.

Interstate 94, the highway north from Chicago, elevated as it enters Milwaukee, sweeps into town over lower and middle-income neighbourhoods: big, century-old houses crying out for reinvestment and streets marked by the mild, niggling poverty that afflicts inner cities of the Great Lakes region.

But poking up from one of those same neighbourhoods, I spot a billboard. It bears, of all apparently incongruous images, a portrait of Johannes Brahms. "Brahms in da Haus," it reads. Only in Milwaukee: gangsta slang, reverence for a great composer, and German, rolled into one.

Curiosity drives me to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the evening, where I hear Brahms' double concerto for violin and cello played very well. Handsome Uihlein Hall with its 2,300 seats is packed and lively.

In ways like this, Milwaukee exceeds a visitor's expectations and improves on memories of past decades. The city has quietly transformed itself into a cultural gem, even luring cultural tourists from bigger, wealthier Chicago and farther afield - a feat once unimaginable in the days when Wisconsin's top draws were god-given, not man-made.

The symbol of this transformation stands - or rather flaps - today on the broad, blue waterfront where Lake Michigan stretches, a chilly blue, over the horizon.

Visitors cannot know what to think, taking in the sight of the Milwaukee Art Museum's spectacular Quadracci Pavilion, completed in 2001 at a cost of $125m. Is it a bird, a whale, a yacht or just a building? Seen from outside, this white structure with two 50-tonne retractable sun-shade wings, conceived by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, looks like the strangely graceful skeleton of something - but what? The question is never answered.

But to enter the pavilion is to walk into a glass pyramid full of extraordinary angles, reflected light, sun and shadow, sky and water. Here is an extraordinary postmodern show-space for art that draws strength in its form from both a pre-modern faith in beauty and an unmistakably modern zeal for engineering and design.

Its director and chief executive, David Gordon, a former secretary of the Royal Academy in London, boasts that Milwaukee's arts scene "punches above its weight".

But this dynamic remains so little known outside Wisconsin that one simply must go there to absorb the impact of that punch.

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