United States of America
Milwaukee, largest city in Wisconsin, located in the southeastern corner of the
state on the shore of Lake Michigan. Although one of the nation’s leading industrial
cities and the commercial hub of the state, it was beer that made Milwaukee famous.
For decades some of the nation’s leading brewers called Milwaukee home. The smell
of brewing beer was a familiar aroma in the city, and institutions from the city’s
most historic theater to its baseball team have names connected with the brewing
industry. But by the mid-1990s the city’s association with beer was receding as
all but one of the major breweries closed.
The Milwaukee River, which flows from north to south through the city, is joined
just south of the city’s downtown by its tributaries, the Menomonee and the Kinnickinnic.
From that confluence it flows eastward through a short channel to empty into Milwaukee
Bay on Lake Michigan. The lake itself is Milwaukee’s most important natural resource:
the source of its drinking water, a recreational magnet, and a major influence on
local weather. January temperatures, which the lake keeps warmer than those inland,
average a high of -3°C (26°F) and a low of -11°C (12°F). Temperatures in July, cooled
by the lake, average a high of 27°C (80°F) and a low of 17°C (62°F). Milwaukee’s
average annual precipitation is 840 mm (33 in).
Numerous Native American peoples made their homes in the Milwaukee area before the
arrival of whites. That diversity was continued after the community was founded
in the 1830s. In the following years waves of immigrants were drawn to Milwaukee,
and each ethnic group lent the city unique attributes. The city’s name is believed
to be derived from the Native American Mahn-ah-wauk,
most often translated
as “good land.”
Milwaukee and Its Metropolitan Area
The city of Milwaukee covers a land area of 248.9 sq km (96.1 sq mi). Nearly one-half
of the area was added through annexations between 1945 and 1960. As a result, there
is still farmland within the city limits. Milwaukee is also the seat of Milwaukee
County and the heart of a metropolitan area that includes Waukesha, Washington,
and Ozaukee counties. The entire metropolitan area covers 3,781 sq km (1,460 sq
mi). Suburban and outlying population centers include the cities of West Allis,
Waukesha, Wauwatosa, Brookfield, New Berlin, Greenfield, and Menomonee Falls.
Milwaukee lies on a series of bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, and the city retains
the charm of broad tree-lined streets, parks, woods, and lakes. The older industrial
section of the city extends inland from Lake Michigan, mainly along the Menomonee
River. The central business district lies just north, along both banks of the Milwaukee
River. Numerous bridges connect the two sides of the downtown. Farther north are
many of the city’s most fashionable residential areas.
Milwaukee’s rivers divide the city into large geographic districts, each with its
own personality. The East Side is a center for nightlife and specialty shopping.
The North Side is a stronghold of African American culture. The West Side is a multiethnic,
mixed-income section of town, and the South Side is the home of Milwaukee’s largest
Polish and Hispanic communities. Several neighborhoods, including Walker’s Point,
Brewer’s Hill, and the Third Ward, are showcases for restoration efforts, while
others—such as Bay View, Pigsville, and Layton Park—have maintained their traditional
characters for generations. Individual suburbs range from industrial Cudahy, built
around a packing plant, to affluent River Hills, built around a country club.
Milwaukee’s population decreased in the later half of the 20th century. The number
of its inhabitants peaked in 1960 at 741,324; the city experienced its sharpest
decline in the 1970s. The population in 2000 was 596,974. Meanwhile, the surrounding
four-county metropolitan area has continued to grow in population, rising from 1,397,143
in 1980 to 1,500,741 in 2000.
Historic patterns of ethnic diversity have persisted. According to the 2000 census,
whites make up 50 percent of the population, blacks 37.3 percent, Asians 2.9 percent,
Native Americans 0.9 percent, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders 0.1
percent. People of mixed heritage or not reporting race are 8.8 percent of inhabitants.
Hispanics, who may be of any race, are 12 percent of the populace. People from Southeast
Asia, particularly Hmongs and Lao, were Milwaukee’s fastest-growing ethnic group
in the 1980s. The number of Hispanics in the city doubled during the 1990s.
In 2000, 37.6 percent of the metropolitan area’s residents identified their backgrounds
as German, the highest proportion among the nation’s largest urban areas. German
ancestry was followed by Polish (12.3 percent), Irish (10 percent), English (5.2
percent), and Italian (4.5 percent).
Education and Culture
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (founded in 1885 as a teachers college and
joined with the state university system in 1956) is the region’s largest institution
of higher learning, with nearly 23,000 students. Marquette University (1881), with
more than 10,600 students, is the largest private school. Other four-year institutions
in the Milwaukee area include Alverno College (1887), Cardinal Stritch University
(1937), Concordia University Wisconsin (1881), Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design
(1974), Milwaukee School of Engineering (1903), Mount Mary College (1913), and Wisconsin
Lutheran College (1973). Milwaukee Area Technical College (1912) serves nearly 65,000
students with a full range of vocational programs on four campuses.
As Wisconsin’s principal metropolis, Milwaukee has cultural resources of national
standing, among them the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet Company,
and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Other major institutions include the Milwaukee
Public Museum, a pioneer in interpreting natural and cultural history, and the Central
Library, housed in a neoclassical-style landmark on the western edge of downtown.
The Milwaukee County War Memorial Complex, dedicated to the county residents who
died in the nation’s wars, consists of a performing arts center and three museums
located around the city. It includes the Milwaukee Art Museum, home of a celebrated
modern art collection; the Charles Allis Art Museum, housed in a mansion built by
an early-20th-century industrialist; and Villa Terrace, noted for its beautiful
Milwaukee has preserved an unusually large number of its historic buildings. The
better-known examples include City Hall (1895), a civic shrine rooted in Germanic
architectural styles; the Pabst Mansion (1893), built for pioneer brewer Frederick
Pabst; and Saint Josaphat’s Basilica (1901), the city’s largest church and a monument
to the Polish immigrants who built it. The restored Pabst Theater is home to concerts
and theatrical presentations.
In recent years, Milwaukee has developed a reputation as a city of festivals. Summerfest,
an 11-day music festival held on its own lakefront grounds, is a showcase for acts
ranging from alternative rock to country music. During the rest of the summer months,
the park is the site of weekend festivals staged by Milwaukee’s major ethnic groups:
Italian, Irish, German, African American, Polish, Mexican, Native American, and
Asian. The Great Circus Parade, featuring the world’s largest collection of ornate
circus wagons, is another staple of Milwaukee’s festival season. The Wisconsin State
Fair is held annually in nearby West Allis.
The largest single unit of Milwaukee County’s extensive park system is Whitnall
Park, a vast green space that includes a botanical garden, a golf course, and a
nature center. The Mitchell Park Domes are three beehive-shaped glass structures
that house collections of plants from tropical and arid regions, as well as changing
seasonal displays. The Milwaukee County Zoo exhibits animals from every continent
in settings that resemble their native habitats. Preservation of the Lake Michigan
shoreline for public use has been a priority for decades. One of the park system’s
most popular features is Lincoln Memorial Drive, a generous strip of lakefront land
that stretches north from Milwaukee’s downtown.
The city supports two major league sports teams: the Milwaukee Brewers in baseball
and the Milwaukee Bucks in basketball. The Brewers play in Miller Park, a new baseball
stadium with a retractable roof that opened in April 2001. The Milwaukee Bucks’
home court is Bradley Center, a state-of-the-art facility that seats 18,700 spectators.
As recently as 1960, manufacturing accounted for more than 40 percent of the four-county
metropolitan area’s employment. Recessions, mergers and acquisitions, and global
competition reduced that proportion to 24 percent by 1990. Membership in labor unions
has suffered a corresponding decline. Despite these massive shifts, manufacturing
is still the foundation of the local economy.
In keeping with its popular image, Milwaukee remains a leading producer of beer.
Miller Brewing, one of the nation’s largest brewers, has its headquarters in the
city. But makers of iron and steel products employ far more residents. Milwaukee
is the home of Briggs & Stratton (small engines), Allen-Bradley (industrial controls),
A. O. Smith (electric motors and water heaters), Harley-Davidson (motorcycles),
Harnischfeger Industries (mining and material handling equipment), Johnson Controls
(automotive systems and building control systems), and Master Lock (security products).
The service sector of the economy has shown particular growth since the 1970s. Milwaukee’s
largest nonmanufacturing employers include Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance (one
of the nation’s largest life insurers), a variety of health-care providers, and
major banks. The city also serves as a wholesale trade center for Wisconsin and
for a wide region that includes parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan.
The commercial importance of the city stems in part from its function as a major
port on the Great Lakes. The port serves vessels engaged in cross-lake shipping
as well as larger vessels that enter the lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Breakwaters that jut into Lake Michigan protect Milwaukee’s harbor area. The three
rivers flowing through the city join and pass through a short deepwater canal that
empties into the harbor. Docking facilities line the canal and several of its branches.
There is a large mooring basin within the breakwater.
The principal highway to Milwaukee is Interstate 94, which connects the city with
Chicago to the south and Madison to the west. Interstate 43 ties Milwaukee to other
lakeshore communities to the north. Commercial air transportation is provided through
General Mitchell International Airport.
Milwaukee has two levels of local government—city and county—that overlap but generally
complement each other. The city of Milwaukee is headed by an elected mayor and a
17-member Common Council. City jurisdiction extends over fire and police protection,
waste removal, public housing, library services, street maintenance, and the Port
of Milwaukee. Milwaukee County, guided by an elected county executive and 25 supervisors,
administers welfare programs, court and correctional systems, expressways, public
parks, and Mitchell International Airport. Officials on both levels serve four-year
The mayor of Milwaukee provides executive direction for the city by appointing department
heads and preparing the annual budget. The mayor also has the power to veto Common
Council actions. The Common Council reviews the mayor’s budget and may make changes
to it, as well as confirm or reject mayoral appointments. Each council member represents
a district of the city and acts as its administrator, with responsibility to the
citizens for the services they receive.
Dozens of Native American peoples lived in the Milwaukee region over the centuries,
among them the Winnebago, Sac (Sauk), Fox, Ojibwa, Ottawa, and, by 1700, Potawatomi.
They were joined in the 1600s by fur traders who made Milwaukee a minor outpost
in the commercial empire of New France.
Native settlement and the fur trade both came to an end in the 1830s. Endowed with
a sheltering bay and a deep river, Milwaukee attracted the attention of speculators
who hoped to make the site a metropolis. The first public land sale was held in
1835, and the city of Milwaukee incorporated in 1846—two years before Wisconsin
became a state. The city’s first mayor was Solomon Juneau, a French-Canadian fur
trader who had come to Milwaukee in 1818.
Yankees from the eastern United States dominated pioneer Milwaukee, but 64 percent
of the city’s residents were foreign-born by 1850. Although Irish and English families
were numerous, the greatest number of immigrants came from Germany. They established
singing societies and dramatic groups that made Milwaukee the “Deutsch-Athen” (German
Athens) of America, a reference to its cultural sophistication. They also laid the
foundations of a prosperous brewing industry. By 1856 there were more than two dozen
breweries in Milwaukee, all owned and operated by German-speaking residents.
Milwaukee flourished as a commercial center at first, exporting the products of
Wisconsin’s farms and importing finished goods from the East and from Europe. In
the early 1860s Milwaukee was the largest shipper of wheat on earth. After the American
Civil War (1861-1865), the city turned increasingly to manufacturing as its economic
base. Industrialists like Edward Allis, Henry Harnischfeger, and Frederick Layton
joined the great brewing families—the Pabsts, Blatzes, Millers, and Uihleins (Schlitz)—at
the top of the social order.
The lure of industrial jobs brought thousands of new immigrants to Milwaukee, among
them Poles and Italians. By the late 1800s the city had developed a rich collection
of ethnic neighborhoods, each centered around its own places of worship and homegrown
businesses. During the same years, the city struggled to adjust to its new economic
and social circumstances. Labor unrest, political strife, and charges of corruption
dominated public discourse.
A reform movement gathered momentum at the turn of the century, and socialists were
prominent in its leadership. Rooted in ideals carried over from Europe and drawing
on the strength of Milwaukee’s working-class wards, the socialists captured the
mayor’s office for the first time in 1910. They would govern the city for most of
the next 50 years; Emil Seidel from 1910 to 1912, Daniel Hoan from 1916 to 1940,
and Frank Zeidler from 1948 to 1960. It was during the socialist heyday that Milwaukee
gained its reputation for efficient municipal services, scandal-free government,
and clean streets.
Milwaukee’s role as a manufacturing center expanded during World War I (1914-1918)
and the boom that followed in the 1920s. Severe labor shortages brought hundreds
of blacks and Hispanics to the city, many of them recruited by labor agents working
for local industries. The Great Depression of the 1930s practically flattened the
region’s economy, but industries recovered completely with the approach of the nation’s
involvement in World War II (1939-1945).
The region’s growth rate accelerated after the war, building to a historic peak
in 1960. Milwaukee’s experience since that time has been decidedly mixed. Mayor
Henry Maier, a Democrat who served from 1960 to 1988, provided exceptionally stable
leadership. During the same period, however, Milwaukee developed the familiar symptoms
of urban decline: an eroding industrial base, middle-class suburban flight, concerns
about racial equality, and an increasing concentration of poverty in the inner city.
A symptom of the decline was the contraction of the brewing industry, culminating
in the closure of the huge Pabst brewery in 1996.
While most of the city’s problems remain, there have been positive developments.
A downtown renaissance began in 1982 with the opening of the Grand Avenue Mall,
an enclosed shopping center anchored by an elegant 1916 commercial arcade. The mall
has been the catalyst for more than $1 billion in public and private redevelopment.
Projects constructed in the mid-1990s included a new convention center and a new
baseball stadium. Comparable energy has transformed some of Milwaukee’s oldest neighborhoods,
and the growth of the city’s ethnic festivals indicates that Milwaukeeans are taking
new pride in one of their community’s oldest assets: ethnic diversity.