Stephanie S. Beecher 2014-06-18 02:53:41
“ I truly believe only in a city like Milwaukee can a person dream big and then bring those dreams to life.” Angela Damiani, NEWaukee A NEW GENERATION IS EMBRACING MILWAUKEE WITH ENERGY AND OPTIMISM It’s a crystal blue day in the last week of May, and despite it being just barely after 4 p.m., people are already filing into downtown for Friday happy hour en plein air. Surely, after the frigid throes of the Polar Vortex, a little thawing is what these Milwaukeeans are after, but there’s a feeling of something else in the air — not just the excitement that comes with the hinges of summer but a static, a buzz, a new energy, if you will. On the rooftop of the Milwaukee Athletic Club, Michael Kleber stands near its eastern edge panning the city’s skyline. To the left, we can see into Riverwest and beyond; to the right the contours of the Historic Third Ward. And directly in front of us, in all of its shimmering beauty, lies a spanning, majestic view of Lake Michigan. On this day, it’s difficult to decipher where the water’s horizon meets the cerulean sky, and it’s hard to believe that anybody would want to live anywhere else. At least that’s how Kleber, 30, sees it. The leasing director at Zilber Property Group points to the towering crane at the east end of Wisconsin Avenue, the construction site of Northwest Mutual’s new headquarters, a campus that may soon rival the altitudinous presence of the U.S. Bank building. He says Milwaukee’s landscape is changing, literally, and he and other young Milwaukeeans, are nothing short of excited to play their hand in the renaissance. “We consider Milwaukee to be our own,” Kleber says. “We truly live, work and play here.” As The World Turns Like so many Millennials — the age group born between 1980 and 2000 — the former UW-Madison football player graduated from college and headed back home to live with his parents in suburban Hartford. It’s a familiar story. Despite being the best-educated generation in American history — about one-third hold a bachelor’s degree or higher — Millennials also entered the workforce at the height of the Great Recession. Additionally, they left college with the highest-ever recorded rate of student loan debt — at least two-thirds of recent bachelor-holders owe an average of $27,000 or more — so it should come as no surprise that a 34 percent of Millennials still reside with their parents. At 80 million strong — a population larger than the baby boomers — this group not only witnessed everything from the horrors of 9/11 and the country’s longest war, but also the crumbling of the entire establishment. They watched as globalization threatened domestic corporations; as bloggers upended media outlets; as Internet e-commerce endangered brick-and-mortar businesses; and as digital and social media tore down the traditional walls of hierarchy. They were also bystanders when parents lost jobs, family homes fell into foreclosure, and they couldn’t land jobs after school. “We saw our parent’s generation with their backs against a wall,” says Matt Sabljak, 30, director of sales and strategy at Spreenkler Creative. “People worked for 25 years with a company and got the boot. That illusion of ‘safety’ was gone.” These circumstances have created an era of “delayed adulthood.” Without a firm financial foundation beneath them, Millennials have put off marriage, mortgages and have an entirely different mind-set when it comes to what matters to them most. And here’s a hint: It’s not salary, security or even stability. They’re not stepping over each other to reach the top of the ladder like previous generations, they’re re-building one from the ground up and climbing together. Millennials have driven revitalization efforts in cities such as Portland, Seattle, Austin, and Detroit for much of the past decade and beyond. But there has long been a disconnect here in Milwaukee. We haven’t had the same ‘cool factor’ as bigger metropolises, like Chicago, where there is no problem luring young people to the promise of city life. Milwaukee has been very much considered a city in the second tier. Milwaukee Millennials want to change that. With resounding energy, this group has charged forward to create a place it wants to be in — rejuvenating the arts, culinary, nightlife and start-up scenes in the process. People of this generation aren’t waiting for an economic recovery — they’re taking matters into their own hands. “Our generation is self-reliant,” Sabljak says. “It’s our responsibility to make this city what we want it to be. And we’re creating jobs, but we’re also creating sexy, cool jobs that are attracting young people and professionals to the city. We’re going to make it a better Milwaukee.” Call it blind ignorance, narcissism or naivete, but there is no denying Millennials’ influence. Milwaukee is on the cusp of change. Nothing To Lose If anything was learned from the economic downturn, it’s that nothing in life is certain. Perhaps, that’s also why this group felt like it had nothing to lose. Millennials are more optimistic about the future than any other generation, says Pew Research Center. And they’re not just optimistic — they truly believe they can be the agents of change. You can see that resolve in the eyes of Kleber, Sabljak and others. Kleber’s living arrangement with his parent’s didn’t last long. As a paid intern “making peanuts” at the time, and ready to forge his own path, he packed up his belongings and moved to Milwaukee’s East Side, where he slept on a mattress on the floor in his buddy’s attic. “I was out every night, meeting people and eating out — it was like Groundhog Day for three years,” jokes Kleber. “But, that’s what got me involved.” Working in the world of real estate and quickly developing a passion for the city, Kleber wanted to make an impact. He joined the West Town Association, and helped form Young Milwaukee, a charitable group for the city’s young professionals. But a defining moment, he says, came when he met Ian Abston, a 20-something graduate from UW-Oshkosh with a grander apparition for the city. “We had the same vision and we wanted that perception to be all around Milwaukee. I liked what he was doing.” Kleber says. “It became cool to be downtown. I had a friend who never came to Milwaukee; now he’s not just interested in going out in Milwaukee — he wants to move here.” On one level, what Abston was doing wasn’t all that revolutionary — he was forging relationships and exploring the city with his peers, mostly over cocktails and beer. But that changed when he, along with Jason Larcheid, launched NEWaukee in 2009. The group soon found itself with a unique platform, gaining media coverage accolades along the way, and were eagerly supplying the narrative. That didn’t always sit well with more established groups, or their fellow Millennials, for that matter. But, it was clear they were on to something. What began as a sort of informal networking group that announced various meet-ups via Facebook and Twitter, quickly drew thousands of like-minded young professionals. It became less about the parties, and more about how to make Milwaukee home. When Angela Damiani, 28, came to Milwaukee she had no intentions to stay long. Two weeks into her stay, however, she attended a NEWaukee social. She says it changed her whole perception of what Milwaukee could be. “It felt like there was this pulse,” says Damiani. “People wanted to feel like they belong, to feel a sense of ownership. I completely sipped the Kool-Aid.” Damiani founded ART Milwaukee, an initiative to combine nightlife with art-centric events, and began collaborating with NEWaukee before joining its team. She now serve’s as the group’s president. With more than 167,000 people in its database, NEWaukee moved from hosting parties and outings, to partnering with various nonprofit organizations and providing professional programming, such as hosting speakers, “creative placemaking” and working with area companies on talent retention and mentorship. In August 2011, its founders quit their day jobs and decided to focus on building NEWaukee full time. “It went from a hobby to an obsession for all of us,” Damiani says. “There is the potential to make a wave in an environment like this. It brings people together who don’t usually interact. It’s not just young people. Established foundations have been really supportive.” A Movement Emerges NEWaukee is far from alone in its endeavors. Dozens of professional groups and alliances have expressed the need to bring Milwaukee into the 21st century’s culture of openness and transformation. And together they have flocked to time-honored organizations to voice their interest in urban development projects, sustainability, housing, transportation and employment. Covering these changes with a critical eye is Urban Milwaukee, an increasingly popular online news site dedicated to spotlighting urban issues. The site was founded by Fond du Lac native Jeramey Jannene, 27, in 2009 when the Milwaukee School of Engineering environmental sciences student and web developer began penning a blog by the same name. “I wanted to create change in the city and focus on urban quality of life issues,” he explains. “The infrastructure was already here. It wouldn’t have happened without the Millennials, but it wouldn’t have happened without everyone else, either. The entire city is thriving.” While Millennials certainly aren’t entirely responsible for this movement, they provided a proverbial tipping point. Their enthusiasm has served as an impetus of sorts, a trickle-up, rather than a trickle-down effect, says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “Not only has this excitement reached the mayor’s office, but I have never seen this type of energy in young people within the city before,” says Barrett. “These talented, young people want to be a part of the change. I am open and engaged with a number of young groups.” After speaking at a brunch during this year’s Young Professionals Week — an event that attracted more than 4,000 people — Barrett says he continues to turn to young groups for inspiration in citywide initiatives, especially when it comes to jobs. “These (young people) are the growth stock I want to invest in,” Barrett says. “There is a lot of opportunity here and just really positive things going on. There’s a whole new vibe to the city.” The challenge has now become how to sustain this momentum and just how far it can go. With all the city’s new and proposed developments — a new arena, luxury housing, the Lakefront Gateway Project, the Water Institute, the Pabst Brewery, Menomonee Valley, Century City, the Northwest Mutual campus, the Third and Fifth wards, Walker’s Point, South 2nd Street — it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room. While many people consider the changes as a sign of economic progress and growth, others see the rebuilding as nothing more than a Band-Aid being placed over Milwaukee’s bigger problems. The Millennials? They say that’s just a new word for “yuppies;” That growth? In some circles, they call it gentrification. And as the most segregated city in the country, the disparities are too real to brush under a fancy rug. It’s a tale of two cities, says Adam Carr, 29, a former producer at 88.9 WMSE and a freelancer currently working on a public art project. “ … The disparity in this place is suffocating,” says Carr. “It’s pretty easy to live a great life if you’re on the right side. Go one mile to the west, and you’re in a totally different place.” Carr insists he isn’t a “curmudgeon,” he’s just another passionate lifelong Milwaukeean vying for change. Just don’t call him a Millennial. “This idea that Millennials are the saviors of this city … It’s just marketing,” he says. “No one calls inner city 20-somethings ‘Millennials.’ They don’t call poor people ‘Millennials.’ It’s not a white thing, per se, it’s socioeconomic. I’m not saying anyone is doing anything wrong. But, I think we’re in the midst of a moral crisis.” The rift is also causing the Millennials to have a bit of an identity crisis. While talking with Damiani about NEWaukee’s latest initiatives, she talks about building parks, installing art, launching a farmers market, connecting employers to talent, hosting events — it’s enough to make one’s head spin. It’s not that the group’s vision is blurry, it’s simply trying to fill every void. It really does want to save the world. It’s a reminder that Millennials are still maturing, that partnerships with more sophisticated and experienced representatives of the city are still needed — and necessary. The attention given to NEWaukee and other young professional groups as of late, is quite similar to the plight of start-ups who precipitously find themselves with a milliondollar investor. Suddenly, they have people to answer to and promises to deliver on. It’s not a “pizza party,” anymore, says Carr. This fact is not at all lost on the young professionals. “We will never reach our potential as a segregated city — Milwaukee is an ecosystem,” says Sabljak. “I believe we’re embracing these challenges with eyes wide open.” Adulthood is inevitable, and as this group forges into its 30s, it feels a sense of responsibility to spark not just economic change, but social change. That’s a lot of weight upon its shoulders, but one it’s clearly willing to undertake. That’s also what makes this group so special — it sees Milwaukee in all of its possibility. “We enjoy rolling up our sleeves,” Damiani says. “We have a very pro-social vision.” Corry Biddle, 34, was raised in Sherman Park and is a product of Milwaukee Public Schools. As the executive director of FUEL Milwaukee, the community engagement arm of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, it didn’t take long for her to notice that she was often one of the only people of color in the room. Like so many others, Biddle could have chosen to leave Milwaukee for a more cultured environment. Instead she saw her position as an opportunity to help the city diversify. “FUEL is designed to get folks entangled in the fabric of the city,” she says over drinks at Colectivo one afternoon. “The work that we’re doing isn’t just about getting people to love Milwaukee — it’s allowing people to face its challenges. It’s getting them out of their comfort zone, to open their eyes and see the city’s potential.” She recalls a leadership luncheon featuring Judge Derek Mosely, held at a YMCA, on the city’s North Side. After the group sent out the invitations to its members, she says the team held its breath as RSVPs slowly trickled in. By the time the event rolled around, it was standing room only. It was a sign that Milwaukee’s young people were ready to embrace change, she says. Biddle’s optimism is contagious. “Why would I go anywhere else when everything we need to cultivate is right here?” Biddle laughs. “We’re creating homegrown pride. It’s ours, and we have so much to be proud of. We’re the future of Milwaukee.”
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