By Lauren Sieben
Milwaukee has become a clickbait darling.
Our local media outlets run a story every time we’re recognized as a “best-kept secret” or a “worst place to live.” Without fail, my neighbors light up on Facebook in response to each one, sharing the latest listicle as they either swell with pride (“yeah, we are a hidden gem!”) or struggle to articulate dissent with whoever most recently announced that we live in one of the country’s most dangerous cities.
The latest pro-Milwaukee feature came this week in the form of a write-up from Vogue, and while most of the local reaction has been elation, the recognition left a strange taste in my mouth. I clicked on the story from Facebook, where a woman from my gym shared it. I did a double take after the page loaded. The photo looked an awful lot like Atwater Beach in the nearby suburb of Shorewood, and Twitter quickly confirmed my suspicions. It’s a beautiful beach… it’s just not in Milwaukee.
Photo faux pas aside, I get it. It feels validating when a national outlet recognizes what we already know: that Milwaukee is a great town, as worthy of a visit as Portland or Austin or Chicago. It can feel like maybe this is our moment. In some distant future, I admit, I would love to tell someone from a coast that I live in Milwaukee and see a click of recognition in his eyes, instead of watching as he mentally scans a U.S. map, struggling to place Lake Michigan. But that knee-jerk, feel-good moment of “Aw, us?” after each breathless Milwaukee feature always dissipates once our 15 minutes are up. Which is usually around the time we top a new list of “most dangerous cities.”
Milwaukee’s reality, of course, lies somewhere in between the best- and worst-of lists we occupy. Some of the superlatives veer into hyperbole, but some of it sounds about right: We have violent crime and we have a beautiful river walk. We’re a great city for beer lovers and we have a drinking problem. We contain multitudes.
Which is why the superlative coverage has become exhausting—must we react to every unflattering 24/7 Wall St. list featuring Milwaukee? (What even is 24/7 Wall St.?) Why do we feel so deeply honored whenever a national media outlet throws us a bone by celebrating the same “hip” neighborhoods and music festivals that invariably appear in every article? How long will we continue to hear that certain neighborhoods are “up-and-coming” (see also: “gentrifying”) before they have simply arrived? Sometimes these write-ups include an obligatory sentence or two that pays lip service to Milwaukee’s diversity, but if you’re keeping up with the listicles, you already know that our city is among the country’s most segregated. That diversity is sparsely represented in the restaurants and watering holes that national outlets have dubbed Milwaukee’s best.
Milwaukee’s omnipresence on lists both good and bad has become a running gag over at Milwaukee Record, a local culture outlet that runs a tongue-in-cheek “Great Job, Milwaukee!” series “to keep track of the city’s many appearances on dopey online lists, as well as any time a national publication deigns to acknowledge our pathetic Midwest existence.” Every time my social media stream explodes with Milwaukee pride or ire inspired by clickbait, I head to Milwaukee Record where at least I feel like someone else gets it. Maybe someone else thinks this oversimplified national coverage is really fucking banal and that we don’t owe it our gratitude or outrage.
As a writer who often covers travel and tourism in Milwaukee, I feel some cognitive dissonance here—first of all, because I’m writing a listicle about honeymoon destinations just one tab over. I am not above reading or writing cheerful, straightforward travel pieces.
It’s also true that so much of the glowing praise for this city is valid: We have top-notch bar patios and summer festivals and beaches and trails and James Beard-recognized chefs. I often pitch these stories myself to travel editors, because I love living here, and I’m excited about what my city has to offer. But maybe that’s part of why I’m not basking in the glory of a nod from Vogue. It’s not that the piece was bad or inaccurate, but it merely rehashes the obvious—explore the East Side! Bay View is hip! There is no nuance. Few national media outlets are interested in who we are beyond the East Side, beyond Bay View, beyond Summerfest.
And when a national outlet can’t even praise Milwaukee without making a slight—like using a photo from affluent, mostly-white Shorewood for the lead image on a Milwaukee story—it’s clear that the rest of the nation only wants to celebrate one version of our city, the one that looks like a glittering (mostly white) metropolis brimming with craft beer bars and microhotels.
This week’s recognition in Vogue feels impersonal, yet so many of us went weak at the knees for it. Maybe our collective self-esteem is deflated after years of being cast aside as a Rust Belt relic and a little sister to Chicago. And sure, we can appreciate the nods that occasionally come from Vogue, from Rolling Stone, from wherever. I’d take a favorable but statistically dubious listicle dubbing Milwaukee a “fun” city over a story with “26 Reasons Milwaukee is a Garbage Town to Avoid.”
But these articles that are merely dressed-up highlights from TripAdvisor reviews don’t acknowledge Milwaukee’s multitudes. We’re always boiled down to the superlatives, so hyperbolic that they become meaningless.
When Vogue says we’re cool and underrated, we swoon like it’s a compliment from a crush. But really, it’s a cat call at best. We could be any other Rust Belt city. We could be Shorewood, for all they know.
Banner photo by Kristopher Volkman.