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Stateside with Rosalea: Milwaukee

Stateside with Rosalea


By Rosalea Barker

(Part 2 of travel tales from my summer vacation.)

I love Milwaukee. Straight up. There you have it. I love Milwaukee! It promotes itself as the Genuine American City, and makes it easy for you to get there and have a good time when you arrive.

Waiting for me at the hotel was a disposable camera to record my memorable moments, a poster from the exhibition I'd been given free admission to, and a welcome letter from the Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau through which I'd made my hotel reservations at

Along with the letter was a coupon booklet to use at the theatre, the Indian bingo casino, the clown hall of fame, the zoo, the opera, the upcoming Mexican Fiesta on August 22-24... a whole host of things. And when I redeemed my free gift coupon at the Grand Avenue Mall, I was given something practical made by a local company - a carpenter's measuring tape.

That's Milwaukee for you. It's the sort of place where you suspect it's a crime NOT to have a beer and a hot dog in your hand. Largely because of its breweries and sausage factories, of course. Sneered at as "Sauerkraut Bay" by Chicagoans and New Yorkers, Milwaukee nonetheless produced such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright and Brooks Stevens, the industrial designer who popularised the concept of "planned obsolescence" as a means of keeping the US economy growing.

The exhibition of Stevens' work in the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum was the highlight of my trip (which took me through 12 states by the time I was done). The shoreside pavilion is stunning, and I suggest you go to and scroll down to the slide show to see what I mean.

Milwaukee is also the home of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and the city was cheerfully gearing up for the huge influx of visitors that will be there later this month for the 100th anniversary H-D bash. But at the time of my visit, the streets were full of insurance agents, who were in town for their yearly convention. Northwestern Mutual Life has some mighty impressive real estate (and fountains) in the city.

One thing I especially noticed was that there aren't all that many cars on the streets, which lead to some pretty unpredictable driving - pedestrians beware! I'm not sure if speeding traffic is the result or the cause of the architecture, but Milwaukee has many skyways built over the streets, effectively turning several city blocks into a mall. You can even do a Skywaukee tour of the city. Then there's the bridges that go up and down to let river traffic through.

The temperature was really pleasant - 26 degrees Celsius at 4 in the afternoon with a nice breeze off the lake. I hear tell the winters are pretty awful, but with global warming the way it is these days.... In the evening on my last day there, a covers band called the Love Monkeys played a free concert by the river, where an emergency rescue dive crew were at the ready for anyone who tumbled into the drink. The beer flowed like wine, but it was a family concert and it was obvious that social drinking is an accepted part of family life here, so there was no unpleasantness.

Milwaukee isn't all art and beer. One of the notes I made to myself was "Don't forget the churches!" In the end, I didn't get to either Frank Lloyd Wright's Greek Orthodox jewel, or the church with the biggest dome in North America, but I did get to the tiny chapel of St. Joan of Arc, which was shipped over from France and reassembled in the grounds of Marquette University. Legend has it that the one stone St Joan laid her hand on is cooler to the touch than those surrounding it, but I got there late in the day and the door was locked, so I didn't get to have my gullibility tested.

I left Milwaukee on Amtrak's Hiawatha train route to Chicago. One of the original Hiawatha trains is at the Art Museum, and it is a beautiful piece of industrial design. On July 20, 1934, the Hiawatha set a new world's sustained speed record for passenger train travel, averaging 92 miles an hour for a distance of 53.58 miles on what's known as the Milwaukee Road. (Rail road, that is.)

These days the trip between Chicago and Milwaukee takes 90 minutes and the trains travel 12 times a day, financed in part through funds made available by the Illinois and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation. Judging by the conversations of some of my fellow travelers, the Hiawatha service is popular with business people going to meetings in Chicago, because the trains get you there faster than driving, right into the heart of the WIndy City, and with no parking hassles. An attendant comes through with a snack cart, and on my trip he was selling what he called "Wisconsin weight watcher pills" - M and M's turned upside down.

I had about three hours to fill in Chicago before I took the Texas Eagle for the next stage of my trip, so I strolled around the streets near Union Station looking at the wonderful buildings - everything from Mies van der Rohe to American Beaux Arts. Oh, and I had a burger at the famous grill that marks the eastern end of Route 66 - Lou Mitchell's - where the waitress calls you "dear" and there's cup-sized pots of marmalade and grape jelly next to the quart jar of maple syrup on your table.

Which reminds me, don't ever be shy about asking to take food away with you when you're eating out in the US - portions are usually huge, and most people take what they can't eat home to heat up for lunch at work the next day. How's that for word of mouth?!

(To be continued...)

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