Milwaukee is America. With its setting on Lake Michigan, German heritage, baseball excitement, and changing demographics, this city of 600,000 offers much for visitors (I was one of them last week) and its residents. Like many Midwestern cities, the city has had its struggles the past few decades as its manufacturing sector declined and families moved to the suburbs. Known for beer, several large breweries that called the city home for years closed down or moved. Currently Milwaukee has an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent–better than many cities but higher than the national average.
Look past the macroeconomic statistics and Milwaukee has become a hub of entrepreneurship. Redevelopment has occurred along the Milwaukee River and in the historic neighborhoods clustered around the city’s center. Besides the gentrification, however, Milwaukee is also becoming a hub for “green” and local businesses that are both refurbishing old buildings and hiring locals.
These trends are nothing new for the city. Its “sustainability” DNA dates back to the 1920s when the city starting making organic fertilizer from its sewage instead of following the standard practice of the day, which was dumping it into the nearest body of water. Years later, its cousin to the east, Detroit, gained a following for its urban agriculture, but Milwaukee deserves credit for challenging the notion that farming should only be in rural areas. To that end, Growing Power started as a way to employ local teens. Now almost twenty years later, the organization received a US$1 million grant from Walmart to boost 20 community food centers in 15 states. Sweet Water Organics, an urban vegetable and fish farm in an old factory, contributes even more urban agriculture innovation. And in the future, more ideas and young companies will emerge due to the work of the Urban Ecology Center, which instills sustainability thinking through youth programs and working with local schools.
Another trailblazer in Milwaukee’s local food scene is Alterra Coffee Roasters. For its suppliers abroad, most of its beans are either fair trade or Rainforest Alliance Certified. Locally, its cafes have had a role in refurbishing several buildings around town. Its first store was in the suburbs, but its flagship store just north of downtown gives you a window on Milwaukee’s past. Housed in a 120 year old flushing station that originally served to pump fresh water into the soiled Milwaukee River from Lake Michigan, this cafe captures 100 percent of stormwater onsite. Sven’s Organic Coffee and Milwaukee Public Market’s Cedarburg Coffee Roaster are a couple other local coffee businesses that raise awareness about sustainable and ethical coffee.
The real drink of choice in Milwaukee, however, is still beer. Lakefront Brewery started the local and organic beer movement in the city over 20 years ago. The brewery is proudly housed in an abandoned coal fired power plant that the owners purchased from the city for one dollar. Lakefront’s irreverence and approach to business makes it the pre-Unilever Ben and Jerry’s of the brewing industry. While sourcing mostly organic ingredients, Lakefront has also been a leader and innovator, from introducing the first American beer brewed with fruit to convincing the U.S. Government to allow a gluten free beer to be made. Its beer is not pasteurized, and its operations have earned it many awards as an exemplar green business in Wisconsin. Soon the beer will be even more local: the brewery is working with Wisconsin farmers so that the company can source hops from its home state – currently they are imported from New Zealand.
Whether they are reviving neighborhoods like historic Brady Street to the Third Ward or selling local products in the Milwaukee Public Market on the edge of downtown, Milwaukee locals and newcomers are confronting a tough job market by going out on their own and establishing businesses–while greening and revitalizing a great city in the process.
Pictures courtesy Leon Kaye.