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Cover Story

Old Milwaukee? Think again

By Tim Cigelske, Comm ’04

In Milwaukee, everything old is new again. OK, not everything.

But that is the case with Old Milwaukee, an icon of vintage Pabst canned beer that time forgot — until recently. Comedian and actor Will Ferrell breathes new life into the brand in a series of quirky commercials. The spots include one of him shouting from the rooftop of the Pabst Brewery, a few blocks from campus. In another ad, while rowing a boat on Lake Michigan, Ferrell peers over his shoulder at the lakefront and Milwaukee Art Museum.

“I came out here to take a look at her, my Milwaukee, to make sure she’s still got style,” he says. “Yup, she’s still got it.”

It doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement in Ferrell’s exaggerated delivery. But the ads — which went viral — symbolize the resurgence of Milwaukee. And it extends far beyond canned beer.

For alumni from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Milwaukee may conjure up memories of bars, abandoned buildings or shuttered factories. Younger alumni may remember Wisconsin Avenue construction and the massive and inconvenient overhaul of the Marquette Interchange section of I94. The stereotype of Laverne and Shirley might never go away.

But times are changing. Marquette’s hometown is shaping its future without ignoring its past. The historic Pabst Brewery, for example, is now home to banquet hall Best Place, while nearby music venue the Pabst Theater brings to town cutting-edge musicians such as Wisconsin native Justin Vernon, frontman of Grammy-winner Bon Iver.

Others are taking notice. Milwaukee drew praise from the Travel Channel and the U.K. Guardian, which in an article last year described Milwaukee in contrast to Chicago as “the hip younger sister you secretly want to hang out with.”

From jobs to food to destinations, the city that Marquette calls home is reinventing itself. And Marquette alumni who choose to stay in the city post-graduation are both aiding and benefiting from the transformation. Those who return for a class reunion may barely recognize the city they once called home.

A new outlook

For decades, Milwaukee leaders worried about “the brain drain” that took new graduates to larger, more vibrant cities. Now there’s a new outlook. 

“I think what attracts new talent, if they give it a chance, is the city itself,” says Jeff Carrigan, Grad ’93, co-founder of the Milwaukee-based Big Shoes Network, a job-posting site that specializes in advertising, graphic design, marketing, public relations, social media and web design. The site experienced a 40 percent increase in postings last year.

“We’ve got great festivals, museums, parks, restaurants, sports teams, theatres and, of course, the lakefront. Milwaukee is a gem in terms of work-life balance,” he says.

The creative jobs Carrigan highlights attract Marquette graduates like Amanda Eggert, Comm ’10, who stayed in Milwaukee for her career, as well as the culture. Following graduation, Eggert took a position with downtown creative agency Laughlin Constable after a two-year internship with the company. “I stayed here because I love it,” Eggert says. “Milwaukee is really an underrated city.”

Eggert is drawn to the lakefront, sports teams, nightlife, ethnic restaurants and landmarks, including the Milwaukee Art Museum, with the addition designed by world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. As a musician, she revels in Milwaukee’s late-night life. Her band, Peshtigo, with fellow alum Evan Pilak, Bus Ad ’10, played at the Cactus Club in Bay View and is lining up more performances this summer.

“Milwaukee is constantly changing, building, evolving,” Eggert says. “New restaurants, shops and attractions are opening up on almost a weekly basis.”

These changes haven’t been lost on longtime residents, either. Jim Higgins, Jour ’79, enjoys a bird’s-eye view of the city’s cultural creativity as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel arts and entertainment editor. Additions to the downtown entertainment scene impress Higgins.

“The Pabst, Riverside and Turner Hall operation brings such a variety of music and related performances downtown,” he says. “While the Milwaukee Repertory Theater has always stood for quality, the new artistic leadership of Mark Clements — who came from England to work here — has added delightful surprises and invigorated the operation.”

This translates into not just more options for students and residents, but more attention from tourists. Milwaukee has seen an uptick in tourism and economic impact since 2010, according to Visit Milwaukee, as well as international media attention.

Milwaukee earned mentions and headlines in sports columns nationwide last summer and fall when the Milwaukee Brewers had the longest and most electrifying playoff run since 1982.

“A lot of journalists that were here don’t come to Milwaukee on a regular basis,” says John Steinmiller, Comm ’04, manager of media relations for the Brewers. “... They were impressed with everything, from the hospitality to the fans to how the city has grown and developed.”

Local online magazine set a site traffic record with nearly 400,000 visitors in October. The website’s president, Jeff Sherman, Bus Ad ’91, credits the traffic to more than baseball. The online magazine showcases everything greater Milwaukee has to offer, such as DJ Kid Cut Up’s emergence on the national music scene and the opening of Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park’s second location — this one in Milwaukee — and much more. 

But for Sherman, one of the city’s old icons is still its best: the Fonz, made famous on the TV series Happy Days, whose bronzed replica graces the Milwaukee RiverWalk.

“He’s cool because he’s not trying to be,” Sherman says. “And having the Fonz on one of our great waterways — the Milwaukee River — is just another reason why Milwaukee is cool.”

Food bloggers in paradise

Milwaukee’s dining scene has grown in tandem with its entertainment options. Though custard will never go out of style, specialized and upscale dining is also taking root in Milwaukee, according to Lori Fredrich, a well-known local food blogger who is assistant director of external relations, communications and recruitment for the College of Education.

She notes gourmet artisan cheese, craft beer and locally sourced ingredients are growing components of civic pride.

“Milwaukee is really at the helm of a nationwide enthusiasm for locally produced food products,” Fredrich says, noting the city’s location puts it smack in the middle of some top Midwest food suppliers. “The region is poised to be one of the leaders in the farm-to-table movement.”

Dax Phillips, director of technology at Marquette Law School and popular local food blogger, echoes the sentiment. He cites Milwaukee restaurants such as Braise, Roots, Honeypie and Sweet Water Organics, as well as Marquette honorary degree recipient Will Allen, a pioneer of the urban-farm Growing Power, as examples of Milwaukee’s changing food landscape.

Alumni are making notable contributions to the city’s culinary riches. La Merenda, an award-winning restaurant owned by Peter Sandroni, Arts ’93, counts on more than 20 local suppliers for meat, fish, produce and dairy. Doug Konzak, Grad ’07, opened the trendy new Zak’s Café in Walker’s Point. Its cream city brick, hardwood floors and a menu developed by a Seattle Culinary Academy-trained chef offer an “old-meets-new feel,” according to an preview.

Jim McCabe, Eng ’87, owner of the Milwaukee Ale House and the rapidly growing Milwaukee Brewing Co. in the Third Ward, is a pioneer in the art of craft beer for emphasizing local and sustainable ingredients and using environmentally friendly brewing practices. This includes recycling oil from another Milwaukee iconic happening — the Friday night fish fry served at parishes and restaurants from one end of the city to the other — into biofuel to power his brewing system. 

So will Milwaukee continue to be known for beer, brats and cheese?

“I’m fine if we are,” Phillips says, “if it means including craft brewers and the types of gourmet meats and cheeses found at the Milwaukee Public Market.”

Good vibrations

So what does someone unfamiliar with Milwaukee make of the city? Just ask a relative newcomer — choose from almost any student.

Aaron Ledesma, an advertising sophomore, is a Houston native and tour guide to prospective Marquette students and their parents from around the country. He has visited other major cities but likes Milwaukee’s unique personality and ambiance. He even likes the changing seasons, a phenomenon he couldn’t experience in Texas.

“When I first visited Milwaukee,” he says, “I instantly got a good vibe.”

As a tour guide, Ledesma says one of the most common questions prospective students and parents ask is what do people do for fun here?

“I’ve come to realize that people underestimate Milwaukee,” he says. “They think that other than basketball, there’s nothing for Marquette students to do.”

Ledesma lets prospective students in on a little secret. He is already committed to the standouts — Summerfest, Jazz in the Park, Bradford Beach and paint ball in the Third Ward — and he’s still discovering things to do after two years on campus.

Students aren’t the only ones discovering Milwaukee’s appeal. One new Milwaukee citizen and Campus Town resident happens to be president of Marquette. In his inauguration address, Rev. Scott R. Pilarz, S.J., 
— who called himself a freshman at age 52 — praised the way the campus and city feel warm and welcoming.

“The cultures of the city and the campus are marked by an authenticity and utter lack of pretension,” he said. “People here are comfortable in their own skins.”

After spending nearly two semesters in his adopted city, Father Pilarz says, “It’s starting to feel like home.”

See a photo gallery and learn more about the destinations in this article at


Comment by Stacey Glowinski at Apr 19 2012 11:25 am
I have always thought that the itinerary for the big campus visit days should include the option of a quick bus tour of Milwaukee. In an hour or so, one could potentially show off the Bradley Center, the Museum, Water Street, Old World Third Street, the lakefront, Summerfest grounds, and the Third Ward . On the way back, swing past the Harley Davidson Museum and go far enough west to point out Miller Park. How about it? I'd happily volunteer to be a tour guide!
Comment by Patty Simmons Connery at Apr 19 2012 11:49 pm
I've always thought of Milwaukee as a fine example of a little 'big city'. The culture, diversity, entertainment, hospitality, and general good vibe draws me back year after year. Marquette is enriched because of Milwaukee and Milwaukee is enhanced because of Marquette....they go together.
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