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Community Profile: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Table of Contents

Most people in Milwaukee may not know how to spell the word gemuetlichkeit (ga-MEET-lick-kite), but almost everyone in this Great Lake city understands the meaning of the old German term for hospitality, good food, and good times with family and friends. “All of those are the sorts of things that make the city seem attractive to the folks from outside,” says Dr. Robert Teske, the director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

The message may not get across until they’ve lived here awhile, but then, as Richard Katschke puts it, “Once new people are here and they see what we’ve got, the city sells itself. Then it’s hard for anyone to pry them away.”

Katschke, the assistant vice president for public affairs at the Medical College of Wisconsin, is talking specifically about research recruits to the college from glamour meccas like San Francisco and such research sanctums as Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health.

Milwaukee and its gemuetlichkeit

Researchers may find the medical school facilities appealing, but all new arrivals find themselves charmed by the gemuetlichkeit that dates back to the first German immigrants who arrived in the 1830s. The culture, work ethic, and even politics the Germans brought with them still saturate this metropolis of more than a million and a half people on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. And their colorful expressions have become part of the Milwaukee vernacular.

Where else in America can you eat a schneck” (pastry) for breakfast, play a raucous game of cards called Schapskopf (Sheepshead) and yell “Schneider!” knowing your friends will understand you’re saying “nothing, no soap, nada?”

There are some who, thanks to the 1970s “Laverne and Shirley” sitcom, still think of Milwaukee as a place where there is a brat in every pot, a beer in every hand, and a bar on every corner. It’s not all wrong.

There’s no better place in America to buy bratwurst, that tastiest of German sausages, than at Usinger’s, a meatery ensconced for four generations in a quaint European-style building on, appropriately enough, Old World Third Street.

Across the way, surrounded by Germanic memorabilia, you can indulge in sauerbraten and wienerschnitzel at Mader’s, an equally European-style restaurant with a parking lot that looks like a Rhine castle courtyard. That’s not to say the Germans are alone. Serbian, Polish, and even South  American bistros are among the city’s best-loved eateries, not to mention a respectable number of upscale rendezvous.

Listings in the Yellow Pages add substance to supposition about the prolific bar scene. There are the endearing family taverns with names such as “Archie & Roxie’s” and “Fred’s Never Inn But Sue Is,” ethnic watering holes like the “Café Bar Dinastija,” and elite beer tasting galleries such as “Von Trier” with 80 international foaming varieties.

The bottom line is that all of Milwaukee is a place where everyone knows your name. But you don’t have to be a brew buff to get the long-lost-friend treatment. It’s a given as soon as the checker at your neighborhood grocery calls you by name. Or you can join the camaraderie for another local tradition—the Friday night fish fry. It seems no one stays home.

Milwaukee: An urban upgrade

Officially, Milwaukee will never see 150 again, but, it simply refuses to act its age.

The 1895 sandstone City Hall with its green copper tower rising 350 feet above a pinched  pie-shaped plot in downtown flirts with the gilded Pabst Theatre across Water Street. Next door, however, a towering 1980s theater center dwarfs the Pabst. One block away the all-20th-century performing arts center is home to the Milwaukee Symphony. From the 1893 Pfister Hotel, with its grandly renovated Victorian lobby, you can look up at the 42-story Firstar Center, styled like an upended white shoebox with crisscross window frames. It was Wisconsin’s tallest building when it opened in 1973.

Milwaukee’s real entry into the space-age architectural race waits at the edge of Lake Michigan about 10 blocks east. This July, the Milwaukee Art Museum opened yet another addition to its original 1950s cutting-edge building by renowned Finnish architect Aero Saarinen and an earlier add-on by David Kahler, a popular local architect.

What a difference a half-century makes! The new addition, a gleaming white structure by Spaniard Santiago Calatrava, looks like a cross between a ship and a plane, with its prow/nose pointed out to the great lake. A white “gangplank” leads to the main pavilion. Its skylight closely resembles a billowing sail. The galleria connecting the new addition to the previous addition, also white as white, could just as well be an extended B-757 fuselage.

The Calatrava museum addition symbolizes the dramatic “upgrade” that’s taken place in a city once dismissed as a “stolid old woman” because of its massive Germanic buildings. It’s a change that
prompts Larry Polacheck, MD, to exclaim, “Milwaukee has matured so much in 30 years!”

Milwaukee’s medical marvels

Polacheck returned home to practice pediatrics in 1964 after earning a medical degree at the University of Wisconsin- Madison and training at Yale University Hospital and Children’s Medical Center at the University of Texas, Southwestern Branch. “Once I started, I liked it here and have never had any interest or desire to move,” he says.

Part of his professional satisfaction stems from the fact that Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, one of his three local affiliations— and one of the nation’s busiest pediatric hospitals—has not only become “one of the top hospitals in the country,” but is also engaged in front-line research. One project has researchers seeking clues to genetic causes for Type 1 diabetes—the only project of its kind in the U.S. A second study is a search for environmental and genetic factors triggering cardiac and neurological birth defects, and a third is an effort to adapt adult pain management techniques
for children.

The hospital has made a national name for itself with complicated combination transplants. It was among the first to use unrelated donors in bone marrow transplants and is known for such procedures as heart reconstruction and nonsurgical repair of holes in the heart.

Other medical facilities, including the medical college, also have cutting-edge research and treatment programs.

In 1978, the Medical College of Wisconsin moved into state-of-the-art quarters on a sprawling west side campus now studded with medical and research facilities, including Children’s and Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, opened in 1980 and funded by a malt manufacturer who had once dreamed of being a doctor. Its 536 physicians are all instructors at the college.

Froedtert has been cited by US News & World Report as among the best in treating digestive disorders, kidney diseases, and orthopedic problems. Besides doing every known kind of transplant, it staffs clinics, labs, and programs in such “upscale” areas as gait, cancer genetic screening, hyperbaric medicine, and pain management. “This is the region’s principal referral center for complex neurological disorders,” says Carolyn Bellin, Froedtert’s public relations director. “We have the most comprehensive range of treatment options available.”

State-of-the-art specialties are often offshoots of research done at the medical college. “We are toe-to-toe with many other cities because of the work we’re doing here,” says Katschke in the medical college’s public affairs department. “We’re one of five special centers for research on the genetics of hypertension in the U.S.,” he explains, “and one of 11 centers chosen to apply  information from the genome project toward a better understanding of human disease.”

Other high profile research projects are less lab-oriented, such as behavior modification studies among people at high risk for contracting HIV, and an extensive compilation of statistics on firearms injuries. “We incorporate such factors as who was injured, kinds of guns, sex and age of shooters, alcohol involvement and any other patterns that can be identified,” says Katschke, who adds that the government, and even the United Nations, often relies on this research when making public policy decisions.

At St. Luke’s Medical Center, Dudley Johnson, MD, pioneered coronary artery bypass graft surgery in 1969, a procedure he has used in more than 10,000 operations. “Some people even call it the Dudley Johnson technique,” says Jennifer Gross of the media relations department. And over the years, St. Luke’s has recorded one cardiac “first” after another, from the first in the state to use a heart pump (1956) to the first with a permanent ventricular assist device (1998). More recent pioneers include Masood Akhtar, MD, an electrophysiology specialist, and Dan O’Hair, MD, a leader in the movement for off-pump heart surgery. “We’re the only hospital locally or in the state with a thousand or more open heart cases per year,” says Gross.

As part of a large integrated healthcare system, St. Luke’s can offer patients for many miles around access to the latest in technology, treatment, and research through services such as the Vince Lombardi Cancer Clinic. The clinic emphasizes the philosophy of the late Packers coach who, even though he lost his battle with colon cancer, believed in a winning attitude and a commitment to excellence. “We also have an immuno-therapy program with groundbreaking research into cellular and gene therapy, including a kidney cancer trial using autologous lymphocyte therapy (ALT),” says Christopher Miller, whose public relations concentration is cancer, “not to mention a cancer hotline and resources like the CancerHelp trademarked computer where you can get the latest cancer information.”

Such research was light years away when hospitals first came on the Milwaukee scene. It was a time of cholera in the early-settler days of the summer of 1848. A group of nuns, the Daughters of Charity, set up St. John’s Infirmary in a small frame building. Eleven years later, the infirmary became St. Mary’s Hospital. Another century on, a curving white-walled addition became an avant-garde landmark on the hill overlooking Lake Michigan. In the years since St. Mary’s has made its name as a burn center in addition to its all-purpose mission.

By 1900, four more hospitals were caring for a city population of 285,000. Today, the metro area’s 1.5 million residents are served by 20 hospitals. Most are consolidated into health-care organizations.

A friendly city

It isn’t only cutting-edge medical affiliations that bond newcomers to this midwestern city.

“It’s the friendliest city I’ve ever lived in!” exclaims Tom Ryan, the manager of an integrative medicine program at Columbia Hospital. The program, which began two years ago and is now in place at three satellite locations, is a serious blending of “alternative procedures” with traditional medicine and is carefully regulated by the hospital administration.

Ryan has witnessed a few “miracles” in his professional bailiwick, but they have trouble comparing with some “friendly- Milwaukee” encounters. “I meditate and do t’ai chi at two local centers,” he says. “In less than a month, the owners of both just gave me keys to their places.” Not long before, another relative stranger had offered to share an apartment, also handing over a key.

Warm and fuzzy stories abound, from the neighborhood block party Michael Schatzman, MD and his wife were invited to within days of moving into their new home to the quick help Carin Larson got when she broke her wrist at a shopping mall. As she tells it, a passing nurse sat on the “dirty floor” to calm her panic, while two others improvised a splint from a magazine and a shopping-bag drawstring. The three melted into the crowd without leaving their names.

A Milwaukee native and Medical College of Wisconsin graduate, Schatzman recently came back home after three years of residency in Seattle, where he reveled in camping, hiking, biking, and skiing. When asked if he could change one thing about Milwaukee, he says: “I would move the Cascade Mountain Range to the middle of Wisconsin.”

Still, he doesn’t miss rush-hour tie-ups. “My wife had to drive an hour each way to work in Seattle,” he groans. “There’s one freeway, and everyone’s on it. But here the traffic reports are a joke. It takes 12 minutes to get downtown, and there are a lot of ways to get there.” Several converging highways make it easy for people to get downtown and provide a scenic drive along the lake.

“I call Milwaukee a 20-minute town,” says Katschke. “Everything you want you can get to in 20 minutes — the opera downtown, the zoo on the west side, botanical gardens in Hales Corners (a southern suburb), Miller Park (the new Brewers’ stadium) west of downtown . . . .”

Changing cultural climate

Milwaukee’s cultural climate dates back to the passion of early German immigrants for music as well as hard work. In 1850, the Milwaukee Musikverein (musical society) mounted a full-blown performance of Haydn’s “Creation,” with a 30- piece orchestra and 100-voice chorus. As many as 30 or 40 choruses, amateur and professional, keep the songs alive, and the city’s cultural groups include a symphony, opera, a chamber orchestra, ballet, and several acting companies.

When John O. Norquist was elected mayor in 1988, he moved into City Hall with an agenda to revitalize the city’s historic center. The Bradley Center, a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, had already sparked a string of restaurants, brewpubs, and other watering holes on the edge of downtown, but Norquist’s proposed RiverWalk along both sides of the Milwaukee River, which cuts through the business sector, was about to bring that entertainment line into three dimensions.

Now tour boats and at least one restaurant boat ply the waters as pedestrians stroll among some of the city’s most venerable buildings or dine and sip at cafés. It didn’t hurt that city aldermen rescinded an old ordinance prohibiting outdoor restaurant tables. “It was a small thing that made a big difference,” says John D. Bratina, the city’s economic development policy coordinator.

In the meantime, developers had built a few downtown condo units. Under Norquist, the pace picked up to an almost frenzied speed, thanks in part to significant reductions in the tax rate. “The City of Milwaukee used to have the highest or second-highest tax rate in the county. Now it’s down to 16th,” says Julie Penman, the commissioner for the Department of City Development. Since 1997, 2,300 housing units have been completed, are planned, or are under construction, including apartments fashioned from upper floors of a former department store. And there’s no lack of tenants. Downtown’s population has increased by about 2,000, or 21.6 percent, since 1990.

The spirit has been contagious, as other areas of the city have been renovated and revitalized.

A highway built through the Third Ward in the 1960s decimated the traditional Italian neighborhood immediately south of downtown. Now a series of building renovations, new cafés, and the opening of a light opera theater have restored the neighborhood’s spirit, if not the families who once lived there.

The cultural unity of the displaced Italian-American residents remains, however. To raise money for an Italian cultural center, they organized Festa Italiana, an annual lakefront music-and-food extravaganza. That festival inspired many of the city’s other ethnic groups, at least nine of which now hold similar events every summer at Henry Maier Festival Park. The grandfather of all festivals, the Holiday Folk Fair International, a blending of some 50 nationality groups, has feted Milwaukee every November since 1944.

The Maier Festival Park, with its 12 entertainment stages, is a legacy of the unforgettable mayor who held office from 1960 to 1988, longer than any big-city mayor in the 20th century. In 1968, Maier spearheaded the now-12-day Summerfest to “keep young people off the streets” in the wake of a race riot the year before. The celebration now draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the U.S.

Young and old alike turn out on a mid- July Sunday every year for the Great Circus Parade with its elegant, fantastic wagons, performers, bands, and animals as it wends its way through downtown streets. In its early years, the parade was sponsored by Schlitz, the brewery whose founders billed their product as the “beer that made Milwaukee famous.”

Milwaukee history

If it was Schlitz that made Milwaukee famous, it was mainly the Germans who made Milwaukee—and the machinery they and others produced that made Milwaukee prosperous.

The Germans first came for religious reasons, then to survive when homeland crops and economy faltered in the 1840s. Immigrants kept coming—from many countries—and the town on the lake eventually became known as the most “foreign” city in America. Many of the newcomers found work in metal fabricating and machine-making companies that began to proliferate after the Civil War. Almost everyone started out in something like a 12 x 15-foot shack.

From its earliest days, Milwaukee’s labor force did more than blend malt and hops. In the early 19th century, beer shared the business spotlight with flour mills, tanneries, and meat-packing firms. By 1885, only five percent of the workforce was involved in brewing, and the city was well on its way to becoming the “Machine Shop of the World.”

“A small army of tinkerers was at work in Milwaukee,” according to historian John Gurda, “all of them hoping to scale the same heights that Edward P. Allis and his successors had climbed.” Allis was probably the first to understand the great potential of machinery. Although global competition finally drove it into the ground in 1987, his company, Allis- Chalmers, became one of the great American industrial firms.

Other small machine shops, started by men with names like Harnischfeger and Falk, blossomed into giants that still turn out machine products, albeit under different corporate names.

No such change with one company, though, started by co-workers William Harley and Arthur Davidson in a bicycle chop in 1901. Today it’s not unusual for 50,000 or more riders of their famous motorcycles to gather at rallies around the country. In 2003 (the company dates its beginning to the year Harley and Davidson actually sold their first “hogs”), company officials expect to zoom into the 100th anniversary with a monumental Harley-Davidson museum, now under construction.

Not to be left behind by the city’s 21stcentury architecture and medical research, Milwaukee’s manufacturing companies are becoming technology-oriented. Some, like Rockwell Automation and Johnson Controls, moved into the computer age years ago. Others, like GE Marquette Medical Systems, “are probably categorized as manufacturers, and they do manufacture products, but they view themselves as software producers,” says Timothy R. Sheehy, the president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

Julie Penman, the development commissioner, says that city leaders are making sure developers install appropriate high tech infrastructures in new and renovated buildings. The effort is already paying off. Several startup businesses have already moved into former warehouses in the old Third Ward.

There is one blip on Milwaukee’s otherwise blissful scene. In a word, “winter.” More than one resident grimaces over the snowbanks she backed into during a particularly precipitation-filled January. One saving grace: Street maintenance equipment is on the roll before most residents can say Frosty the Snowman.

For some Milwaukeeans, snow and cold stand for opportunity rather than misery. The city’s park system boasts seemingly endless cross-country ski trails and a number of skating rinks. And there’s always that “grumpy old men” sport—ice fishing. Just throw your gear in the SUV and head to Lake Winnebago, about 60 miles north. If you don’t catch the Green Hornet (Walter Matthau’s nemesis), it doesn’t matter. It’s the gemuetlichkeit that counts!

Eileen Lockwood is a freelance writer based in St. Joseph, Missouri.


Eileen Lockwood

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