I live in a neighborhood drifting somewhere between post-industrial wasteland, quiet residential district and booming commercial center. It’s smack in the middle of what is now the metro-Milwaukee area, not downtown, not the suburbs, semi-South but not trendy Bayview or the gang-sprinkled “south side.” My house sits on the edge of rows of old bungalows butting up against mostly former factories, foundries and manufacturing plants. The demolition of some unused buildings has sparked growth of a new high-tech industrial park.
When I return from my semi-suburban restaurant out west to my home I exit I-94 to cruise along a main road—passing first Miller Park, then a brand new Starbucks, Boston Market and Chili’s. In view are several huge—probably 10-story—vacant factories surrounded by desolate many-acre lots. Go farther and turn east again and there sits another giant, the Froedert Malting Company. This building boasts a painted-on-brick logo that spans the building’s 8-story façade, “Froedert Malt: Better Beer Starts Here.” This building amuses me; I once tried to take a cool picture of it but couldn’t find a good safe position to fit the whole building in view without getting trees or cars in the way. These gigantic structures inexplicably draw out contemplative thoughts. I wonder what exactly was here 200 years ago. What will be here in ten, twenty years? People have worked, earned, toiled and lived part of their lives in these places and now they are empty steel and concrete cases waiting for demolition. One could make those same statements about any old building, house or otherwise, but because they are so giant and make for such unusual landscape, they evoke more profound thinking.
In my neighborhood I see the crossroads Milwaukee is at. Old manufacturing, Brew-town, baseball, steel-making making way for department stores and restaurants and hopefully new blue-collar jobs at the rising industrial park. I see a truly diverse and integrated neighborhood of whites, Asians, Hispanics and some African Americans. It’s a place that the newspaper does stories about, so much growth in an area that was once completely blighted by an excess of forgotten industry. Old houses being sold in days after entrance onto the market to young buyers, many minority.
A few weeks ago there was a shocking tragedy in the neighborhood. A former employee of a new Arby’s six blocks from my house shot and killed the 24-year-old assistant manager and a 17-year-old employee who were closing the store. He stole $2400 and used it to do repairs on his mid-90’s Buick before being turned in by what turned out to be an accomplice. There hadn’t been a murder in the Village of West Milwaukee for almost 5 years. The surrounding businesses were shocked and unnerved that this could happen, here. When it turned out that it was staged by a former employee there was some relief that it had not been random violence, but still.
A few weeks have passed but last night as I passed Arby’s I saw something that caused me to pause for a second and be amazed at the unintended boldness of pragmatism. Outside the Arby’s, on the sign, in black letters on a white lit background, were the words: “Now Hiring.”