"Dude, I smell like shit."
"Thats okay... It's Milwaukee!"
I think that interaction was what I remembered most about the last time I was in Milwaukee (prior coming back here in 2018). This was said to me by a life-long Milwaukeean, and I thought it was so funny that I swore that when I got back here to do a blog post about this city, those would be my opening words.
So there ya go.
I don’t remember a lot of other specifics from that initial trip, save for the realization that Milwaukee is actually pretty darn cool. It wasn’t a place that I had ever really thought about exploring before that, so when I returned in the summer of 2018 for a wedding, I made a point to break off a bite-sized piece of the city and take a long walk with my camera.
The piece of the city that I chose was Milwaukee’s ~Historic~ Third Ward. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but it was small enough to explore on foot and the word on the street was that it was the place to visit. So ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, let me introduce you to…… (drum roll please) …..
Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward
The Third Ward is a trendy warehouse district occupying a central, urban stretch of Milwaukee’s Lake Michigan coastline. If you visit Milwaukee and happen to ask locals where to go in the city, this place is likely to be near the top of many of their lists. It’s a fun place to be! It’s easy on the eyes and there is no shortage of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and fun shopping areas. As you might expect, today its occupants are mostly businesses and yuppies in converted apartments. But this was not always the case.
Originally, in the early to mid 1800s, this neighborhood was inhabited by mostly Irish immigrants. During this time it was often referred to locally as the “Bloody Third,” because it was frequently the site of large fist fights. Which strikes me as being very Irish. However, entering into the late 1800s, the Irish community here had some bad luck. To start with, in September of 1860, a wooden-hulled sidewheel steamship called Lady Elgin suffered a collision with another vessel and sank off the coast of the Third Ward. Though the manifest was lost in the accident, the boat was full of mostly Irish immigrants. More than 300 people died in total, making this the 2nd worst tragedy in the history of the Great Lakes. Then, in October of 1892, a fire started in one of the Third Ward’s warehouses. The wind coming off the lake that day was gusting at around 50 mph, so the fire quickly spread to adjacent buildings. It wasn’t long before the entire neighborhood was engulfed in flames. The fire departments of neighboring cities like Oshkosh and Chicago sent in reinforcements by rail, but they were unable to save the majority of the neighborhood. In the end, almost 500 buildings were destroyed, and about 1,900 people (mostly Irish) where displaced. And that is the story of how the Irish stopped living in the Third Ward. [Insert joke about the phrase “luck of the Irish” here.]
It took about 32 years to rebuild the neighborhood, which might sound long, but this is actually a pretty short timespan for an entire district to be rebuilt. This gives the architecture of the area an interesting continuity. In other words, the whole neighborhood looks almost exactly the same. Anyway, when the neighborhood was finished, it was resettled by the Italians. And for a while, the Italians killed it here! Many made names for themselves in the warehouse business, and entire mini-Italian society sprung up around them. It was a tight-knit community… until the Italians also left due to construction of Milwaukee’s highways in the 1960s.
From there the Third Ward had to reinvent itself. Without such a strong community in place to give this place a voice, it was soon proposed that the Third Ward become Milwaukee’s red light district. It was the 1970s at this point, and the remaining businesses banded together to prevent that from happening. It wasn’t until the 1990s that this place really began to be accepted into people’s hearts as a landmark (although it had always been historic).
Here’s the Third Ward on the map so you can zoom in and interact with it…
During my visit to the Third Ward, it was a beautiful summer day. We found parking fairly quickly, it only took us a couple of hours to wander the full expanse of the neighborhood. Being a Midwest native, the buildings here were nothing I hadn’t seen before. This type of industrial architecture is about as American as it gets, and will no doubt feel familiar to every American that has spent time in the large cities of this region of the U.S. However, the homogeneity of the architecture here was on a level that I had not yet experienced, and it made for a very cool aura.
To walk around the streets of this neighborhood, it was clear the area is booming. People were out in force. The side-walk seating of all the local restaurants was packed with people, and there was not a vacant storefront in sight. Commerce was swirling through every structure and alleyway. But instead of continue to talk about, I’ll just show you. Here are a few of my favorite shots from around Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward.
And here’s a rare sighting of Santa Claus living his best life on his yearly summer sabbatical…
The Milwaukee Public Market
I want to take a minute to highlight one spot in particular in the Third Ward that I loved: The Milwaukee Public Market. This place doesn’t go terribly far back in history, but it’s definitely been crafted to feel like it’s always been there. Inside this place, you’ll find yourself caught up in a swirl of Wisconsin’s best food items (and then some). All the vendors / businesses that operate here are 100% independent and locally owned, and while they do serve a wide variety of different foods, the cheese selection here is definitely something that you should take note of. There are MANY different ways you can get cheese served to you in here. However, I’ve come to learn that they also do cooking classes here, which sounds awesome! You can explore those options here: https://milwaukeepublicmarket.org/class/cooking-classes
Here are a few of my favorite shots from in and around this building…
And that’s Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward in a nutshell! If you’ve never been to Milwaukee, it’s cool! I’m not saying you should vacation here, but if you are ever in the vicinity, make some time to go exploring. You’ll be happy you did! .
The history of the Third Ward is pretty interesting. This is a place that has played home to some vibrant communities of people, seen some hard times, but has continued to reinvent itself. Looking at the smoking pile of rubble that remained after that horrible fire in 1892, the bustling streets of today’s Third Ward would have been pretty hard to fathom. And when the neighborhood was all but shut down with construction for a highway that threatened to compromise the neighborhoods viability and identity, I doubt many of the displaced Italian residents foresaw such a bright future for this place either. But here we are!
Life goes on.
So here’s a song that’s just fun. Because Milwaukee doesn’t take itself too seriously.