As I sauntered down Milwaukee Avenue (fittingly, as you’ll soon see) in Wicker Park on a sunny afternoon this May, a digital billboard caught my eye. Atop a pack of fresh-faced 20-somethings (the very same types that live and party in this once-hipster neighborhood) hoisting drinks in what looks to be a German beer garden, the headline proclaimed: “This Is Summer in Milwaukee.” The subtext was clear: The party is way cooler up north.
First, former Indiana governor Mike Pence made a lame pass a few years ago, also via billboard, at area businesses “Illinoyed” by our state’s taxes. Now here comes Milwaukee—or, as I like to call it, Chicago’s Canada—pleading for us to ditch our metropolis for its quaint lakefront village.
Of course, Milwaukee’s tourism reps won’t admit they’re launching the first strike in a new border war. What they will do, happily, is rattle off the indignities that accompany a visit to downtown Chicago: long lines for the museums, high prices at restaurants, and, dear God, the traffic. As an alternative, they humbly recommend—you guessed it—a trip to their town.
“We’ve found that people see it as easier to go north to Milwaukee for fine dining, great theater, museums, all of that, than it is to get to downtown Chicago for that experience,” says Kristin Settle, director of communications for Visit Milwaukee. “You get a bigger bang for your buck.” The digital billboard I saw, similar versions of which can be found all over, is part of what she calls a “strategic” campaign to attract Chicago-area residents. According to Settle, it’s working: There’s been a steady rise in the number of visitors (though she won’t say exactly how many) from northern Illinois, where a 90-minute Amtrak ride from Union Station or a hassle-free drive north on I-94 leads to bountiful cultural and culinary delights.
Milwaukee also seems to be leveraging its fancy new basketball arena, which is scheduled to replace the current BMO Harris Bradley Center for the 2018–19 season. The hope is that the stadium (plus 30 acres of shops and restaurants around it) will draw Chicago-area basketball fans looking for a better shot at seeing the NBA’s elite teams play. In fact, according to the arena’s GM, Raj Saha (who lives in the West Loop but swears he’s moving to Milwaukee soon), that’s happening already. “If you want to see Steph Curry or LeBron play, Milwaukee is a very easy place to travel,” he says. “And if the game [in Chicago] is sold out or pricey on the secondary market, we’re giving you an alternative.” With the average ticket price for a Bulls game hovering around $82, versus $60 for the Bucks, he has a point.
What the Bucks aren’t doing, Saha is careful to point out, is trying to poach disgruntled Bulls fans. “We don’t think like that,” he says. “Our objective is to [attract people who are] not affiliated with a team.” But with a whiz-bang social-media-connected scoreboard that Bucks team president Peter Feigin declared the largest of its kind in the league, and an athletic young nucleus (which stands in contrast to the Bulls’ AARP-card-carrying Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo), who knows—maybe some locals will jump ship.
Let’s get real for a minute, though: How much competition does our northern neighbor actually pose?
Sure, Milwaukee, which had 22.5 million visitors in 2015 (a 2.7 percent increase over 2014), may be having a bit of a moment. Over the past few years, Lonely Planet, The Boston Globe, and Condé Nast Traveler all gave shout-outs to the Beer City as an under-the-radar destination that includes a growing distillery scene and four restaurants nominated for this year’s James Beard Awards.
Well, well, well. Seems Milwaukee has forgotten that Chicago is an international dining capital that hosts the James Beard Awards. And not to rub it in or anything, but the last two years it was Chicago spots (Topolobampo and Alinea) that took home Outstanding Restaurant trophies. Oh, and Chicago had more than 54 million tourists in 2016, a new record. I also couldn’t help noticing that both Settle and Saha used the same word to describe Milwaukee: “easy.” But easy doesn’t necessarily mean best.
Now, admittedly, the cheese curds do taste better up north. Milwaukee’s adorable ship-shaped lakefront art institution is a bona fide winner. And I hear the Harley-Davidson Museum is fun even if you aren’t having a midlife crisis. But c’mon. TripAdvisor named the Art Institute of Chicago the best museum in the entire world.
Milwaukee’s most confounding claim is that it’s becoming a truly international destination. According to Settle, the city has seen an influx of Chinese, Brazilian, German, Polish, Russian, and Mexican tourists. And she’s practically giddy when sharing an anecdote about an influential Chinese blogger who made stops in both cities while touring the Great Lakes region a few years back. In an interview with the Tribune, he claimed Milwaukee was superior.
“The headline read, ‘Chinese Travel Blogger Likes Chicago but Loves Milwaukee,’ ” she says. “Stories like that we’re really proud of.”
Sure, but are you proud that this same blogger, who showed his disdain for Lou Malnati’s deep-dish, claimed his favorite pizza was from Costco?
Bluestown vs. Brewtown
By Justin Shady*
|NBA Star||Jimmy Butler||Giannis Antetokounmpo|
|Notable Museum||Impossible to pick just one||Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava|
|Hipster Brew||Old Style||Schlitz|
|Wiener of Choice||Chicago-style hot dogs||Brats|
|Disgraced Official||Ex-gov Rod Blagojevich||Sheriff David Clarke|
|Pop Culture Nod||Chicago Fire/P.D./Med/Ed (someday, probably)||Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley|