If you've ever been on a stroll down Philadelphia's glorious South Street, then you know what a true urban shopping street is -- a destination, a gathering point, a place where there's always a crowd. It draws the young and the old, the normal and the deviant, families and singles -- everybody. South Street pulses day and night, and people come there not just to visit its innumerable shops, bars, restaurants, and other businesses, but also just to hang out, to watch people, to disappear into the anonymous crowd. The desire for such communal interaction is a basic human need, and South Street fulfills it beautifully. One can observe the same thing at work on Chicago's Clark Street and Michigan Avenues, and Madison's State Street.
So. Where is Milwaukee's South Street?
Some would point to Brady Street, and I'll admit, it's come a long way -- even in the six-going-on-seven years that I've lived here. But even at its summer weekend night peak, Brady never really has a crowd. If you walk up the street, then back down, then back up, anyone paying attention will notice that you went by three times. There's not enough people there to get truly lost in, and while I won't say it's outside the realm of possibility, I don't see that kind of environment in Brady Street's future.
You could also point to the Water Street bar district, but it's a one-note show: an ordinary downtown street in the day, with the crowds only coming out on weekend nights -- and those crowds are functionally homogenous, basically people who are there to go to the bar. It also suffers from being on a major boulevard of a street. East North Avenue is another possibility; its business offerings are much more diverse, but hemmed in as it is by the river and the hospital, its growth is probably about maxed out. The crowds there on a Saturday night are, again, just not thick enough to cut it. The rest of the city's commercial and nightlife streets -- KK, Milwaukee, Farwell/Prosepct -- are all smaller still.
There's the lakefront, but it's mostly a daytime operation, and it's physically separated from the fabric of the city, and its crowds are too thinned by the sheer size of the place to provide urban anonymity.
We simply don't have a South Street here. And as a self-respecting city, we really should.
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If you check the Shepherd-Express's yearly Best of Milwaukee poll, one of the votes that jumps out is "Best People Watching Spot: Summerfest." Summerfest?! Our best people-watching spot is only around for ten days a year!
So... could the Summerfest grounds become Milwaukee's own South Street?
What I'm thinking of is a pipe dream to be sure, but indulge me a moment.
The Meier Festival Grounds are a rather haphazard jumble of permanent stages and kiosks, with no clear sense of navigation or orientation. It was planned and built piecemeal, with nobody quite anticipating how enormous the whole production would eventually become. It's hard to find your way around when the place is jam packed with thousands of people. Sound bleeds between the stages, and you never know if you've missed some aspect of the festival or not. A master plan was finally developed back in 2000, but hasn't really been implemented in full.
If unlimited funds were to fall like manna from the heavens, I'd love to see much of the existing grounds torn down and redone with a clear, comprehensible master plan, oriented along a clearly defined, broad central circulation path. And in doing so, I'd love to see the vendor booths, special exhibits, and midway rides re-oriented to form one long strip of uninterrupted boardwalk-style bliss along the water's edge. Separate it from the stage areas, and they could keep it open all summer. Milwaukee's lakefront has beaches, a marina, lovely walkways, a wonderful pier, lots of trees and grass and even a lagoon... but where's our boardwalk? Summerfest should be it.
Like I said -- it's a pipe dream. I especially can't see it happening now that the new Lakeshore State Park is open just across the water -- can you imagine the howls of outrage if a semi-permanent carnival was announced a hundred feet from a prairie preserve and camping ground? I can't even imagine how successful such a venture might be; for all I know it might fall flat on its face -- there are relatively few people living nearby, and without the music of Summerfest, the remainder might be much less of a draw. But if it worked, it would provide the one component of a major urban city that Milwaukee just doesn't quite have -- our own South Street.
And to have an old-fashioned shore town-style boardwalk would be so, so, so cool!
History of the Summerfest grounds
Plans for renovations to the grounds, an article which believe it or not came out *after* I'd written most of this post.