To many travelers, Milwaukee brings to mind nothing more than beer and brats — a German-influenced American city that doesn’t go much deeper than that. But this dynamic Midwestern gem is awash in cultural experiences that will delight and surprise visitors. Here are four cultures to dig into on your next stop in the so-called Cream City.
Tour the relaunched America’s Black Holocaust Museum.
Dr. James Cameron, the only known survivor of a lynching, founded this museum in 1988 after visiting Israel with his wife and realizing that there were parallels between what the Jewish people experienced in WWII and what Black people have experienced in America for hundreds of years.
The museum closed in 2008, a couple years after Cameron’s death, but after hard work from community members, the museum reopened in February to great fanfare. Now located in Milwaukee’s historically Black neighborhood of Bronzeville, the museum is a moving and inspirational tour through centuries of oppression. The displays cover historical events around the beginnings of slavery, early life in America, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, and the fight for Civil Rights. It culminates by celebrating the many contributions to society that Black people have made, in spite of the prejudices they have faced every step of the way.
Get artsy with the Latino community.
Latino Arts is a local nonprofit that’s housed within the broader United Community Center campus. Latino Arts is focused on expanding Hispanic cultural arts programming, from theater and musical stage performances to exhibits from the community. While we were there, we experienced The Big Idea, a powerful annual exhibit that amplifies the voices of local schoolkids. This year is the ninth iteration of the show, and the topics that the children examined in their art ranged from movie villains to the effects of gentrification in their community.
Jacobo Lovo, managing artistic director, explained that part of the group’s mission is to build bridges to non-Hispanic communities to counter negative stereotypes in the media. The group also supports local Hispanics, whether they are fifth-generation families living in Milwaukee or recent immigrants who have just moved to town.
Upcoming performances at Latino Arts’ 350-seat auditorium include Son Rampe Pera, a Mexico City-based group that incorporates Marimba music with punk and garage band sounds, on October 28, and Carlos Adames Group, a Latin Jazz musical group, on December 2.
Walk through history with the LGBTQ community.
Milwaukee has some interesting LGBTQ history. A new, free app, lgbt milWALKee, developed by a team headed by Dr. Brice Smith, includes dozens of short videos tied to important places around the city to the LGBTQ community. It also contains three different walking tours, and several more are in development.
You’ll discover such interesting places as the site of the former Black Nite bar, which today is an empty lot next to a busy freeway. There, in 1961, the infamous “Black Nite Brawl” happened, almost a decade ahead of formative events like Stonewall. This brawl included many LGBTQ patrons of the bar fighting back against a group of young straight male antagonizers.
Plan a stop at This Is It!, which is the state’s oldest gay bar, and now co-owned by local drag legend, Trixie Mattel, a past winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Her scepter from the winning season hangs over one of the bars, and there is a large stage area and dance floor in one half of the space. The bar hosts myriad events, including karaoke, game nights, drag shows, drag bingo, and trivia nights.
See present and past mingle at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
Located in the city’s lovely East Side neighborhood, the museum cultivates awareness of southeastern Wisconsin’s Jewish population, its heritage, and culture. Open since 2008, visitors can explore the museum’s thoughtful exhibits that cover Jewish immigration patterns to Milwaukee, the Holocaust, the Jewish faith and its traditions. Local touches abound, such as descriptions of Golda Meir’s childhood in the city, and how she eventually became Israel’s first female Prime Minister.
The museum also hosts special exhibits. The recent and powerful, Beyond Borders: The Art of Siona Benjamin, contained numerous works from the inspiring Indian-American-Jewish artist, whose cultural influences across her life included Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, and Zoroastrian touchstones. Starting on October 28 (and running through February 5, 2023), the museum will host Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit, which will provide looks at how space has influenced Jewish art, comedy, and literature — such as in Star Trek, Spaceballs, and more.
But there’s no need to stop there. Here are a handful of other cultural ideas for Milwaukee visitors:
• While in town, you can learn about and build bridges with the local Hmong community (Milwaukee has one of the three largest concentrations in the U.S. of this southeast Asian group) at the Hmong American Friendship Association Museum.
• Across the street from the Hmong museum, venture to the incredible new Peruvian restaurant, Triciclo Peru, and absolutely try the corn and cheese empanadas.
• Book a night at one of the largest Native American-owned casinos, the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino; the twin 19-floor adjoining hotel towers are gorgeous.
• For an authentic taste of Cajun cuisine, On the Bayou is a must visit for dinner. Located in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Chef Gregory Johnson’s restaurant serves the best of Louisiana cooking, from mouth-watering po’ boy sandwiches to excellent blackened salmon.
• If you’re in town during the Wisconsin State Fair, held over 11 days each August, the 15-minute drive from downtown to the fairgrounds is well worth your time. Try one of the famed cream puffs sold only there — an incredible 400,000 are sold each year.