Why These Midwest Millennials Are Choosing Milwaukee Over Chicago

"I don't have to work seven days a week here to pay the bills and do what I want to do."

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Jeramey Jannene/Flickr

In early 2011, a young Chicago couple found themselves unemployed at the same time. Kate Riley, 29, quit her tutoring job at Harold Washington College, and Dan Jacobs, 32, had been laid off from his executive chef position at a French bistro. They were renting a house in Chicago they couldn’t afford, and all their money from odd jobs went straight to rent and food. Both agreed it was time for a change.

“At one point we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to move to another city?’” remembers Jacobs. In April 2011, he answered a Craigslist ad for an executive chef at a Milwaukee pizzeria, and got the job. They moved immediately. A few months later, Riley picked up a part-time gig at a homewares shop and began focusing on her ceramics, a passion that had fallen by the wayside in Chicago.

Jacobs now works as the executive chef at a newer restaurant called Wolf Peach in Milwaukee’s Brewer’s Hill neighborhood, and Riley has been selling her plates to local restaurants. They pay $1300 a month for a 3-bedroom house with a garage and an art studio in Bayview, a neighborhood Jacobs describes as “the safest and chillest neighborhood in the city.” Most neighborhoods, he adds, are much cheaper.

“I don’t have to work seven days a week here to pay the bills and do what I want to do,” Riley says.

The Milwaukee Art Museum. (Photo: Aaron Cassara)

Milwaukee, a city of almost 600,000, has a lot to offer twentysomethings: relatively affordable housing, unique restaurants and bars, a rich cultural scene, and a famous art museum, not to mention a gorgeous Great Lake. It’s also a mere one-and-a-half hour car ride from Chicago, one of the biggest and most vibrant cities in the country. Milwaukee isn’t a commuter town, but it’s not a figurative island, either. Many young people I spoke with described it as a sort of “mini-Chicago,” or perhaps what Chicago used to be a few decades ago—a city that has retained its blue-collar roots while still offering certain amenities for ambitious Millennials.

For Riley and Jacobs, Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago was part of its appeal. They briefly contemplated moving to Asheville, North Carolina, but were quickly turned off by the plane ride necessary to visit family and friends. They still drive back once or twice a month. “But we have our own little social thing going on here,” mostly with people who work in the service industry, says Jacobs. “I definitely feel like we’ve been embraced.”

Compared to its larger, glitzier sister, Milwaukee is noticeably cheaper. That’s why Chicago native K. Kriesel came back to Milwaukee last April. She had attended Alverno College here in Milwaukee, but moved back to her hometown for three years. “Chicago was too, too expensive. Insanely expensive,” she tells me several times. She worked various jobs when she lived there, most recently making $9.50 an hour at a bookstore in O’Hare airport—the commute to which stretched her work day to 13 hours. Her rent was $560, not too high for big-city standards, “but I was still living on ramen and hard-boiled eggs.” Mainly, Kriesel had little time to pursue her dream of becoming a comic artist. When I visited Milwaukee, she was splitting $900 in rent with two other roommates in a spacious apartment in Walker’s Point, an industrial neighborhood with a thriving arts and LGBT scene.

Kriesel had also been getting into art shows. “In Chicago, it’s more likely that you need to already have money as an artist or have wealthy connections,” she says. In Milwaukee, “there’s so much local pride … people actually care.”

Although “it doesn’t feel as much like you’re drowning,” Kriesel says the job market can be hard here, too—she’s already gone through a bout of unemployment after she got laid off from a call center. Ian Gunther, 25, an IT professional and one of Kriesel’s roommates, is quick to confirm the pervading sense of mourning that has enveloped the city since its industrial heyday. A couple of years ago, he worked at a factory, “and the sense of fear was really there … there was a sink or swim mentality.”

K. Kriesel and Ian Gunther were able to get a spacious apartment in Milwaukee's Walker’s Point neighborhood for $900 a month, which they split with one other roommate. (Photo: Aaron Cassara)

Still, Gunther says that working class vibe is part of what makes the city special, as opposed to Chicago’s increasingly “white collar” atmosphere.

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Of course, Milwaukee has its share of white-collar culture—and resulting class clash. There’s a palpable influx of educated start-up types, many of whom are actively trying to woo their peers to the city. Ian Abston, 29, founded a young professionals organization called NEWaukee a few years ago. He works out of a large space in the basement of the Grand Avenue mall downtown—outfitted with funky art, a mini basketball hoop, and an abundance of tall plants—and lives in the upscale Third Ward. He tells me he “barely noticed” the recession, and that in Milwaukee, “young people have a lot of power. They’re activating public spaces and you can get by here on very little.” Angela Damiani, the 27-year-old executive director of NEWaukee and a transplant from California, tells me “it’s incredibly inexpensive to live here, and to take business risks here.”

Right after my visit to NEWaukee’s offices, I witnessed a demonstration outside the mall, made up of mostly young, nonwhite fast food workers demanding $15 an hour and a union. Several balked at the characterizations of Milwaukee as cheap. “Maybe if you don’t have kids, and you went to school,” Kenneth Mack, a 27-year-old maintenance worker at McDonald’s, told me. “I have a daughter to take care of, and my hours keep getting cut. Ten dollars an hour for rent, electricity, phone bills? It’s not a lot.”

So the upsides of Milwaukee aren’t always accessible to everyone, though the city’s deep-seated culture of organized labor (if not in factories anymore, then in chain stores) is still palpable. That day, I saw multiple types of change and conflict—the kind that isn’t necessarily bad.

“There’s a lot of those nationwide class issues playing out here,” says Kriesel. “For how small it is, [Milwaukee is] pretty politically aware.”

Top image: Flickr user Jeramey Jannene

About the Author

  • Nona Willis Aronowitz is a journalist, fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and cofounder of Tomorrow magazine.