The Best River Towns in America: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A city reinvented as the Silicon Valley of water

Milwaukee Art Museum.

Milwaukee Art Museum.     Photo: LAIF/Redux

The Stats

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Population: 594,833
(metro area: 1.7 million)
Media Age: 34
Median Annual Salary: $35,921
Median Home Price: $112,900
Unemployment Rate: 11.2 percent
Votes Received: 3 percent

“People underestimate Milwaukee,” says reader Nancy Welch. It’s a common theme among residents who voted for their hometown. So are the innovative ways the city has reinvented itself over the past decade, most of them involving water. The city is steadily transforming into what former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson hopes will be “the Silicon Valley of water.” More than 130 water-technology companies—such as PaveDrain, which created a permeable paving system to help reduce runoff, and Aquarius Systems, which designs river skimmers and other surface-water cleaning products—now call the city home. And in 2009, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, opened the country’s first School of Freshwater Sciences. The focus makes sense: Milwaukee has more than 410 miles of streams, 85 lakes, and three rivers—the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnikinnick. As nearly every voting resident noted, the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers are now home to greenways bustling with boaters, fishermen, runners, walkers, and bikers. Even the beleaguered Kinnikinnick, which in 2007 was listed by American Rivers as the seventh most endangered in the country, is being nurtured back to life, thanks in part to a $2 million clean-up project. The other upside to all that water: the trails that border it. “You can run for miles along Lake Michigan without ever hitting a stoplight,” says personal trainer Sara Bayer. The biking’s not bad, either. Some 50 miles of bike trails lace the city and surrounding areas. So many, notes Valerie Tergerson, who volunteers at Vulture Space, a free DIY-bike-repair shop, that “you can practically ride to Chicago,” 90 miles to the south. Of course, “sipping a beer at the pubs along the river” is perfectly acceptable, too, as native Jim Harings notes. And this might be what Milwaukee does best. Several voters simply wrote “BEER.” But the most common response by far was “summer.” Which makes sense. Because while winter here can be brutally cold and dreary, there’s nothing better than whooping it up in the sun with a bunch of Milwaukeeans.

BEST ENDORSEMENT FROM A GERMAN: “I feel very comfortable with the German heritage in the Milwaukee area!” says Dagmar Strack-Bidinger, who works for the German investment firm Ascent.

ON THE TOWN: “The Hank Aaron Trail goes right past Miller Park, home of the Brewers,” says bike-shop owner Evan Pack. “So we’ll load up a bike trailer with a grill, brats, and beer and tailgate right next to our bikes before heading into the game.”

WHAT YOU GET FOR $305: Membership at the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center. “From April to October, members can take a boat out free of charge for two hours,” says reader Jacqueline Haessly.

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