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Commentary: Wisconsin's "Insular Smugness" Doesn't Foster Growth

Where are you from?  Ask that to the next person you meet on the street in Milwaukee, and they’ll probably look at you funny.  So, instead, take our word for it – the answer is probably someplace local.

Writer and Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank says where we are from says a great deal about where we are going:

Thanks to my old Journal Sentinel colleague Rick Romell, I now know what I am – a proud member of the 28%. The number comes from a passing reference Rick made in a recent series on the economic past, present and future of our community. In it he notes that about 72% of Milwaukee area residents were born in Wisconsin. “Only six of the country’s 50 largest metros have a larger share of home-state natives,” he writes.

Rick leaves it at that, and while a large concentration of the native born is not as great an economic challenge as poor schools and racial segregation patterns that are also among the nation’s worse, it does not help grow the area, either. In fact, it may retard growth.

My wife and I are among the 28% from elsewhere. We have lived in Milwaukee since 1974. I ate at the Heinemann’s Men’s Grill, my wife banked at the Marine. But because we were born in other states and did not go to high school here, natives will never considered us real Milwaukeeans.

When we moved here, my wife and I were the kind of people development experts say are needed to put yeast into an economy – young and college educated. We had no friends or relatives in the state. Milwaukeeans were polite but standoffish. It has worked out fine, however. We came here looking for opportunities greater than those available in our much smaller home towns and found them, making satisfying careers, raising a family, paying taxes. We have contributed in many ways to making Milwaukee a better place, love living here and are proud to call it our home town.

We have developed a wide and deep circle of friends, but almost all moved here from elsewhere. In the four decades we have lived here, we have been invited into the homes of only a handful of people who went to high school in Milwaukee.

When I came here, Allis-Chalmers ruled the economy and personal computers were only a gleam in someone’s eye. A high school education got you a good job, perhaps at a place that had employed your family for generations.

Those days are gone, but the insular attitude they fostered remains. As Rick’s series lays out, it has taken our leaders a long time to adjust to this. But it has taken the population even longer.

And the problem is greater than just looking askance at folks from out of town. During a recent stint counseling people on credit problems, I would often ask a client if they were from Milwaukee originally. It was common for the reply to be something along the lines of a scandalized, entirely unironic “oh, no, I have lived St. Francis all my life.”

That worldview is a difficult hurdle to jump when our economic future depends not only on understanding that a job for a person in St. Francis might be in Menomonee Falls, but when farsighted economic development of Milwaukee also would do all it could to foster a closer attachment to the world class economic engine less than 100 miles to our south, Chicago.

Insular smugness does not mix well with growth.

Avrum Lank was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal Sentinel for more than 35 years. He lives in in Whitefish Bay and his freelance work has appeared in Milwaukee Magazine and Corporate Report Wisconsin magazine, among other places.