A Milwaukee Summer Without Lakefront Ethnic Festivals

Jun 12, 2020

Milwaukee has often been referred to as the “city of festivals” and a “city of immigrants.” Those two nicknames come to life every summer, when thousands of people flock to the lakefront to take in ethnic festivals. 

Each one is held on a separate weekend at the Henry Maier Festival Park, also known as the Summerfest grounds.

>>First Time in 53-Year History, Summerfest Canceled

The festivals feature the food, music and cultures of Germany, Italy, Mexico and other countries. In many cases, they’re the largest ethnic festivals of their kind in the U.S. But, this summer, those events have been canceled in order to curb the spread of coronavirus.

One of the longest running ethnic festivals is Polish Fest. Originally scheduled for June 12-14, this year would have been its 40th, but organizers canceled.

Anne Jedrzejczak has been dancing at Polish Fest for 30 years, as a member of the Syrena Polish Folk Dance Ensemble of Milwaukee. Jedrzejczak, who works for WUWM, says she’s disappointed that this year’s event was scrapped.

“It feels very weird to not have Polish Fest," says Jedrzejczak. "This is a huge event for us to do as a dance group and we look forward to being able to dance all three days of the weekend that it’s held, so it’s a big deal."

Anne Jedrzejczak (bottom row, third from right) is a member of the Syrena Polish Folk Dance Ensemble of Milwaukee. The photo was taken during last year's Polish Fest at the lakefront.
Credit Courtesy Anne Jedrzejczak

Jedrzejczak says it’ll be a quieter summer without Polish Fest, and she’ll miss many aspects of the event. She recalls some of her fondest memories.

“Just dancing for the joy of dance and presenting what we do to the audiences that come there, and then just having fun hanging out, the food and the Polish beer is good on a nice, hot summer night,” she says. 

Jedrzejczak says she looks forward to next summer, when organizers promise that Polish Fest will be back. The event attracts 35,000 visitors to the lakefront over its three-day run.

Another big draw is Irish Fest, with 100,000 visitors attending over four days. It was scheduled this year for mid-August, but like other ethnic festivals, planners decided to cancel the celebration because of the coronavirus. 

>>The Founding Of Milwaukee's Irish Fest

It was a difficult decision, according to Mike Mitchell. He’s executive director of the group Celtic MKE, which sponsors Irish Fest.

“The bottom line is, we had to look at the safety of our patrons, of our vendors, of our partners and our volunteers," Mitchell says. "And, when you take into consideration what we don’t know yet, it was the only appropriate decision we could make."

Mitchell says Irish Fest brings in about $3 million a year on average. He says organizers plan to hold a virtual fundraiser this summer, to help pay for next year’s festival. 

>>How Milwaukee Became A City Of Ethnic Festivals

Other long-running lakefront festivals, including German Fest, Mexican Fiesta and Festa Italiana, are also canceled this summer. So is Black Arts Fest MKE, which honors African heritage and African American culture. And Milwaukee’s signature event at Henry Maier Festival Park, Summerfest, has been put off too.

A scene from Milwaukee's German Fest in 2019.
Credit Maayan Silver / WUWM

So, what to do in the absence of all these festivals? Rose Purpero Spang has been attending and volunteering at Festa Italiana for nearly four decades. She says she and her friends might hold a “mini-Festa” on the third weekend in July, when it’s usually scheduled.

“I don’t know if families are going to do anything. I never thought about this before, but maybe we can have our own party here at the house or something, and celebrate Festa that way,” Spang says.

Organizers of all of the ethnic festivals that were canceled say they’ll be back next year. Kristin Settle is communications director of the tourism group, VISIT Milwaukee. She says despite the setbacks, there’s still plenty to appreciate about summer in Milwaukee.

“We’re still going to be out enjoying the warm weather. We’re still going to be out enjoying all of the things that make summer so wonderful in our city," Settle says. "It’s just unfortunate that because of the current situation, we can’t get to these festivals."

Settle says in lieu of the festivals, people can explore 15,000 acres of park land in Milwaukee County. Or, they can tee off on 75 golf courses in the area.