What Are the People Like?
For starters, we’re very friendly. In fact, we were named one of America’s friendliest cities in 2017 by Travel & Leisure magazine. We’re down-to-earth, hard-working and like to have fun. We’re also an ethnic melting pot that celebrates our heritage every summer in a series of lakefront festivals, including German Fest, Irish Fest, Indian Summer, Polish Fest and Festa Italiana. Though most Milwaukeeans are American by birth, they are proud of their cultural heritage. Thirty-eight percent of Milwaukee residents report having some German ancestry. Other ethnic groups include: African (15 percent), Polish (13 percent), Hispanic (11 percent), Irish (10 percent), English (5 percent), French (4 percent), Italian (4 percent), Asian and Pacific Islander (4 percent), and American Indian (1 percent). Racine has a rich ethnic heritage of its own. It was home to the largest Danish settlement in the world outside of Denmark and continues to have a strong Danish community.
We are also a tolerant community. Milwaukee is home to a large and active LGBTQ community that offers support resources and sponsors film festivals and social activities, including PrideFest Milwaukee, an annual three-day celebration held on Milwaukee’s lakefront that features the largest LGBTQ music showcase in North America.
Our History (Short Version)
Native Americans were the first to realize the beauty of Milwaukee’s location at the mouths of the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers. They called it “Milwaukie,” which means “where the waters meet.” Its natural harbor and lightly wooded bluffs made it a perfect location. By 1817, Milwaukee was already a cosmopolitan village with an estimated 300 people representing a variety of tribes, including the Sac, Fox, Chippewa, Ottawa, Winnebago, Menomonee and Potawatomi. They speared fish in the three rivers and grew wild rice in the grassy swamps where Milwaukee’s downtown now stands.
One of the first known Europeans to visit the area was Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette, who camped here in 1674. He was soon followed by fur trappers drawn to the area by its wealth of natural resources. Indians and fur trappers kept a cautious distance from each other, but from time to time Native Americans helped fight white men’s wars, most notably the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Germans were among the city’s first immigrants, and they soon dominated the city. By 1850, one-third of the city’s population was German and by the early 1900s, the city was referred to as the “German Athens of America.” The city’s South Side Polish population was the second largest ethnic group.
Milwaukee’s first African-American church dates back to 1869, but the city’s African-American community did not start growing rapidly until after World War I. The first Hispanics arrived in the early 1920s, when local tanneries recruited men from Mexican villages. Milwaukee’s economy grew rapidly between 1940 and 1980, and its metropolitan population increased 59 percent, to 1.4 million people.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Milwaukee was one of the leading manufacturing cities in the country. Allis-Chalmers, Harnischfeger, Briggs & Stratton, Harley-Davidson, A.O. Smith, Allen-Bradley and Bucyrus-Erie had made the city famous. However, the local economy’s dependence on manufacturing jobs left it vulnerable to the manufacturing recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when tens of thousands of people lost their jobs as factories closed or moved their operations out of the state. Since then, Milwaukee has rebuilt its economy, this time with a diversified base and an increased emphasis on exports, which serve as a hedge against domestic downturns. It has also become a leader in the development of e-commerce and green technologies. This shift to service-based industries has offered some protection against severe swings in manufacturing cycles. The area’s annual unemployment rate has typically outperformed the national average since 1987. If you’re looking for more detailed information about the region’s colorful history, we recommend that you visit themakingofmilwaukee.com, which features video history segments assembled by noted historian John Gurda.