Marti's site brings Old Milwaukee to the web
Months ago, while researching a book on old Milwaukee schoolhouses, I stumbled upon OldMilwaukee.net and its creator Yance Marti, who stores a wealth of knowledge about the city's past on his website, in his archives and up in his brain.
Marti's site won't set any records for traffic and handsome though it is in an understated way, it won't win any swanky New York web design awards – though it did win the Wisconsin Historical Society's 2011 web site award – but that's beside the point. The site is a place for the passionate and the mildly interested to share knowledge, get answers to questions and have a little history-based fun.
There are a lot of useful features on OldMilwaukee.net, including details on dozens and dozens of Milwaukee buildings, an old Milwaukee street guide map that shows the former names of Milwaukee streets (many were changed early in the 20th century), a blog and a forum.
Marti answers historical questions submitted by readers in the blog and there are postings that fit into categories like Dark Milwaukee, Good Old Days, Historic Preservation and Wisconsin Stories, among others.
One of the most popular features, says Marti, is the Monday Milwaukee Mystery. Marti posts a photo each week and readers submit their guesses as to the building featured. The mystery also draws a lot of comments on the OldMilwaukee.net Facebook page.
I asked Marti – who recently authored a book called "Missing Milwaukee" – about how he became enamored of Milwaukee history and about how that interest led him to create OldMilwaukee.net.
OnMilwaukee.com: Can you tell me a bit about how your interest in Milwaukee history was born?
Yance Marti: It was piqued by visiting The Streets of Old Milwaukee at the Public Museum as a kid and also after reading "This Is Milwaukee" by Robert Wells over a dozen years ago. Things grew from there.
OMC: And how did that lead to the site?
YM: About six years ago I wanted to start a web-based project for fun. I've built websites in the past and was involved in various discussion forums. I remember seeing old pictures of Milwaukee with buildings that were long demolished. After doing some research I started to uncover lots of stories about Milwaukee that were not too commonly known. There is very little easily accessible information about Milwaukee history on the internet which is strange for such a large city. I thought it would be a great idea to build a website that told these stories and let people tell their own stories. It has been successful at doing this.
OMC: What's your traffic like? Is it a relatively small group, but, I imagine a passionate one?
YM: It comes and goes but averages less than a hundred hits per day. I want to keep the site social and had good luck with discussion forums since I started. I switched to Word Press a year ago but that format tends not to be as friendly to free-form discussion. I am experimenting to try and engage more interaction from users. There are about a dozen core users who interact regularly. It is an interesting challenge to keep consistent traffic and that requires constantly updating with new material. I have a Facebook presence which has 1,200 likes but it is a fickle community for the most part.
OMC: What are your specialties and do you find that your site visitors have pretty diverse special interests that help keep the site varied and interesting?
YM: I tried to keep it focused on general Milwaukee history and architectural history. That tends to cover everyone's interests but the regular users have side interests in brewery history, baseball and genealogy.
OMC: What tends to be most popular on the site?
YM: Puzzles, believe it or not. The most popular feature that I have is a Monday Milwaukee Mystery where I display an old picture to see if people can guess where it is. Another puzzle was Faces of Milwaukee which pictured close-ups of ornamental figures on buildings and the user would have to guess the building.
OMC: Do you have big plans for it or are you happy to have it be a compact but devoted community?
YM: I have some ideas for making interactive maps but I will have to learn ways to implement the functions I have in mind. I would like to have a bigger community and even expand the focus beyond Milwaukee. As a solo project it is always good to have it manageable.
OMC: I see the Facebook page has become pretty active, too. Do you foresee a time when the site migrates totally to Facebook?
YM: Facebook is a quick way for users to be funneled to new content but I am hesitant to rely on it as a platform for all content. I prefer to be in control of the site's design and content. Word Press is more functional in accessing everything that I have published online and is a much more powerful tool that can be configured in so many different ways.
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