By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jun 06, 2015 at 5:06 AM Photography: Royal Brevvaxling

Adam Carr can’t quite say he was born and raised in Milwaukee because he moved here from the Washington, D.C. area when he was a year old, but the 30-year-old has built a life and career around exploring, critiquing, celebrating and documenting the city in a variety of ways.

Carr, who started out as a producer of stories for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee when he was just 23 years old, produced more than 800 Milwaukee stories for the station over the course of three years. He went on to work as a freelancer writing, creating large-scale public art projects, working for Neighborhood News Service as a web master and unearthing a unique perspective of Brew City through his Milwaukier Than Thou Tumblr and Facebook pages.

"I used to say that I work at the intersection of community and communication. And that’s still true, but I recently started saying I work with communities, places and people to tell stories," says Carr. recently met up with Carr at Lopez Bakery on Mitchell Street and talked about Milwaukee, Milwaukee and Milwaukee. What led your family to Milwaukee?

Adam Carr: I was the youngest of five children, born outside of Washington, D.C., and our house and my father’s paycheck was a bit too small to support a family of seven, so my parents decided to locate to the more-affordable Midwest. My dad was from Chicago and wanted to be close to home, but not too close to home, so he found a job at a law firm in Milwaukee and a beautiful house on Terrace Avenue where my mother still lives today.

I always wish I could say I was born and raised in Milwaukee, I think it would be easier, but I wasn’t quite born here.

OMC: You said your mother still lives in the East Side house. Did your father pass away or move somewhere else?

AC: My father passed away in 2003. On 3-3-03, actually. He had brain cancer. He beat the odds at first – he was given a couple months and lasted a couple years. Those were some of my most precious times. We all know we’re going to die, but when we know it’s happening sooner than later, the time can be really special. We played a lot of ping pong. He told me a lot of stories. We did some things that were probably ill advised, but I’m glad we did. My dad’s death was the most major thing that ever happened to me.

OMC: I completely agree with that statement about losing a parent. Your mother, she is Chinese American, right?

AC: Yes. The first time my dad saw my mom, he thought she was a cute Mexican girl who worked at the post office. Good for him, though, for finding her cute. He didn’t grow up during a very enlightened time.

My dad was in the seminary and my mom was going to be a missionary or a nun. It’s an interesting story, but I never really explored it until my mom and I participated in an early Ex Fabula storytelling event during which I interviewed my mom, on stage and in front of an audience, about her relationship with my dad. I learned a lot about my family during that event.

OMC: You grew up on Milwaukee’s East Side. It seems rare to meet people who did. Most people move to the East Side as young adults.

AC: It’s true. I don’t meet a lot of people who grew up on the East Side and many of those who did live on the coasts now or other parts of the country. Including my four siblings.

OMC: You are a product of Milwaukee Public Schools. Which schools did you attend?

AC: I went to French Immersion, then Golda Meir – which only went through fifth grade then. Then I went to Morse Middle School. All of my siblings went there. For like 12 consecutive years there was a Carr enrolled at Morse. I graduated from Rufus King High School.

OMC: Where did you go to college?

AC: I went to a small liberal arts college in Minnesota called Carleton College. I liked Philip Glass in high school, I still do, and I learned he studied math and philosophy. I decided that was what I was going to do and then I did it. I graduated with very soft hands and very little direction.

My first year out of college I spent a year on an organic kiwi farm and animal rescue operation in Corfu, Greece, doing the typically unorthodox thing after college. When I was there, I put my soft hands to use and learned how to build fences and dig trenches and how to cook big meals for people. I met a lot of really interesting people and got to travel a fair amount.

And then I came back to Milwaukee and found myself unemployed. It was an exciting time to be unemployed. It was 2008: we were looking at the end of capitalism as we knew it.

I started canvassing with a group called Advancing Wisconsin and later Planned Parenthood. I walked around with a palm pilot full of addresses, knocking on doors. This changed me. It started my "love of the stranger."

OMC: Tell me more about this "love of the stranger."

AC: I started talking to strangers. I didn’t plan to, it’s just what happened. I would be standing at the bus stop and just say to someone, "Hey, what’s up?" or I’d be in line at Walgreens and I would just start talking to a person in line, tell them something I was thinking. I started to really listen to people, too, and to deeply care about their stories.

OMC: Is this what led you to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee?

AC: Well, I did a lot of radio in college, and so I decided to apply for a job at Radio Milwaukee even though I approached it with a kind of Groucho Marx attitude: "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members."

I didn’t get the job. Jordan Lee got that job. However, the program director at the time invited me to be an intern and eventually I got a paid position there as a producer.

It was a wonderful gift and a curse for me. I worked my fingers to the bone and it quickly became all consuming. I was working 50-, 75-, 100-hour weeks. I have a little bit of an addictive personality. I couldn’t stop working. It was great though. I was addicted to seeking stories, listening and then editing and presenting these stories to the public. I was crazy and probably difficult to manage.

OMC: Did you leave 88Nine by choice?

AC: I did. After a while, it didn’t feel like we were being honest. We were claiming to be these protagonists of the story of Milwaukee, but to me it became something disingenuous. "Diverse music for a diverse city" (The 88Nine tagline) felt like we were trying to position ourselves as a social justice thing and it wasn’t and I couldn’t deal with that. We were almost using social justice to convince listeners they were cool and engaged. It felt too contradictory and so I left, but I can never be thankful enough to the opportunity I had there. I have had some wonderful privileges in my life.

OMC: What did you do after leaving Radio Milwaukee?

AC: I went to my bed to be depressed and sad. But I was grateful, too. I went to visit my brother in California and he gave me some great advice. He said it was OK to feel pain but I needed to develop a plan for myself and start saying yes to stuff. And then I did.

I started doing a lot of things. Freelancing, public art, working as a web coordinator for Neighborhood News Service, all that happened within a couple of months of my brother’s advice.

I also went to Duluth for a month and did a project called "January in Duluth." I kept a blog, stayed on people’s couches. It was a life-changing month there. I relied on the kindness of strangers. But by the time it ended, I was attracting a lot of attention from the blog and I was in the public eye again and I didn’t mean to be. So it was a good time to leave.

OMC: Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and collaborate in a variety of ways, but for those who don't know, how would you describe NNS?

AC: NNS offers professional, objective journalism in Milwaukee’s central city neighborhoods. A big part of the mission is to help balance the media picture of central city media coverage which is usually all crime and conflict. These neighborhoods are covered negatively. I find it offensive, but I get it. It’s easier to send a camera person to a burning building than to thoughtfully report on a story. And a lot of people would rather read about a fire than a feel-good story.

OMC: You are really connected to so many different people and groups in Milwaukee, do you find Milwaukee segregated?

AC: I think one of my greatest privileges is that Milwaukee’s segregation is something that I’ve heard about more than I’ve experienced. And it’s not because there’s something special about me. Milwaukee does have a segregation problem, but because of the schools I went to and the jobs I’ve had, I made friends and connected with a very large community of people.

OMC: You are also working with SHARP Literacy?

AC: I am. I’ve been doing a young authors’ workshop and SHARP commissioned me to write a children’s book about exploring and discovering Milwaukee. I love working with kids. Things can be new to them. They haven’t settled on what they believe reality is yet.

OMC: Last year, you did a large public art project on Mitchell Street called "Listening To Mitchell." What about that street did you find so appealing?

AC: Every continent is represented on Mitchell Street – so many different people who experience the street differently.

I did that project with artist and photographer Sonja Thomsen and it was on the street for three months and took 18 months to develop. We did a series of interviews with the many communities that have and do call Mitchell Street home. We took excerpts from these interviews, along with objects and images and mixed them together and presented them over seven blocks of the street in many forms, from large murals to images in itty-bitty spaces.

OMC: You also partner with Newaukee and give bus tours of Milwaukee. Tell me a little more about those.

AC: I love giving bus tours. I’ve done six, including one through the harbor district and Menomonee Valley, 27th Street from the North Side to the South Side and tours through individual neighborhoods.

We stop off at five or six places and the tour is about 3 1/2 hours. I think it’s pretty entertaining. There’s always a big "bummer moment" on every tour where we talk about what’s wrong with Milwaukee and then we pick it back up. It’s good to talk about this with a group of smart people who care about Milwaukee.

When I worked at the radio, I was always trying to get people to visit somewhere new in the city, and now, I get to take all of these people on a bus to show them these new places.

My favorite thing about Newaukee is the group's ability to connect a willing audience to something cool in the city. They’ve filled busses with people I don’t know.

OMC: So what is wrong with Milwaukee?

AC: I am going to speak metaphorically here: it’s like the muscle has atrophied but the skeleton is still there. We tend to get facelifts and cosmetic surgery and not attend to the systemic problems in the body.

If you have cancer, you should probably get chemo – you probably shouldn’t get work done on your nose. But it’s easier to fix our cosmetic / surface problems rather than saying, "Holy sh*t, our problems are on the scale of cancer" and going from there. The thing is, you can still have a good life when you have cancer, but you have to acknowledge you have it and get treatment. Milwaukee is in a state of denial, I think, about the severity of illness it has.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.