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One of Milwaukee's native sons returns home for 10 days of summer fun and exploration.
One of Milwaukee's native sons returns home for 10 days of summer fun and exploration. (Photo: Bobby Tanzilo)

From Conejito's to church fests: A MKE native's annual summer return home

Steamy and stormy. That’s how I think of Milwaukee summers. And incredibly hectic, too.

Summer in the city is always crammed with more festivals, fairs and block parties than civically necessary or nutritionally advisable.

But it’s an integral element of my longtime summer routine, and I’m too old to stop now. Admittedly, though, some moderation has crept into my ritual over the years; I’ve already been back for 10 days on my annual visit to Milwaukee, and I haven’t had a frozen custard cone from Kopp’s or Leon’s yet (although in checking the website for whether or not Kopp’s has an apostrophe, I noticed chocolate peanut butter is an upcoming flavor of the day and my abstinence streak may need to be broken).

OK, I already have had a few Wisconsin brews, but I am from Milwaukee. My doctor will understand. Plus, I had to check out the new (to me!) beer gardens at Milwaukee County Parks.

When I do Milwaukee, I do the city right. I’ve worn out lesser men and women who’ve braved the journey with me over the years. One retired friend who visited during a particularly sweltering summer actually called the airline to move up his flight a few days after he feared he wouldn’t survive another sweat-drenched day of roaming Milwaukee with the local kid.

Just about every summer since I moved from the city in 1979, I return for at least a few days – always around Summerfest.

This year, I decided on a different approach. I took a couple of extra weeks off from my job teaching journalism at Colorado State University, loaded my Trek bicycle in the car and headed to my Wisconsin summer home (that sounds much nicer than the house where I grew up in the heart of Milwaukee). I figured the bike would give me a new perspective – at least one that I haven’t had since tooling around the neighborhood on my Schwinn Sting-Ray when I was 10.

And you know what? It did give me some interesting new looks at my favorite city. Heading south from my Walker’s Point base, I found a bike path that took me up on train overpasses along the backside of aging factories. Eventually, I wandered onto the cool lakefront bike path in Bay View and St. Francis, bringing me back to my high school days at nearby Thomas More High School when we’d when meet up with the girls at our sister school, St. Mary’s Academy, and climb down the treacherous bluff to drink beer on the rocky shoreline. Nowadays, sturdy steps lead down to the paved bike path, and there’s even now a beach with a name – Bay View Beach – where we used to party. Secluded and nameless was better.

Another day, I headed north, along the lakefront path that winds from under the Hoan Bridge and through the Lakeshore State Park, past the beaches and eventually up to UWM. Amazingly, I made it up the hill to Kenwood Boulevard without stopping for a breather – I’m not sure I could do that 40 years ago, so that made me feel good.

I think I like this new biking strategy. Being on two wheels didn’t even deter me from my customary whirlwind tour of my favorite Milwaukee locales. I found that I could bike from the South Shore Farmers Market to the Milwaukee Public Market, and then over to Cathedral Square and finally to the Lakefront Festival of Art, all in a few hours. Another morning, I made it to Bradford Beach, Lake Park and Glorioso’s Italian Market on Brady Street for a huge sausage sandwich without breaking a sweat – at least not until the peppers kicked in. It helps that the days were in the 60s, with fog along the lake. Fortunately, the typically stifling weather hasn’t shown up yet, with only an occasional thunderstorm to liven things up.

Even when not riding my bike, I managed to stay on track to hit my favorite Milwaukee haunts over the course of 10 days. I walked to Conejito's Place for the best $4.50 plate of steak and bean tacos around. I drove out to the Greek Fest way out at the Wisconsin State Fair Park for a gyro. The drive gave me a chance to jam to the urban sounds on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and 91.7 WMSE-FM, two stations I always count on to expose me to some bold new beats. Closer to home, I stopped at Fritz’s Pub for a fish fry and then it was off to the lively Pete’s Fruit Market for buy some cheap fruit. I took the bus to Polish Fest to nosh some pierogi.

Another day, I walked a few blocks to check out a new festival, Garlic Fest. I caught a ride with friends to check out music festivals on Locust Street one weekend and North Avenue the next. In between I managed everything from a West Allis swap meet, church festivals at St. Paul’s and St. Roman’s on the South Side and a late-night visit to Potawatomi Casino to watch poor and elderly chain smokers throw away their money.

This being Milwaukee, I also worked in a few happy hours. A craft brew at the Horny Goat Brewing Co., along the Kinnickinnic River was much appreciated after several hours of answering work emails. Another day, on the opposite side of town, my brother took me to explore a part of the Milwaukee River, and we found great deals at Stubby’s Gastrogrub and Beer Bar, where we sat on a great patio deck overlooking the river.

Often on these visits back to Milwaukee, friends or family will ask what I’ve been up to during my stay. I then spit out my itinerary, and they always are amazed that I do so much in so little time. I show them my scribbled notes where I keep track of everything I need to experience each day of my Milwaukee adventure.

Why do I cram in so much? I happen to love Milwaukee and all its diversity. I know Milwaukee has more than its share of urban problems – a quick glance at the local TV newscasts confirms that – but that’s not typically how I approach my brief visits. I’m much more optimistic. From all the tattoos I see at Bradford Beach to the wide range of music I hear on Locust Street or Polish Fest, I think this city offers an exciting medley of cultural experiences. And the spectacular lakefront truly can’t be beat.

Even the coffee shops are a treat. In 10 days, I visited 10 different locations of Colectivo, Stone Creek and Anodyne to keep me caffeinated. Oh, and did I mention George Webb?

Hey, whatever works. I’ve got things to do.

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