Milwaukee, Wisconsin
United States of America


Milwaukee, largest city in Wisconsin, located in the southeastern corner of the state on the shore of Lake Michigan. Although one of the nation’s leading industrial cities and the commercial hub of the state, it was beer that made Milwaukee famous. For decades some of the nation’s leading brewers called Milwaukee home. The smell of brewing beer was a familiar aroma in the city, and institutions from the city’s most historic theater to its baseball team have names connected with the brewing industry. But by the mid-1990s the city’s association with beer was receding as all but one of the major breweries closed.

The Milwaukee River, which flows from north to south through the city, is joined just south of the city’s downtown by its tributaries, the Menomonee and the Kinnickinnic. From that confluence it flows eastward through a short channel to empty into Milwaukee Bay on Lake Michigan. The lake itself is Milwaukee’s most important natural resource: the source of its drinking water, a recreational magnet, and a major influence on local weather. January temperatures, which the lake keeps warmer than those inland, average a high of -3°C (26°F) and a low of -11°C (12°F). Temperatures in July, cooled by the lake, average a high of 27°C (80°F) and a low of 17°C (62°F). Milwaukee’s average annual precipitation is 840 mm (33 in).

Numerous Native American peoples made their homes in the Milwaukee area before the arrival of whites. That diversity was continued after the community was founded in the 1830s. In the following years waves of immigrants were drawn to Milwaukee, and each ethnic group lent the city unique attributes. The city’s name is believed to be derived from the Native American Mahn-ah-wauk, most often translated as “good land.”

Milwaukee and Its Metropolitan Area

The city of Milwaukee covers a land area of 248.9 sq km (96.1 sq mi). Nearly one-half of the area was added through annexations between 1945 and 1960. As a result, there is still farmland within the city limits. Milwaukee is also the seat of Milwaukee County and the heart of a metropolitan area that includes Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties. The entire metropolitan area covers 3,781 sq km (1,460 sq mi). Suburban and outlying population centers include the cities of West Allis, Waukesha, Wauwatosa, Brookfield, New Berlin, Greenfield, and Menomonee Falls.

Milwaukee lies on a series of bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, and the city retains the charm of broad tree-lined streets, parks, woods, and lakes. The older industrial section of the city extends inland from Lake Michigan, mainly along the Menomonee River. The central business district lies just north, along both banks of the Milwaukee River. Numerous bridges connect the two sides of the downtown. Farther north are many of the city’s most fashionable residential areas.

Milwaukee’s rivers divide the city into large geographic districts, each with its own personality. The East Side is a center for nightlife and specialty shopping. The North Side is a stronghold of African American culture. The West Side is a multiethnic, mixed-income section of town, and the South Side is the home of Milwaukee’s largest Polish and Hispanic communities. Several neighborhoods, including Walker’s Point, Brewer’s Hill, and the Third Ward, are showcases for restoration efforts, while others—such as Bay View, Pigsville, and Layton Park—have maintained their traditional characters for generations. Individual suburbs range from industrial Cudahy, built around a packing plant, to affluent River Hills, built around a country club.


Milwaukee’s population decreased in the later half of the 20th century. The number of its inhabitants peaked in 1960 at 741,324; the city experienced its sharpest decline in the 1970s. The population in 2000 was 596,974. Meanwhile, the surrounding four-county metropolitan area has continued to grow in population, rising from 1,397,143 in 1980 to 1,500,741 in 2000.

Historic patterns of ethnic diversity have persisted. According to the 2000 census, whites make up 50 percent of the population, blacks 37.3 percent, Asians 2.9 percent, Native Americans 0.9 percent, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders 0.1 percent. People of mixed heritage or not reporting race are 8.8 percent of inhabitants. Hispanics, who may be of any race, are 12 percent of the populace. People from Southeast Asia, particularly Hmongs and Lao, were Milwaukee’s fastest-growing ethnic group in the 1980s. The number of Hispanics in the city doubled during the 1990s.

In 2000, 37.6 percent of the metropolitan area’s residents identified their backgrounds as German, the highest proportion among the nation’s largest urban areas. German ancestry was followed by Polish (12.3 percent), Irish (10 percent), English (5.2 percent), and Italian (4.5 percent).

Education and Culture

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (founded in 1885 as a teachers college and joined with the state university system in 1956) is the region’s largest institution of higher learning, with nearly 23,000 students. Marquette University (1881), with more than 10,600 students, is the largest private school. Other four-year institutions in the Milwaukee area include Alverno College (1887), Cardinal Stritch University (1937), Concordia University Wisconsin (1881), Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (1974), Milwaukee School of Engineering (1903), Mount Mary College (1913), and Wisconsin Lutheran College (1973). Milwaukee Area Technical College (1912) serves nearly 65,000 students with a full range of vocational programs on four campuses.

As Wisconsin’s principal metropolis, Milwaukee has cultural resources of national standing, among them the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet Company, and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Other major institutions include the Milwaukee Public Museum, a pioneer in interpreting natural and cultural history, and the Central Library, housed in a neoclassical-style landmark on the western edge of downtown. The Milwaukee County War Memorial Complex, dedicated to the county residents who died in the nation’s wars, consists of a performing arts center and three museums located around the city. It includes the Milwaukee Art Museum, home of a celebrated modern art collection; the Charles Allis Art Museum, housed in a mansion built by an early-20th-century industrialist; and Villa Terrace, noted for its beautiful grounds.

Milwaukee has preserved an unusually large number of its historic buildings. The better-known examples include City Hall (1895), a civic shrine rooted in Germanic architectural styles; the Pabst Mansion (1893), built for pioneer brewer Frederick Pabst; and Saint Josaphat’s Basilica (1901), the city’s largest church and a monument to the Polish immigrants who built it. The restored Pabst Theater is home to concerts and theatrical presentations.

In recent years, Milwaukee has developed a reputation as a city of festivals. Summerfest, an 11-day music festival held on its own lakefront grounds, is a showcase for acts ranging from alternative rock to country music. During the rest of the summer months, the park is the site of weekend festivals staged by Milwaukee’s major ethnic groups: Italian, Irish, German, African American, Polish, Mexican, Native American, and Asian. The Great Circus Parade, featuring the world’s largest collection of ornate circus wagons, is another staple of Milwaukee’s festival season. The Wisconsin State Fair is held annually in nearby West Allis.


The largest single unit of Milwaukee County’s extensive park system is Whitnall Park, a vast green space that includes a botanical garden, a golf course, and a nature center. The Mitchell Park Domes are three beehive-shaped glass structures that house collections of plants from tropical and arid regions, as well as changing seasonal displays. The Milwaukee County Zoo exhibits animals from every continent in settings that resemble their native habitats. Preservation of the Lake Michigan shoreline for public use has been a priority for decades. One of the park system’s most popular features is Lincoln Memorial Drive, a generous strip of lakefront land that stretches north from Milwaukee’s downtown.

The city supports two major league sports teams: the Milwaukee Brewers in baseball and the Milwaukee Bucks in basketball. The Brewers play in Miller Park, a new baseball stadium with a retractable roof that opened in April 2001. The Milwaukee Bucks’ home court is Bradley Center, a state-of-the-art facility that seats 18,700 spectators.


As recently as 1960, manufacturing accounted for more than 40 percent of the four-county metropolitan area’s employment. Recessions, mergers and acquisitions, and global competition reduced that proportion to 24 percent by 1990. Membership in labor unions has suffered a corresponding decline. Despite these massive shifts, manufacturing is still the foundation of the local economy.

In keeping with its popular image, Milwaukee remains a leading producer of beer. Miller Brewing, one of the nation’s largest brewers, has its headquarters in the city. But makers of iron and steel products employ far more residents. Milwaukee is the home of Briggs & Stratton (small engines), Allen-Bradley (industrial controls), A. O. Smith (electric motors and water heaters), Harley-Davidson (motorcycles), Harnischfeger Industries (mining and material handling equipment), Johnson Controls (automotive systems and building control systems), and Master Lock (security products).

The service sector of the economy has shown particular growth since the 1970s. Milwaukee’s largest nonmanufacturing employers include Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance (one of the nation’s largest life insurers), a variety of health-care providers, and major banks. The city also serves as a wholesale trade center for Wisconsin and for a wide region that includes parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan.

The commercial importance of the city stems in part from its function as a major port on the Great Lakes. The port serves vessels engaged in cross-lake shipping as well as larger vessels that enter the lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway. Breakwaters that jut into Lake Michigan protect Milwaukee’s harbor area. The three rivers flowing through the city join and pass through a short deepwater canal that empties into the harbor. Docking facilities line the canal and several of its branches. There is a large mooring basin within the breakwater.

The principal highway to Milwaukee is Interstate 94, which connects the city with Chicago to the south and Madison to the west. Interstate 43 ties Milwaukee to other lakeshore communities to the north. Commercial air transportation is provided through General Mitchell International Airport.


Milwaukee has two levels of local government—city and county—that overlap but generally complement each other. The city of Milwaukee is headed by an elected mayor and a 17-member Common Council. City jurisdiction extends over fire and police protection, waste removal, public housing, library services, street maintenance, and the Port of Milwaukee. Milwaukee County, guided by an elected county executive and 25 supervisors, administers welfare programs, court and correctional systems, expressways, public parks, and Mitchell International Airport. Officials on both levels serve four-year terms.

The mayor of Milwaukee provides executive direction for the city by appointing department heads and preparing the annual budget. The mayor also has the power to veto Common Council actions. The Common Council reviews the mayor’s budget and may make changes to it, as well as confirm or reject mayoral appointments. Each council member represents a district of the city and acts as its administrator, with responsibility to the citizens for the services they receive.


Dozens of Native American peoples lived in the Milwaukee region over the centuries, among them the Winnebago, Sac (Sauk), Fox, Ojibwa, Ottawa, and, by 1700, Potawatomi. They were joined in the 1600s by fur traders who made Milwaukee a minor outpost in the commercial empire of New France.

Native settlement and the fur trade both came to an end in the 1830s. Endowed with a sheltering bay and a deep river, Milwaukee attracted the attention of speculators who hoped to make the site a metropolis. The first public land sale was held in 1835, and the city of Milwaukee incorporated in 1846—two years before Wisconsin became a state. The city’s first mayor was Solomon Juneau, a French-Canadian fur trader who had come to Milwaukee in 1818.

Yankees from the eastern United States dominated pioneer Milwaukee, but 64 percent of the city’s residents were foreign-born by 1850. Although Irish and English families were numerous, the greatest number of immigrants came from Germany. They established singing societies and dramatic groups that made Milwaukee the “Deutsch-Athen” (German Athens) of America, a reference to its cultural sophistication. They also laid the foundations of a prosperous brewing industry. By 1856 there were more than two dozen breweries in Milwaukee, all owned and operated by German-speaking residents.

Milwaukee flourished as a commercial center at first, exporting the products of Wisconsin’s farms and importing finished goods from the East and from Europe. In the early 1860s Milwaukee was the largest shipper of wheat on earth. After the American Civil War (1861-1865), the city turned increasingly to manufacturing as its economic base. Industrialists like Edward Allis, Henry Harnischfeger, and Frederick Layton joined the great brewing families—the Pabsts, Blatzes, Millers, and Uihleins (Schlitz)—at the top of the social order.

The lure of industrial jobs brought thousands of new immigrants to Milwaukee, among them Poles and Italians. By the late 1800s the city had developed a rich collection of ethnic neighborhoods, each centered around its own places of worship and homegrown businesses. During the same years, the city struggled to adjust to its new economic and social circumstances. Labor unrest, political strife, and charges of corruption dominated public discourse.

A reform movement gathered momentum at the turn of the century, and socialists were prominent in its leadership. Rooted in ideals carried over from Europe and drawing on the strength of Milwaukee’s working-class wards, the socialists captured the mayor’s office for the first time in 1910. They would govern the city for most of the next 50 years; Emil Seidel from 1910 to 1912, Daniel Hoan from 1916 to 1940, and Frank Zeidler from 1948 to 1960. It was during the socialist heyday that Milwaukee gained its reputation for efficient municipal services, scandal-free government, and clean streets.

Milwaukee’s role as a manufacturing center expanded during World War I (1914-1918) and the boom that followed in the 1920s. Severe labor shortages brought hundreds of blacks and Hispanics to the city, many of them recruited by labor agents working for local industries. The Great Depression of the 1930s practically flattened the region’s economy, but industries recovered completely with the approach of the nation’s involvement in World War II (1939-1945).

The region’s growth rate accelerated after the war, building to a historic peak in 1960. Milwaukee’s experience since that time has been decidedly mixed. Mayor Henry Maier, a Democrat who served from 1960 to 1988, provided exceptionally stable leadership. During the same period, however, Milwaukee developed the familiar symptoms of urban decline: an eroding industrial base, middle-class suburban flight, concerns about racial equality, and an increasing concentration of poverty in the inner city. A symptom of the decline was the contraction of the brewing industry, culminating in the closure of the huge Pabst brewery in 1996.

While most of the city’s problems remain, there have been positive developments. A downtown renaissance began in 1982 with the opening of the Grand Avenue Mall, an enclosed shopping center anchored by an elegant 1916 commercial arcade. The mall has been the catalyst for more than $1 billion in public and private redevelopment. Projects constructed in the mid-1990s included a new convention center and a new baseball stadium. Comparable energy has transformed some of Milwaukee’s oldest neighborhoods, and the growth of the city’s ethnic festivals indicates that Milwaukeeans are taking new pride in one of their community’s oldest assets: ethnic diversity.