Funny how the words fit together so smoothly yet, when combined, seem grating to the ears of many who reside in the region.  The peculiar antipathy between Milwaukee County and Waukesha County may reflect the ways in which people have segregated themselves geographically based on cultural/political orientation.  Waukesha County is 94% “white alone” according to Census Bureau data, while Milwaukee County is over one-quarter black or African-American and over one-eighth Hispanic or Latino.  In the 2014 gubernatorial election, over two-thirds of Waukesha voters supported Scott Walker, while in Milwaukee County it was closer to one-third.  Waukesha is more affluent, less racially diverse, and more Republican than Wisconsin as a whole.  Milwaukee is the opposite.

There is, indeed, some basis for an us-and-them mentality.

But the positive connections are truly powerful.  To trace a bit of the history, Milwaukee’s population was about ten times greater than Waukesha’s from 1900 until 1950.  Then Waukesha’s population began to surge, growing more than four-fold since 1950, to about 400,000, while Milwaukee’s population has remained pretty constant at around one million.  The result is that Waukesha now has about 40% as many residents as Milwaukee, thus bringing the counties into closer balance.  Waukesha is now the third-most populous county in Wisconsin; in 1950, it was seventh-most populous, slightly ahead of Outagamie and Sheboygan and trailing Brown, Rock, and Winnebago, among others.  Waukesha has become a powerful residential draw and also a draw for businesses, almost certainly in large part due to its proximity to Milwaukee.

Before 1846, the current Milwaukee and Waukesha counties formed a single Milwaukee County.  Although the political tie was broken over 150 years ago, the economic integration is remarkably strong.  The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development estimated in its 2013 Milwaukee County Workforce profile that nearly 62,000 Waukesha County residents work in Milwaukee County, which represents a sizable proportion of the county’s 395,000 residents.  Just as impressively, almost 60,000 Milwaukee County residents work in Waukesha County, according to the department’s estimate.  It is clear that the 24-mile border between the counties is hardly a stumbling block for much economic activity in the region.

And the integration is not just economic.  The Milwaukee Brewers drew nearly 20% of their spectators during the 2014 season from Waukesha County to the team’s home in Milwaukee County.  That compares to 34% of the Brewers’ attendance coming from Milwaukee County residents.  This suggests that the Brewers receive proportionately greater support in attendance from Waukesha than from Milwaukee.  The Milwaukee Public Museum, another leading Milwaukesha cultural asset, drew nearly 40,000 visits from Waukesha County residents in 2014, and another 6,000 visits from Waukesha school children.  And how many Waukesha residents do we imagine must come to Milwaukee for Summerfest, Bradford Beach, the Milwaukee County Zoo, Mitchell Field, Mayfair Mall, and the Bradley Center?

None of this is news to most Milwaukesha residents.  To judge from the data, hundreds of thousands of us regularly cross the county line to work, eat, shop, or recreate and pay little attention to the political boundary.  But we do seem to trip over the county line when it comes to certain amenities, such as water for Waukesha or rail service in Milwaukee.  Municipal boundaries can contribute to an especially narrow conception of “local” interest.  We would do well to think more broadly.  Good times in either county are likely to bring good times for the other.  The opposite is also true.  Like it or not, we are in this together.  And personally, having lived in both counties, I find abundant reasons to appreciate their interdependence and proximity.

It may take a rather colossal dose of some attitude-changing elixir, but we would do well to come to the view that Milwaukesha is an enhancement of each word, not a debasement.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Melissa Greipp

    Thanks for your post, Mike.

    As a sixth-generation Waukesha native, I found your post fascinating. Waukesha is a uniquely successful community. I have long thought about what makes Waukesha (and the lake country/Waukesha county) such an inviting place to live. I think it’s because Waukesha has such a wealth of civic resources for a smaller-sized community. Outstanding schools, theaters, symphony and the arts, museums, parks, entertainment, affordable living standards, efficient and effective local government.

    I think, too, about all the famous people who have come from Waukesha and Waukesha county and what made them successful. For instance, the Hamm twins (Olympic gymnasts), who got their start at the Waukesha YMCA. Many Waukesha kids took gymnastics in the winter from the same teacher who taught swimming at Buchner pool in the summer. This teacher was in the zone in her teaching–high expectations, careful training, lots of care. I think that characteristic–people being in the zone in how they approach their work and daily lives–is characteristic of Waukesha and what it makes it a special place.

  2. Nick Zales

    There may be economic integration between the two counties but there is very little racial or political integration. Waukesha County is 90% white. It is also a Republican stronghold. There is a perception out there that people in Waukesha do not want many of the people in Milwaukee County to come there. They want Milwaukee’s water even though they overdeveloped their county. They also want all the amenities listed above. In other words, the people of Waukesha County want the good of Milwaukee County but not the bad. The people of Milwaukee County are stuck with both. Until there is a greater racial and political balance between the two counties, the enmity will continue.

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