(In Time's Unfolding: A beautiful piece by Wisconsin-born composer Chester Biscardi)
“You moved to WisCONsin?”
This question—like so many others like it—was delivered with a snarl through a curled lip. Ironically the speaker asked it in the middle of a city that is currently experiencing a homeless epidemic, spiraling housing costs, regular demonstrations and riots, and all manner of urban blight problems. I’d be more surprised at the speaker’s vitriol except that her words echoed so many other comments that others have made to me since I moved here last January.
It seems my decision to be happy in the Midwest is not a believable one. The surprising thing is that so few people on the coasts know anything about the area they dismiss as “backward,” “ignorant,” and “flyover country.” It has turned me into something of a self-appointed ambassador for all things Wisconsin because this area is so much more than “cheese curds and ice fishing.”
This is Wisconsin: in early August 220 bands from all over the country arrived in Appleton for Mile of Music—a four-day music extravaganza. Downtown businesses, street corners, parks, and even busses were turned into performance spaces and the city was awash in music. Staffed by volunteers, the 700+ performances ran from noon to midnight and were free to the public. 100,000 people showed up for this enormous block party—people of all ages. Not one person was arrested for drunken or disorderly conduct, despite the bars opening at noon each day. There was no trash on the ground. There were no fights or arguments in crowded venues.
This is summer in Wisconsin: It’s tidy gardens and multi-generational families at the Friday night fish fry. It’s trips to Door County and cabins “up North.” It’s live music and bottomless “Old Fashionends”. It’s saying hello to people on the sidewalk and getting outside every time the weather allows. It’s “pizza farms” (it’s a thing; look it up). Dining al fresco. Thunderstorms. Balmy days. Muggy days. Farmer’s markets. Sweet corn. Tomatoes bursting with life. Cookouts. It’s family reunions, fishing, and boating. It’s baseball games and tailgating. It’s living fully because in this part of the world you know these summer days are limited and the cold will come again. People do stuff here.
Is it the strong middle class that keeps this place so livable? This is a “can-do” part of the world. A recent study of the Fox Valley (a region that has about a million people) turned up thirty-two homeless people. Instead of forming task forces to “study the problem” the city organizations found housing for these people, and they’re in the process of putting up 100 new houses and several new apartment buildings—all for low income housing. People are proud of their community and it shows in a high level of civvic involvement and in the way they maintain their homes and businesses. They don’t talk about it; they do it.
The people here possess a refreshing lack of hubris. Wisconsin is home to household-name international companies (Kohler, Menard’s, Kimberly-Clark, Sentry Insurance, American Family Insurance—just to name a few) but the locals don’t brag about it. They also don’t mention that Neenah, WI (a neighboring town to Appleton) once boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. When I rave about all the live music, the friendliness of the people, the cheese, the beauty of the farmland, and the sheer livability of the place, they don’t understand why it’s special. They don't know that it’s rare to see multi-generations socializing together, or to be able to walk home late at night without fear, or to be in a place where courtesy is the rule, not the exception.
I recently had a conversation with a woman who moved to Appleton from Sacramento, CA. After the two of us compared all the reasons why we like it better here than on the west coast, she summed up what both of us were saying with her phrase, “I live bigger here.”
It’s a phrase I’ve adopted as my own.