When I was in high school and college one of my favorite things to do on a hot summer weekend afternoon was to ride my bike from my home in West Allis to Lake Michigan. That route took me through the industrial landscape of West Allis, West Milwaukee and Milwaukee before I got to the soothing cool blue of the big lake.
From there, I’d bike south to Grant Park. At Oklahoma Ave., I could leave the city streets for dedicated bike paths through Milwaukee County parks that would take me all the way down to Grant. You might think that that last part of the ride was the payoff. And, to some extent, it was, but I also appreciated the industrial part of the trip.
On a Saturday afternoon those old factories sat quietly, waiting to fire up again on Monday morning. I was almost always completely alone in those industrial neighborhoods. The deserted buildings and parking lots held an attraction for me just as much as the lake did. It’s hard to explain why exactly. But those blocks felt as peaceful as a North Woods monastery — or as peaceful as I imagined one of those would be, having never been to a North Woods monastery.
But that wasn’t quite it either. Monasteries are places of permanent repose and reflection. Factories are built to hum. In those hours when they stand down there’s a different kind of serenity about them. It’s more like a time of earned rest, like the deep sleep you get after a day of hard physical labor where you’ve done or built something tangible.
Anyway, a deserted factory district on a hot Saturday afternoon in July is generally not thought of as a must-see Midwest destination. You will not see images of these places among Chamber of Commerce photos of lighthouses and dunes and tall pines or even the Milwaukee skyline or the Calatrava Art Museum. It’s an acquired taste.
I thought about this yesterday on my favorite bike route these days, the Badger State Trail, which I ride southwest from my home on Madison’s near west side toward Paoli. Along that route in Fitchburg you’ll pass the Wolf/Sub Zero plant. It’s a modern factory in a business park, so it’s not quite the same as those old brick structures built cheek-by-jowl with residential neighborhoods in West Milwaukee. But it has the same vibe. Abandoned. Unappreciated by almost everyone. But proud to have earned its days of rest.
Below are some pictures I took, images that, I suppose, only a guy from West Allis could love.
Welcome to Midwest, an occasional Sunday morning feature here at YSDA, where we explore what’s good about the center. Want to read more about why it’s good to be in the middle? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.