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Milborn-and-Raised: Episode 5

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#Milbornandraised is a campaign run by Milborn Advisors to reach out to the people that make Milwaukee great. This week, we interview Rebcca Button - a “tourist within her own city” who helps makes the streets of Milwaukee better with her direct involvement in the Third Ward Association (and who loves the new streetcar!).

Interview and photography by Amy Lancaster.

I love Fauntleroy. This brand new endeavor by the founders of DanDan has exceeded my expectations every time I’ve gone - the food is phenomenal, and the decor puts me right in France in the 70’s. It’s so refreshing and a wonderful addition to the Third Ward. So, when Rebecca suggested we meet there for our interview, I of course jumped right on it.

A lover of everything Third Ward, you can immediately sense the pride she has for our ever-growing city. From calling her past restaurant co-workers family, to making sure to live in and experience every corner of Milwaukee, Rebecca has done it all - and plans to only continue doing so.

Rebecca: So I have lived in Milwaukee specifically for three years, but I grew up in Mequon. It’s north of the city. We moved here from upper state New York when I was 8 years old.

Amy: Wow, how did that happen?

Rebecca: Well, my parents are actually from Chicago.

Amy: Oh, hitting all the cities!

Rebecca: Right. My father’s a corporate attorney, so he got a job in Manhattan. We were living in upstate [New York] while he commuted an hour and a half each way, which was just murder. I’m the youngest of four kids – he hardly ever saw us. So he did that for about five years and then decided he didn’t want to do that anymore. Too much! He was on the train for three hours a day. It was hard. So, they didn’t want to move back to Chicago - mostly because of congestion - so they picked Milwaukee! So, my father got a job here, in the Milwaukee area, at least.

Amy: So that’s quite a cultural shock going from a city as large as New York to a town as small as Mequon. Was it hard to adjust?

Rebecca: Well, for me, I was 8 years old, and we were living in a small town in upstate New York so that’s why – he was working in Manhattan, and my parents are originally from Chicago, so they are used to larger cities. Milwaukee was a good fit just because of how small it was. Mequon is a great proximity from Milwaukee; it’s about 15-20 minutes. It’s perfect. The commute was a lot better! I lived there all the way up through high school, and they still live there!

Amy: How did you get into the Third Ward Association?

Rebecca: Great question! (laughs)

Amy: Where do you start? (laughs)

Rebecca: A lot of good luck I guess! (both laugh) I come from a hospitality background. When I moved back here three years ago, I moved from Indiana – I went to Southern I.U., and that’s where I met my husband. I graduated in four years and just kind of stuck around like a lot of people do in Big Ten schools. Three years ago, we decided to move to Milwaukee to be closer to my family.

Amy: Is he from this area?

Rebecca: He is not! He is from Sacramento, California. Born and raised.

Amy: How does he like Milwaukee?

Rebecca: He loves it. (laughs) He is definitely a Midwesterner at heart. I mean, there are parts about northern California that he loves obviously, but he really loves it out here. So, when I graduated college, I worked for a publishing company for a little while, but I’ve always worked at restaurants. We actually traveled for a few months before we moved here, so we had like, no money! So, I took my resume and did the face-to-face thing, and I got really really lucky. I walked into one of Milwaukee’s best restaurants – I’m biased – but no, it really is one of Milwaukee’s best restaurants. I walked into Odd Duck; it was amazing they hired me because they usually don’t hire outside people. They’re a very tight-knit community. Odd Duck functions so wonderfully as a family. They saw me, interviewed me, I got hired, and the rest is history. They became my family, too. I had the most beautiful introduction to Milwaukee because of them.

Amy: Do you still keep in touch with them regularly?

Rebecca: Oh yeah, definitely. They’re my favorite. But that’s how I actually know “The Dans” – through them. Dan Jacobs, he was working there for two weeks while opening DanDan. So I know him a little bit!

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Amy: So, how do you spend your free time in Milwaukee?

Rebecca: You know, I’m a spoiled woman because my husband is in the wine business. He’s a certified sommelier, so we – without sounding like a lush – we like to drink! We like to go out and experience new restaurants or meet up with our friends – we go to new places or go to the old staples. So, when we moved here, we lived with our parents for a while. Which was great but – it didn’t last long. (chuckles) We got a great apartment in Bay View and moved there. Just got to really know the neighborhood. We lived about a block away from Tenuta’s – which is such a good place, I love it so much. It’s one of my favorite little neighborhood places in Milwaukee. My husband was working for Groppi’s then, so he could walk to work. We really got to know that neighborhood – lived there for about two years. We decided to move, so we moved to Riverwest, and we love Riverwest.

Amy: It’s interesting that you went from Bay View to Riverwest – usually it’s the other way around.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s what everyone tells me. (both laugh) Riverwest is great. We absolutely love it. It is a great community; very community-focused. Bay View is like that, too, but the houses are a little bit closer in Riverwest. Riverwest is very block-by-block. We love our neighbors and the community up there. Another place we can walk pretty much anywhere to. We’re in the south part of Riverwest, so we’re in close proximity to the East Side, and Lakefront Brewery is about 10 minutes. I can walk to Brady street in about 15 minutes. We like neighborhood hopping and exploring. We might move in June!

Amy: Nice! Where are you thinking?

Rebecca: The East Side! Maybe the lower East Side? There are little pockets that are so charming. The upper East Side is very charming as well, but there are a lot of residential homes there, and we aren’t looking into buying yet, so we’ll see. We have a dog, so a yard would be nice.

Amy: That’s very unique that you’re spending a couple years in every corner of Milwaukee. I guess since you have been exploring these areas more – do you have any favorite spots in Milwaukee?

Rebecca: Yeah, absolutely! We’ll start in Bay View – Odd Duck. For neighborhood corner bars, we love the Newport. You should go, it’s so fun! It’s close to the dog park. It’s got really great old-school Wisconsin corner bar vibes. It’s got a circle bar which seems to be a cool northern Midwest thing. Burnhearts is great as well.

Amy: Yes! I love Burnhearts. The new patio is so nice. I’m glad they finally did that.

Rebecca: It’s great! It’s so great. There are a few vintage shops. Alive and Fine, and Plume – they’re both female-owned which is fantastic. And they’re recently new businesses too, which is great. In Riverwest – we love Foundation; we walk there all the time. (laughs) We like Centro Café. It’s nice for a glass of wine or a quick bite. It’s really sweet and romantic and intimate. On the East Side, for breweries, we love Good City – it’s one of our favorites. We do like Lakefront. I don’t think I said anything that didn’t have to do with eating or drinking…oh! I said the vintage stores. (laughs)

Amy: So, would you say Milwaukee is one of your favorite cities?

Rebecca: Oh, absolutely. When we were deciding to move, and we were choosing between Milwaukee and Louisville. Louisville is only about an hour and a half away from Bloomington [Indiana], where we were. So it was closer to our friends. It has a great vibe – great food culture, great music culture. We chose Milwaukee because of my family, and we love being near the Great Lakes. They have really similar vibes, though. Milwaukee has this old beer culture, and Louisville has this old Bourbon culture, and a lot of their histories are revolved around that. So they’re similar but different. When you’re in Louisville, you feel like you’re in the south there, even though it’s not super southern. It’s also an older city, so there’s the difference in architecture.

So, why, Milwaukee? One, my family. We love being by the lake. Jerel [her husband] had only been here a couple of times. We just experienced really good vibes whenever we were here. I had moved away from the area when I was 18, so I didn’t really know much about Milwaukee. Thank goodness we did move here, because we absolutely love it.

Amy: Is there anything specific that makes you feel at home here, as opposed to Louisville, or where you were in college – or even in New York where you were growing up as a child?

Rebecca: Well, proximity to family has something to do with that with feeling at home. Actually, circling back to how I got involved with the Third Ward Association – when I was working at Odd Duck, which I loved, it was time to do something new. I had seen this job posting for an administrative position and had a little bit of that background and went for it, and got the interview and dazzled them. (laughs) Even though we built such a wonderful community in Bay View, working in the Ward, and living in different neighborhoods - I feel so much more home in Milwaukee just by having that well-roundedness and being around different kinds of Milwaukeeans – that’s what really makes me feel at home. What is so great about the Ward and my job is that it’s so connection-based. That’s why I loved working in hospitality – you make those connections.

The Ward has developed so much in the last two decades – even in the last five years. It’s interesting to be here now, versus what I heard it used to be like. The association is quite old – it’s one of the oldest associations in the city. It was formed in the 70’s. The powers that be wanted to turn this district into a red-light district. So, a lady who owned The Knitting Factory said, “absolutely not,” so they formed this neighborhood association to put the kibosh to that idea. Ever since then, the association has been championing the neighborhood and trying to make it thrive as this mixed-use, awesome hub.

Amy: So is your job mainly community-based, or do you do volunteer-work, or…what exactly does the Third Ward Association do for the community?

Rebecca: Oh! Big question!

Amy: Yeah, right? What don’t you do would be the better question.

Rebecca: The association is directly connected to the business improvement district – which is a taxing district. Something cool and unique about Milwaukee – it has the third highest concentration of bids in the country, behind New York and L.A.

Amy: What do you mean by that?

Rebecca: So, a business improvement district is a taxing district. Property owners pay a tax, and that tax goes towards street beautification, snow removal – you see all these what we call “Third Ward Green” (motions to street lamps outside) all of these green lights, the arches – all of that money goes into improving the neighborhood. We’re partnered with the bid. The association also does event programming. So, we run Gallery Night and Gallery Day, the Third Ward Arts Festival, Christmas in the Ward which is coming up in a few s,hort weeks – which is my biggest project of the year. It takes months to plan (chuckles) and fundraise for and gather volunteers. We’re a membership-based organization. We started more networking events because that’s what the members asked for – which is all about bringing people together. When I joined the job about 18 months ago, there was a lot of feedback saying, “We want to know our neighbors more. We want to feel more tight-knit and a solid community.” Scheduling monthly meetups is the easiest way to do that.

Amy: So, how does a business get involved with the Third Ward Association?

Rebecca: We have a process; when we know a business is moving into the neighborhood, we’ll make a point-of-contact, either e-mail or face-to-face. Show them our brochure, introduce ourselves and what we do. If they want to join, they join, and if they don’t – they don’t! It’s completely up to them.

Amy: How many businesses are part of the association?

Rebecca: We have over 200 – around 220 businesses. That’s about half. There’s a little less than 500 in the neighborhood. We also have a resident-level. There are still people that we want to come join us – we still have some work to do!

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Amy: So my last question is – what advice would you give to those who are looking to move here, or if they already live here, get more out of their city?

Rebecca: Go explore. Be a tourist in your own city. I have come across many people who live in certain neighborhoods and don’t leave those areas a lot. They’re being loyal to it – which is great, because Bay View is awesome! The East Side is awesome! Riverwest is awesome! Brewer’s Hill, whatever! All the neighborhoods! Walker’s Point! They kind of have trouble getting out of that bubble because of what they’re used to. Go explore; go try new things. Go to a neighborhood that you’ve driven through before and never thought maybe, “Hey, I should stop and check out this restaurant.” There are so many pockets and gems in the neighborhood all over Milwaukee.

Amy: I would attest to that – I was looking for a place to live when I first moved here. I drove through Bay View thinking, “I don’t like the way this town looks. Why do people like this place?” And now I’ve lived there for five and a half years and I absolutely love it. I definitely agree that exploring a place you wouldn’t normally think to go is a great thing to do, and it gives you a new perspective on the place you live.

Rebecca only confirmed what happened to me personally - the more you explore Milwaukee, the more you’ll grow to love it. It has a personality unlike any city, and the people who live and breathe the lifestyle can only attest to that.

We met again a week later to take photos, since our original interview took place during the evening (and we’re in that time of year where if you blink, you miss the daylight). After trying to coax the bartender to join in, sipping on mocktails, and being complemented on her extravagant coat by a passer-by outside, we headed back to our days. As someone who works in the Third Ward, I find comfort knowing that someone like Rebecca is spearheading all the goings-on in our neighborhood.

Would you or someone you know like to be interviewed next, brag about your favorite city, and gush about how you’re Milborn-and-raised? Fill out our contact form with the subject #milbornandraised to be considered!