An edited version of this My Turn column first appeared as a special to the Kenosha News on February 8, 2008.
Full disclosure: I moved to Kenosha two and a half years ago to be with the love of my life. I was not looking forward to it. Had I not found The One, and had she not been so stubborn, I would not be here.
The perception of Kenosha held by many people around the state is one of a post-industrial, rustbelt town gutted by the loss of manufacturers during the late twentieth century. Kind of like Janesville or Beloit, with a lakefront. It was not a place people thought about visiting, much less inhabiting. Admittedly, I shared these views.
I was living and working in Madison and Beth was living here, taking the Metra to downtown Chicago every day for her fancy corporate job. Neither of us was cut out for a long distance relationship – fun weekends and holidays together punctuated by long weekday phone calls. For three years this went on, both of us hoping the other would move. At the end of the day I heeded the sage advice of her grandfather who said this regarding the female species: “When it comes to women you have a choice; you can be right, or you can be happy.”
When I arrived here my perceptions seemed validated. The roads were beat up, over half of the storefronts downtown were vacant, and from our back yard we had a great view of a coal-burning power plant spewing huge plumes of mercury into the atmosphere. And after living in the rolling hills and well-planned neighborhoods of Madison, the utter flatness and weird zoning of Kenosha was a shock to my system. Kenosha also has the distinction of being the only city in Wisconsin where I’ve seen Confederate flag stickers, always on big, loud pickup trucks. There is a knuckledragger component here you just don’t see in Madison.
Despite the ugliness, or perhaps in spite of it, something happened along the way. Maybe it’s the Beth-colored glasses I see the world through, the glasses that make everything better, but I started warming up to K-town. I even started liking it. You can tell because I’m calling it K-town.
We enjoy going out on weekends to try new food and music, and during my time here the city has a seen a veritable explosion of non-chain dining options. Anchored by the lakefront and museums, the fledging downtown arts and restaurant district looks well on its way to blossoming into a vibrant destination. It is already gaining a trendy rep in Lake and Cook counties. Say what you will about our neighbors to the south, I’ve said it too, but people spending money here is good for all us.
There really is a lot to do here. And a lot to like. The lake is a huge asset that city planners seem to be embracing, albeit clumsily (who approved that monstrosity at the end of 56th St?). The schools are some of the best in the state, there are more shopping options than when I first arrived, Kenoshans are generally good and hard working folks, and entrepreneurial opportunities exist for those who dare.
The tall ships were awesome and the farmers market has become a ritual. I heard the Fourth of July festivities were fun, but after looking for parking for an hour, we gave up (should have taken the shuttle). I live near Christmas Lane, which has to be one of the coolest neighborhood phenomenon anywhere. Kenosha has an interesting, eclectic history that is well documented and easily accessible.
Metra is a huge asset that should be better exploited. Taking the train to Chicago is fun, and allows people like Beth to pursue a career in a large urban center while enjoying reasonable real estate prices here. Again, a lack of parking holds it back. Good luck getting within three blocks of the station for the 7:51 am train.
Let’s not start hugging each other just yet, but Kenosha is growing on me. There is much work to do, but the city and surrounding area have a great deal going for them and potential to be even better. If we weren’t plunging head-first into what I think is going to be a nasty recession, it would be an exciting time to be here. Whether I’m working in Waukesha or visiting friends in Madison, I am not going to let anyone talk bad about Keno. I will bestow her virtues and spread the good word. Kenosha might be Wisconsin’s best kept secret. It won’t be secret for long.