Milwaukeeist Adam Carr creates past and present stories of his city

Image of Adam Carr

Adam Carr, a self-described Milwaukeeist, works at the intersection of community and communication. Carr joined hands with the Wisconsin Idea Seminar team to craft a special tour of Milwaukee’s Fond du Lac Avenue. Adam shares insight with us about his hometown, the book he created, what it’s like to lead bus tours, and the Wisconsin Idea in action. He even reveals one of his favorite Milwaukee restaurants. His work ranges from writing to media, public art to in-depth tours, filmmaking to photography. On our upcoming visit in May, Carr will use his creative expertise to show us the power of communities coming together in Milwaukee’s North Side.

Milwaukee is your hometown and you graduated from Rufus King International High School. How have these early experiences shaped the way that you think about and engage Milwaukee? I was fortunate to attend phenomenal Milwaukee Public Schools growing up: French Immersion, Golda Meir, Morse and Rufus King. In addition to the education we got in the classroom (which was top-notch) I had friends from all over the place. My upbringing in Milwaukee included many privileges and I consider this one of the greatest. In a city where segregation can seem inescapable, the birthday parties I attended and living rooms where I was welcomed didn’t know that division. Of course, there are valid critiques of the “dream of diversity” that I’m describing, but I think the range of experiences that were part of my youth has always caused me to think expansively about my hometown.

What drew you to return to Milwaukee after spending time in other places? When I came back to Milwaukee after college and a year abroad, I didn’t expect to stay for long. Like my siblings and many of my friends, I figured I’d find success elsewhere. Then, the summer of 2008 happened. It was a remarkable moment — the economy had just collapsed and there was a huge/historic election dominating our national discussion. Since I needed work, I found two part-time gigs — interning during the day at 88Nine RadioMilwaukee and canvassing in the evenings. At 88Nine, I was a production intern and had a wonderful teacher to show me the ropes — Sam Van Halgren, who had previously been the Production Manager at This American Life. He helped me learn deep listening and the patience to find a story through a tangle of ideas. Eventually, I also started conducting interviews, which allowed me to hone and indulge in my curiosity. Canvassing taught me a whole separate set of skills. Everyday, we got a slice of turf where we’d knock every door on every block. This is a remarkable, valuable and anxiety-producing way to explore community and engage with people. While canvassing is a notoriously difficult thing to do (i.e. bothering people on their doorsteps), this is where my insatiable appetite for strangers and going beyond facades began. While I’d grown up “knowing” my hometown, these opportunities combined to show me how little I knew and how fun/challenging it could be to seek a deeper story.

Image of Adam outside with children

Can you talk a little bit about the book “Explore MKE: Your Neighborhood, Our City” that you helped create for Sharp Literacy? The process of researching/writing this book was a wonderful gift. I spent a school year working with third grade classes from five different schools around Milwaukee. Entering the project, I had zero words written and a sketch of a plan — invite them into my (somewhat organic) process of learning about the city through experiences and asking questions. My hope was to offer them a few tools for discovery, then follow their lead. Fortunately, the third grade mind is an engine of inquiry. In each of our sessions together, we focused on a community they’re a part of, telescoping from near to far. In sequence, we discussed the ideas of home, block, neighborhood, city. After my lesson, they would take an activity home, to gather information from their own world. These assignments allowed for discussion of their experiences Milwaukee, and those varied profoundly. Some students were excited and eager to share about their neighborhood, while others brought back difficult, sometimes tragic stories. As an “expert” on Milwaukee, I did my best to hold a space for them to share without elevating one experience over the other — our city is a place of great contradictions, as the experience of the students demonstrated. Afterwards, I was told by many of the teachers that our project was one of the few times they were able to have conversations like this in their classroom. My experiences with my ~125 collaborators became the basis for the text. While their words aren’t directly in the book, I could not have written it without drawing from our time together and the accumulated insight they shared.

You give interactive bus tours of Milwaukee neighborhoods. What do you like about these city tours and how are they are a platform to share stories of Milwaukee? When I worked in radio, I was fortunate to share people’s stories on a public platform. But eventually, I started feeling uncomfortable as a broadcaster — if a radio piece told a story about a Milwaukee community effectively, the listener might feel like they really “know” that community, while only holding a kernel of information. In fact, that person might feel their quota for “community connection” fulfilled by listening to a neighborhood story, while still feeling scared of driving through that place. With tours, I have the opportunity to facilitate experience. It’s direct, and if done right, it’s humanizing (or at least not dehumanizing). Also, I plan guests/activities/interactions on every tour, to ensure that each place we visit can represent its own story. Especially in a city as divided as Milwaukee, I firmly believe that it’s important to build our knowledge of the city through experiences and people, rather than impressions alone.

How do you see the Wisconsin Idea in action with the work that you do? I love Milwaukee and Wisconsin when they are unpretentious. I believe my city and our state are at their best when go beyond just having good ideas and truly embody them. As a person who is constantly in quest of and telling stories of vital work happening in Milwaukee, while I may not always articulate it this way in my thoughts, I’m seeking out the Wisconsin Idea.

We are very excited to collaborate with you this spring for the 2019 Wisconsin Idea Seminar River Tour! What are some things that you hope participants will learn? We will cover a good deal of ground, but to put it succinctly, I’m hoping we’ll see much of the American macrocosm in the microcosm of Milwaukee. Along our path, we’ll see the rise of industry and deindustrialization, the tragic police shooting of a black man and powerful community responses, a devastating uprooting and the rooting of a remarkable new ethic. While we will unpack some key themes/ideas about the city, I’m also hoping to instill how much there is beyond what we cover.

What are some of your favorite places to take visitors in Milwaukee? Family-owned, neighborhood-based restaurants. I love sharing story/narrative, but food is almost always the most memorable part of a visit. If I had to recommend a single restaurant in Milwaukee, I would suggest Anmol, a Pakistani restaurant on Mitchell Street.

Adam graduated from Carleton College with majors in Math and Philosophy. 


Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.