Smack dab in the middle of Milwaukee's eccentric, artistic and diverse Riverwest neighborhood is the Riverwest Public House Cooperative. Hardly two years old, it has become the vital heart of activist culture in Milwaukee, and is one of only two cooperative bars in the country. The bar is filled with political posters, stickers affixed to multiple surfaces, and art from local artists. And it is a great bar - local beers on tap, the best rye whiskey I've ever had as a "house special" and very reasonably priced drinks. It is a funky place, comfortable, warm, with a neighborhood vibe that catches you upon entering.
I joined the coop a year ago, even though I don't live in the neighborhood. It is $40 for an annual membership - a lot like Daily Kos - but with the added incentive of discounted drinks. They host poetry slams, open mic nights, a great happy hour, and evenings (like one coming up next week focussed on whether the Left should or shouldn't support Obama) devoted to political debate. Are you jealous yet? Where can you go these days outside of academia to hear and engaged real debate with knowledgable and engaged people? When I learned that they were not only a signing station for the Recall, but that the workers in the collective all got deputized for voter registration, I knew I wanted to work more with this fantastic collective.
I approached them with the idea of putting a custom LED Recall Walker sign on their facade. It is a perfect spot in that thousands of cars daily pass by on Locust Street, a main east/west artery of the city. The bartender I first spoke with happened to be one of the founding members, and he liked the idea. He took it to their Board of Directors. Everyone talked about it, voted on it, and I got institutional approval. It was an organic process that also allowed for spontaneous action. So I custom-made some signs and installed them tonight. They lit up the cold Milwaukee night like a back-pocket Vegas. Or at least like a few strings of Christmas lights forced to march to our political message.
The Public House is a "for-profit" coop, which is a bit unusual. And here's the thing: They employ a lot of people! This is a different kind of model of job creation. You get the feeling hanging around that the workers are really happy to be there. And they have a transformative vision beyond their important economic resonance with the community. As Kevin Kaber reported in the UWM Post:
The Public House was essentially started for the sole purpose of providing funding and support to a future umbrella cooperative group, so that anyone in the neighborhood or the larger city could start growing co-ops.
That is their plan: to become an incubator to disseminate the cooperative model throughout Milwaukee and beyond. As one of their board members said, "Coops help create stronger communities because by their nature, people are involved and have a say.”
Amen to that. These models are inspiring. There is massive creativity underfoot, it is highly relevant and very real. In this case, it is in the great little bar down the street, where you can stop in, have a local brew, sit and chat. Even after perhaps a few too many, with your memory maybe a bit muddled, you are still able to Recall Walker. But if you forget the troubles of the world on the inside of the bar, you now have a bright reminder when you hit the cold night air outside as you head for home.