Rainbow crosswalk efforts continue to stall in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE -- A two-year effort to install a rainbow crosswalk in Milwaukee continues to stall.

That's despite more than a dozen LGBTQ leaders signing an open letter to Mayor Tom Barrett, in support of it. The crosswalk at the center of it all, is near Cathedral Square, at Jefferson and Wells.

On one side, are community leaders wanting to show our city is inclusive. On the other, are city leaders who have concerns about safety issues.

The effort to install rainbow crosswalks in Milwaukee has been in the works since 2016.

"No symbol is too small a rainbow crosswalk says a lot about how welcoming our community actually is," said Jorna Taylor, Milwaukee Pride.

Taylor says the significance of where they want it installed, is not lost.

In the open letter to the mayor, she highlights, it would be close to This Is It, "...the nation's top 10 longest-operating LGBTQ bars."

The mayor's office referred us to a statement from the Department of Public works, acknowledging they have read the letter, but explained, "In our research, we found that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has specific rules concerning the colors allowed to be painted in crosswalks."

"With 20 different cities already having implemented this both in the U.S. and Canada, it would be hard to believe we couldn't find a way around that to be in compliance," said Taylor.

A DPW spokeswoman points out the Federal Highway Administration, "...sent a letter to the City of Buffalo instructing leaders there to "cease and desist" their rainbow crosswalk installations."

The current owner of This Is It tells us he heard similar statements when he first brought forth this effort two years ago.

"I know that the community would be more than willing to pick up that cost burden as well," said George Schneider, Co-Owner of This Is It.

DPW ended their statement with the willingness to work with the community on alternative designs, "...to find a solution that works for everyone."

 

Here is the full statement from the Department of Public works spokesperson:

A statement from the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works (DPW) in response to your inquiry below:
 
Mayor Tom Barrett’s office recently shared the attached letter with the Department of Public Works (DPW) concerning a request to install rainbow-colored crosswalks in the City of Milwaukee, specifically the Cathedral Square area.
 
DPW has fielded similar requests from community members in the past, including email conversations with Mr. George Schneider, owner of the This is It! Tavern on E. Wells St. in 2016.
 
In our research, we found that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has specific rules concerning the colors allowed to be painted in crosswalks.  Having shared that information with requestors, DPW staff also offered to work with community members on alternate sites and designs, including rainbow murals installed in an intersection or at mid-block (not crosswalks), and/or on sidewalks.
 
At no time did DPW staff “reject Mr. Schneider’s request, citing cost, design and accessibility concerns, stating that the project lacked historical or cultural significance”, as reported by a local media outlet.
 
DPW is aware of other cities that appear to have rainbow crosswalks as part of their infrastructure.  We would be interested in knowing how these cities addressed the FHWA regulations to allow for these installations, considering the FHWA sent a letter to the City of Buffalo instructing leaders there to “cease and desist” their rainbow crosswalk installations.
 
DPW stands ready to continue our collaborative work with community members, Mayor Barrett, and Common Council members to find a solution that works for everyone.


Here is the full letter to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett:

August 6, 2018

Mayor Barrett:

Since 2010, more than 20 North American cities - ranging from Key West to Vancouver-have implemented rainbow crosswalks to commemorate their local LGBTQ community.

Today, we ask the City of Milwaukee to honor the incredible legacy of LGBTQ Milwaukee with a decorative rainbow crosswalk at the intersection of Jefferson and Wells Streets. This crosswalk will highlight not just the hard-worn path to a longtime favorite tavern, but the long and proud journey of all LGBTQ Milwaukeeans from persecution to tolerance to acceptance to equality.

Since 1968, This Is It (419 E. Wells St.) has been a safe, welcoming and meaningful haven for the LGBTQ people of Milwaukee. The bar is a cornerstone of local culture, a contributor to a stronger and more connected local community, and a catalyst for the thriving Cathedral Square entertainment district. This month, we celebrate not only the bar’s 50th anniversary, but also the heritage of longtime owners June and Joe Brehm.

In a city with hundreds of bars and taverns, This Is It is no ordinary establishment. Based on national research, This Is It ranks among the nation’s top 10 longest-operating LGBTQ bars, and quite possibly among the top 5. It shares a national historic distinction with Provincetown’s Atlantic House, New York’s Julius’, Oakland’s White Horse Tavern and New Orleans’ Café Lafitte in Exile. While these four locations are widely believed to be the oldest “gay bars” in America, they did not openly identify, advertise or publicly position themselves as LGBTQ-friendly from the moment they opened, mainly because homosexuality was considered both criminal offense and psychiatric illness.

The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, a program of Milwaukee Pride, Inc., has documented over three dozen “gay bars” that opened before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Similarly, these businesses did not and could not identify, advertise or publicly position themselves as LGBTQ-friendly. This Is It is the one and only pre-Stonewall survivor in the City of Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin.

This Is It has continuously operated, at the same address, with the same name, within the same architecture, as a self-identified LGBTQ landmark for 50 years. This Is It began with June’s brave and bold dream: to create a safe and respectable place for her gay friends that would be just as good, if not better, than any other bar in town. Today, owners George Schneider and Michael Fisher continue to deliver that dream to emerging generations, seven nights a week, 365 days a year.

This crosswalk, as the first Milwaukee monument to LGBTQ people, will be not just a symbol of historic local pride, but of our community’s historic local triumph. On June 17, 1989, approximately 500 people marched from Walker’s Point to Cathedral Square, where another 500 people had gathered for a rally. The first Milwaukee Pride March earned regional media attention as well as the first-ever endorsement from a Milwaukee mayor and county executive. Today’s Milwaukee Pride Parade and PrideFest continue this proud legacy each and every June as the kickoff of the summer festival season. This crosswalk will honor the path from exclusionary activism to inclusive celebration.

Milwaukee Pride, and our undersigned proud partner organizations, fully support any course of action that facilitates this project further. We appreciate your consideration, support and advocacy for a stronger, healthier, and more engaged local LGBTQ community.

Sincerely,

Michail Takach VP-Communications Milwaukee Pride, Inc. Chez Ordonez Acting Chair City of Milwaukee Equal Rights Commission

Stephanie Sue Stein Executive Director Milwaukee LGBT Community Center

Jason Rae President & CEO Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce

Kim Morris Executive Director East Town Association

Dave Reid President Cathedral Square Friends

Brent Holmes Parade Coordinator Milwaukee Pride Parade

Michael Gifford President AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin

Brett Blomme Executive Director Cream City Foundation

Don Schwamb Founder Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project

Megin McDonnell Executive Director Fair Wisconsin

Gerry Coon Executive Director Diverse & Resilient

Carl Bogner Executive Director Milwaukee LGBT Film & Video Festival

Michael Doylen Director UWM Libraries / LGBT Archives

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