Friday, January 28, 2011

Wisco Nice

Yesterday, the Times took a look at the new Fedora and the expanding "Little Wisco" of Greenwich Village, a "self-perpetuating machine" in the words of the new Fedora's owner. We've discussed this Wisconsinization of the Village before and how it has come to exemplify the current trend of newcomers longing to recreate their hometowns in New York City.

Ever curious about this trend, I look to the Little Wisco phenomenon for answers. As we learned from The Feast, the new Fedora features a cocktail called the Black Squirrel Old Fashioned, an homage to the bartender's hometown of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, where the Black Squirrel Lounge is the "hip bar...where everybody goes and hangs out" at the America's Best Value Inn-Voyageur Inn and Conference Center.

I searched out the America's Best Value-Voyageur Inn and Conference Center to see if I could understand more about this whole phenomenon.

View from the parking lot

"Fun and excitement await you at America's Best Value Inn-Voyageur Inn and Conference Center," says the hotel's website. "Whether it's after a long day at work, a cocktail after dinner, or a night out on the town, come relax in the Black Squirrel Lounge or at our on-site Marty's Steakhouse."

They feature HBO in every room and are close to many recreational activities, such as the Antique Mall of Reedsburg, Christmas Mountain Golf Course, and something called Wizard Quest, "the leader in computer interactive games played in a live setting," a fantasy-themed labyrinth they call the quadrasphere.

The Black Squirrel Lounge

After a day of antiquing, golfing, and wizard-questing, you can also return to the America's Best Value Inn-Voyageur Inn and Conference Center to enjoy the indoor swimming pool, video games, and the hall of Norman Rockwell. Said one TripAdvisor reviewer of the permanent Rockwell exhibit, "I can't wait to get back and check it out. The restaurant was good, too. On Friday nights they have a seafood buffet that is really good... and everyone is really nice."

Reedsburg, Wisconsin, actually has (or had) a couple of Rockwell-related exhibits. It's a mystery as to why. Norman Rockwell was from New York City and lived later in Massachusetts, not Wisconsin. Maybe they just adopted him as their own, identifying with the wholesome niceness of his work.

The game room

So, is it niceness that newcomers want to bring to New York City from their small Midwestern towns? In the Little Wisco Times article, the author points out the "hyper-sincere" and "disarmingly friendly" nature of these restaurants. These are not traits usually identified with New York City, a town long known for its abrasiveness and aggression, its tough (usually ethnic) way of being warm--in short, its "edge."

As I wondered here before, "What will the city look like as Little Italy and Chinatown give way to Little Michigan and Ohiotown?" Maybe it will be a place where everyone is super nice. Maybe it'll be just like Minnesota Nice. However, says Minnesota playwright Syl Jones, this niceness "doesn't have all that much to do with being nice. It's more about keeping up appearances, about keeping the social order, about keeping people in their place."

According to a niceness study, the people of Wisconsin score very high on the niceness scale--they are sociable, extroverted, and friendly. Said one, "we don't like making waves. We are a very polite group of people." As for New York, concluded the report, people here were "found to be the most high strung, stressed out, and unfriendly." Also neurotic. You could say that, for many years, the city not only bred, but also attracted such personalities. It was a haven for the unsunny.

If we are in a niceness trend, thanks to Midwestern transplants who don't want to leave the Midwest behind (as past generations of transplants did gladly), we could be experiencing a powerful wave that will spread as quickly as the recent "tsunami of cute"--in fact, the two trends are likely related; for example, "cute" cupcakes could also be described as "nice."

What kind of New York will we have once it has been completely won over by the Midwest's brand of hyper-sincerity and disarming friendliness?


Anonymous said...

OK, I'm from Michigan and visited NYC 2 years ago, stayed in the West Village and fell in love with the area. When I tried to explain the charm of it to my friends I told them that it reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, a city within a city. I know it sounds weird, but the Village has its own feeling,not anything like the rest of NYC.

EVGayBear said...

I find nothing "cute" about this trend. Where I came from, kind of quoting 'Heathers' here, if you weren't on the football team, then you might as well been wearing a dress. (Which I was, behind closed doors.)

I fear this trend will bring the narrowminded, Midwestern thinking that so many of us were desperate to escape from so many years ago.

Shawn said...

Genius Jeremiah, Genius. Thank god for you and your blog and your insights.

Most of these midwesterners are not the "Wrangler-wearing blue collar" types. No. They don't own farms or trucks and certainly don't know how to answer "You use Pioneer, right?" They are suburbanized. They are from Bloomfield Hills, not Detroit. Evanston, not Chicago. Menomonee Falls, not Milwaukee.

But when this new wave of imports got to NYC, they needed their own identity and POOF! The Urban Cowboy cum Hipster was born. Fact of the matter is most of these kids think manual labor is the President of Mexico.

As Gen X'er myself, who has my share of old 70's and 80's stuff from when I was a kid, I'm constantly asked "Where did you get that?" or "Wow is that from Urban Outfitters?"

"No, this is mine from 1979." I reply. There is an authenticity that they are trying to photocopy. They are willing to purchase it to gain admission to the party. I have repeatedly pointed out to shocked twenty-somethings that their generation is the first without a major music scene. 60's psychedelic, 70's disco and punk. 80's pop. 90's grunge. There isn't an identifiable scene post-2000, and it's the first time in history. Sad.

Since blazing a new trail is not in their DNA, they are photocopying everything, including their memory of, say a bar form back home and thus bringing it to NYC. They are not coming to NYC for NYC.

In fact I'm not really sure why they are coming here, but I think TV has something to do with it.

You can see it day after day in the faces of the overdressed would-be patrons who stroll into Manitoba's or Sophie's. Most high tail it out right after stepping in. Others politely scope the place, then head to the Smith or Village Pourhouse. Those are "nice."

The quintessential NYC bars are "not nice" nor resemble anything these newbies recall from their own limited cultural perspective. Thus "Little Wisco" is born.

And all that implies.

City Of Strangers said...

'Nice' is a much misused word. As a Canadian, I know all too much about it - and 'keeping up appearances and keeping people in their place' is a big part of it. When I first used to come here late 80's-ish, I found New Yorkers were rarely nice, but they were kind, which I'll take any day.

I don't know anything about the American Midwest but I will say this: I do sometimes miss the easiness of manner that exists in Canada. In the Canadian midwest at least, it goes with open-ness, a desire to make contact with other people. New York has never had easiness of manner, but it's losing it's saving grace, that open-ness towards other people that offset its sometimes harsh public face.

I think it's also worth pointing out the KIND of midwesterners coming here. These ain't the poor folks. You don't come to New York and take a place in West Village unless you're well off. I think that's a good deal of what's making large parts of New York so cold, the stiffness of the moneyed classes. And they could come from anywhere.


Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks Shawn. this reminds me of the article in the current Believer magazine about artisanal clothing, which is all about "Buy Less, Spend More," and another kind of "niceness."

COS, i hear you. kindness and civility seem to be leaving the city as the niceness quotient goes up. cell phone culture is a major piece of this.

Anonymous said...

Unlike past immigrations to New York, where vast populations from Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico, etc. helped to diversify and strengthen the city, the great Suburban Immigration of today homoginizes and weakens it. Spearheaded by Bloomberg's uber-tourism outreach and constant hip-ifying through TV (SATC), movies and rap songs, NYC has become THE place to be for all suburban Americans. Not a scary, edgy place, but a shiny, glamorous mall to meet up with your friends. The result? Our teens speak in Valley Girl accents, folks recline in lounge chairs in Times Square, bicycles are given right-of-way over cars, and our signature dish is no longer hot dogs or knishes, but cupcakes. America's Best Value-Voyageur Inn is not dissimilar in looks and appeal to the Standard Hotel. NYC will get friendlier and friendlier, nicer and nicer...until we become the fabled "Wisconsin of the East".

glamma said...

as far as i am concerned, this is what hell looks like.

glamma said...

f*cking wussconsin.

Anton A said...

I escaped to New York from the midwest in 1971. It's a bit horrifying to think that the niceness is now following me here after 40 years.

OTOH, Wisco has its own seamy underside of crystal meth, gangs & other assorted lowlife behavior. Check out the documentary "Wannabe" - - and the book & film, "Wisconsin Death Trip," - - for some historical context.

Perhaps, as the niceness migrates here & leaves the rest behind, certain places in Wisco will become what the LES/East Village was in the 1960s. It's all cycles.

EV Grieve said...

Perhaps we can move to, say, Milwaukee and start our own part of town called Little New York. We'll import the Mars Bar and other places being priced out by carpetbagging restaurateurs who cater to the affluent market. And we won't be nice ... and force our way of life on the locals.

Ken Mac said...

keep your hands off my stress belt you putzes!

Ed said...

I pretty much agree with all the above comments.

One problem with New York having been both a great city, and having been able to absorb successive waves of immigration, is that a sort of diversity myth arose in that all immigrant cultures that came to this city are equally celebrated. Some waves of immigration brought mainly crime, at least for the first few decades (the nineteenth century Irish). If the immigrants came from cultures that were pretty much bankrupt, they didn't become net contributors until they had been in the city for awhile and their descendents had absorbed something of the existing city culture.

The American Midwestern culture is one of the bankrupt ones. One Midwestern city after another has been destroyed by racism, malinvestment, and bad urban planning. The wave of immigrants we are getting are the sons and daughters of the business elite that are the most responsible. At some level this is understandable -if you are a college graduate there just arent that many jobs available in some of these states- but this wave of immgrants will be difficult to absorb. And they won't be bringing great food with them either.

And that attitude is not niceness, its passive-aggressiveness.

Erika said...

And then they pursue urban domesticity, crowding the sidewalks with huge SUV strollers while the moms walk to yoga class with their overly dressed-up children.
I barely recognize this place anymore.

Mark said...

Some of the most evil people I've met in my life were from Wisconsin. So much for niceness. I'm not convinced.

That said, I must once again marvel at the Black Squirrel cocktail. Now that you've shown me it's genesis, I have to reiterate:

The chic of it!

Matt said...

Actually, the urban authenticity fetishists around this blog could find a lot to like in gritty Milwaukee or Racine or Kenosha -- more genuine old man bars than you could shake a stick at, people who drink PBRs unironically and non-college students that do rounds of shots. Economies that still make tangible things and working people that own their own homes. No, those sure aren't the Wisconsinites coming here to open upscale restaurants, but then, New York has been receiving upwardly-mobile bland suburban trust funders from the territories for a couple centuries now.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

I'm just getting more and more confused. The local mom-n-pop businesses, where everyone knows your name and family history, are being pushed out in favor of big anonymous chains that could never be called 'nice'. Aren't the people who patronize these places the same ones who are moving in and dragging their suburbia with them?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I'm from Wisconsin, so it's hard for me to hate the idea of Little Wisco. I see your points. But two things. New York is full of displace Midwesterners and always has been. They've helped make the city great. Also, Wisconsinites only seem nice on the surface. They can be quite nasty and mean when challenged. I speak from experience.

Anonymous said...

Matt, you've got it right. The real Milwaukee has got its own character, and it's very down-to-earth, not phony. Please don't let these recent arrivals (I've been here since 1984) make the rest of us look bad.

JakeGould said...

Expanding on what Shawn Chittle said and what Jeremiah posted: I think this trend for folks inside the U.S. moving to “big cities” and not accepting the new, but transplanting the familiar has 100% everything to do with non-permanence. In fact, non-permanence is the main cause (in my opinion) of the changes in NYC I cannot stand.

These folks live outside of NYC, have fantasy ideas of what it means to have a “New York experience” so they move here... But they are not here for the long haul. They are here to party, work, make connections and move. I personally consider it an “NYC degree” to go along with their BA/BS degree.

So if their plan is to stay here for 5-6 years tops and “make it big” it makes sense they would not care one bit about adopting a new culture. They’ll just create a transplanted version of the familiar or gravitate towards the familiar and then shun the new until they finally “graduate” from NYC and then move elsewhere that is “nicer.”

Crazy Eddie said...

As a Manhattan lifer, I have got to say that Gilly’s Frozen Custard (3 locations in WI) is frigging awesome. Also, who could not dig Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Sidney Moncrief for their Milwaukee Bucks days. Ok that’s your legacy; please don’t try to change us.

Jeremiah Moss said...

call me crazy, but i like visiting cities that are like themselves and not like other cities.

JakeGould said...

Crazy Eddie, frozen custard is great. But is there a reason why anyone wanting to share that in NYC seemingly would have to serve it artisanally in an overpriced bistro? I mean if someone opens up a custard and bratwurst place and charges prices on par with pizza and falafel, I would embrace that without protest. But is there a reason I need to be taken to some foodie “Disneyland” to experience “simple” food?

I mean, you know what my benchmark of “being ripped off” is in many foodie-type places is? What is the cost of a simple potato side and what is the cost of a simple salad side.

If it costs more than $3 or $5 then you are being ripped off. And in the case of potatoes, if someone is charging you more than $5 and it's simply baked, fried or a hash-brown you are really being shaken down.

Folks should learn how to cook and know the cost of basic ingredients. You'd be shocked at how high the markup is at many places nowadays. Straight out fleecing.

esquared™ said...

wisconsin=zenith; and unfortunately, nyc is becoming like just another zenith:

“I tell you, Zenith and her sister-cities are producing a new type of civilization. There are many resemblances between Zenith and these other burgs, and I’m darn glad of it! The extraordinary, growing, and sane standardization of stores, office, streets, hotels, clothes, and newspapers throughout the United States shows how strong and enduring a type is ours.”

also, nyc is looking more, just like # 12

Crazy Eddie said...


Totally agree. My point was that if you want Gilly’s, go to WI, that’s what makes it unique.


cathryn said...

So many interesting perspectives and comments. Thanks everyone. Anonymous 10:29 a.m. summed up more clearly for me something I was grappling with - what is the difference between people who immigrated here in the past and these Little Wisco folks? Anon. pointed to those who came here in the past as adding and strengthening the city via the diversity they added vs. the homogenization of it now with the current influx. Agreed, the homogenization factor has been given a great boost by Bloomberg. Interesting article in new Esquire on Bloomberg - fairly hard hitting but still not hard hitting enough! Touches mostly on policy on not on the drastic changes and demise of NYC during his (endless) tenure!

michael said...

Knowing full well that this is an ad hominem attack, Jeffrey's Grocery has got to be the lamest name for any place I've ever heard of in my entire life. I mean really. That's just straigt up mid-western lame.

Anonymous said...

As a NYer for over 30m years, and an occasional visitor to Milwaukee, I can say you people don't know shit about Milwaukee. Best beer, best bars, and best Mexican food (yeah, you heard me) around.
Go back to Buffalo, losers.
NYC is over. It's dead, and we all know it.
Enjoy your crappy cup cake.
Oh and Shawn; you're just another flavor of a self entitled douche
"limited cultural perspective" indeed.
And if you are a Gen Xer, the only 70's 80's stuff you would have from when you were a kid would be your baby bottle.

Anonymous said...

Wow, another "genius".
"Folks should learn how to cook and know the cost of basic ingredients."

Yeah, the "basic ingredient" would be called "NYC commercial rent".

I mean... what the hell city do you live in?!

JM said...

Brooks said, "I'm from Wisconsin, so it's hard for me to hate the idea of Little Wisco. I see your points. But two things. New York is full of displace Midwesterners and always has been. They've helped make the city great."

Well, I guess some have. But I don't think there have ever been as many descending on the city at one time as in the past decade nor have they been of this kind of character. As other Midwestern commenters point out, those earlier transplants were often disgruntled by and escaping from their home region, and came here to experience something completely different, more to their liking and true nature.

I like your blog, Brooks, and you've often been a voice of reason, but I finally understand your wholehearted support of bike lanes and why you don't see them as part of the ultragentrification you usually decry, or how they damage the fabric and workability of the city. (That and the fact that they're unusable for 4 or 5 months out of the year...)

But we can disagree on that, along with your inability to hate the idea of little Wisco. I think at the end of the day, you still have a few toes of one foot in the suburban immigrant camp even while the rest of you appreciates what's left of New York that has made it wonderful.

Of course, holding two opposing views and emotions at the same time is bound to make one neurotic, so I think you're well on the way to being fully New Yorkized even while a tinge of the heartland lingers within!

Anonymous said...

I understand the resistance to suburbanization, and I am unfamiliar with these Wisconsin businesses, but when someone talks about wanting to recreate some bar from their hometown in WI, it seems to me that they might be talking about opening the kind of unpretentious establishment that you are usually lamenting the closing of. The idea of people being friendly to each other in a bar, there being regulars, it having a warm atmosphere, those are great qualities in neighborhood bars like Freddies, or O'Connors on 5th avenue in Brooklyn.

All this talk about the tyranny of niceness is interesting to me. So many times on this blog it seems like there is a tyranny of the old. Everything new is suspect. I get that it is in resistance to hyper-gentrification, and that there is a reason for the vitriol. This harsh insider/outsider dynamic can come off and very provincial, which isn't that far from suburban.

Sorry to anonymous comment, I know most people who have quibbles in your comment section are anon. Just think of me as a 20 something who don't think she is a cultural void or even doomed to an impoverished existence

Tripp Hall said...

I have a hard time thinking that a few cool-sounding bars in the West Village are anything for the rest of the city to worry about. (As Jeremiah's Googling of that conference center implied, I think it's pretty clear that these bars are not duplicates of any that already exist in Wisconsin.)

They do sound like the sort of small, locally owned places that lots of people claim to want. Better than yet another chain restaurant or Marc Jacobs, right? As a former Wisconsinite who has been here for 15 years, I'm just excited that I can probably a get brandy old-fashioned at one of these joints without too much fuss.

BTW, someone should definitely open a supper club in Bushwick based on Wisconsin Death Trip. That would kill.

Claribel said...

John, I hear what you're saying, so in addition to bringing the Black Squirrel Lounge cocktail, how amazing would it be if one of the restaurants brought in Marty's Steakhouse $6.99 lunch buffet? This of course will never happen in Manhattan where unfortunately real estate is dictating the prices of the shops and services. So no thanks to selling me hyper-sincerity and the parts of Wisconsin they've cherry picked while charging me $8 side dishes and $105 plateau royal du mer.

The town of Reedsburg may have one major advantage over NYC: Reedsburg gets to be Reedsburg, not a movie version of NYC. Change is intrinsic to NYC, but the people obviously give the City its character. Those of us who value its culture and existing establishments feel like we’re getting short shrift lately. When local businesses are unable to compete with businesses catering to the affluent and corporate chains, it feels like NYC is losing its authenticity, diversity, and choices.

ny edge said...

Ugh! these comments make me want to go all nativist on your pretentious asses. Most, if not all, of you commenting here aren't from here either (including our esteemed host) yet you have this shut-the-door-behind-me attitude because you came here for "noble" reasons?? Oh please, isn't all this outcry just a desperate attempt to stifle that little voice in your head that says "I'm not one of them...I'm not one of them...."
But ya are Blanche, ya are!

@Matt "New York has been receiving upwardly-mobile bland suburban trust funders from the territories for a couple centuries now." Thank you for pointing out this has ALWAYS been the case.

Little Earthquake said...

I am from Wisconsin but have lived in NYC for 11 years. I find New Yorkers to be some of the nicest people in the country. And no, I do not hang out only with other Midwesterners in the city. Gruff exterior, sure, but New Yorkers are by and large very "nice."

I don't know how I feel about the idea of Little Wisco yet, but I perceive it as harmless. Actually, with all due respect, I've noticed that your blog (which I read often) celebrates many relics of yesteryear throughout NYC. The entire state of Wisconsin could be described as such - that hotel in Reedsburg may not be easy on the eyes, but it's an example of how frozen in time (in a good way) much of the state is. A lot of the crap celebrated as kitschy and ironic on the streets of Williamsburg, admittedly often by Midwestern emos and hipsters, are still enjoyed in all earnestness in places like Green Bay and Kenosha and Chippewa Falls. To wit, I still know plenty of people in my native state who drink shitty beer not because it's funny to them, or because they're poor, or emulating the poor, but because they like it.

White American transplants make an easy target; people can rip them to pieces without the same social stigma associated with demonizing foreigners or minorities. In this case, "Little Wisco" (if it happens) is just more of what NY has always been - people bringing a bit of home to the city they want to live in...because the city is more exciting and awesome than anything back home.

My $.02

Anonymous said...

Go Pack!

Anonymous said...

one used to come to nyc mostly below 14th street to become the next artist/musician/writer/actor/dancer/designer now they come to work for google/groupon/hedge funds then go on to invest/open lame copycat businesses mostly restaurants/bars to promote their "creative/indie" spirit.
who wants to come to nyc to experience cute and nice????