Beyond

Essay: The Road to Kenowhere Leads to Me

Kenosha, Wis. Photo: Marielle Bokor

By now, if you’re on social media, especially Twitter, you may have noticed that Kenosha is trending on Twitter. In fact, Kenosha made the national news–or rather, an author at Harper’s Magazine did. And at least around here (and, in my specific case, here is even closer to the Illinois-Wisconsin line) people are pretty mad about it. To me, it almost feels like someone insulted a member of my family. I sometimes referred to it as Kenowhere, and that’s okay for me to do, but not okay for you. And maybe that’s silly or even problematic, but examining that made me examine WHY people were so mad about it in a little more detail and I think I have the answer-it’s a perfect picture of what’s ruining everything.

When I first read the piece, I was mad too. The author is extremely condescending in tone, acting almost as though it’s a favor he’s touched down at O’Hare for his arduous journey to the wilds of Wisconsin. And my immediate reaction was what you’d expect. I was mad. My aunt and uncle lived in Kenosha over by the airport for much of my childhood. I loved to visit them–they’re still two of my favorite people. They had a big yard with a beautiful weeping willow in front to camp under, trees to climb in the back, a big swingset to play on and were surrounded by fields to run in with their dog Ceasar.

Later on, I’d regularly make the trip to Kenosha to seek out one of the most insanely talented Old World craftsmen who I’ve even ever read about, Emil Pacetti, who not only had a music shop whose repair shop was renowned from Chicago city limits to Milwaukee and beyond, but who was so intimately familiar with every part of constructing a clarinet and even its reeds that he could shave a millimeter off one side of my mouthpiece and change my tone quality for the better. Going there was an experience I relished, and not just because the shop had an incredible range of products for anyone from beginner to professionals and everything in between, including Beethoven socks I wear to this day.  Pacetti was a treasure, and would often invite those seeking instrument repair down to the workshop with him, where he’d loudly drag a chair across the concrete floor and inquire about what you were working on, then get out his clarinet and play along, giving pointers. Pacetti even unexpectedly showed up to a concert of mine, and seeing him smiling approvingly as he came in the rehearsal/storage space afterwards to say hello was one of the most inexplicably touching moments I’ve experienced as a musician.

Kenosha, WI. Photo: Marielle Bokor

I often drive to find a little bit of serenity when I feel anxious or depressed, and one of the places I found myself most often was wandering Kenosha’s lakefront marina late at night, sitting on the rocks or leaning against the wall near the lighthouse sorting things out in the peace and calm . And of course, most everyone knows about the Mars Cheese Castle and the wonders within, especially someone whose Twitter and editor’s bios both reference cheese.

But that’s not the real problem and Kenosha doesn’t need me to defend it, in the end. There are millions of small towns full of amazing stories like Emil Pacetti’s, tons of natural beauty, kind people and big fields to run in. The problem is the toxic, reductive thinking behind that piece. The author came to Kenosha, brilliantly deemed it “gray” in February and did nothing to change his preconceived notion of what the place was or could be. He assumed that he knew, and he wrote from above. He came in with the idea that the people and the place were less than him.

And universally, that’s the problem right now. Your life matters less than mine. Your jobs aren’t as important as mine, until they’re suddenly essential. You haven’t earned what I have or worked as hard as I am. Your life doesn’t look like mine. Your love doesn’t look like my love. You live in the suburbs and I live in the city. You’re from the South and I’m from the North. I went to college and you did not.

The problem isn’t really this guy’s article–it’s that so many of us think like him at some point, and no one stops to consider how they’re just like him.

So, instead of defending Kenosha, which is, to be factually accurate, a diverse, interesting, lovely place–let’s pay them tribute by paying more attention to our own unfounded biases and be better. Because that will change things.

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10 replies »

  1. A thoughtful response, Marielle Bokor. At least you bothered to read the Harper’s article. I saw it the day it landed online and wondered how long before a bit of local outrage flared up. It’s tough to grasp the nature of any city in four to six weeks, and the writer did a decent job in many respects. But he is in his early 30s and went looking for locals in taverns a bit too much to find a wide swath of the community. Elizabeth Snyder of the Kenosha News interviewed him when the piece was published.
    https://www.kenoshanews.com/news/local/snyder-kenosha-the-focus-of-harpers-magazine-cover-story/article_0379715e-a135-5e9c-b44e-d753fce7f981.html
    He admitted it’s difficult to parachute in to a community and have the same knowledge as a native, but that is not an issue for me. If only local journalists were writing about places, we would be without a lot of wonderful pieces. Full disclosure, my wife wrote the K-News piece. And, we were friends of Emil Pacetti, too. He was a one-of-kind guy for sure.

  2. Being born and raised in Kenosha in the 60’s-70’s was sometimes boring but if you thought long enough with your friends, there was always something to do. We could go to one of the many parks, ride bikes to one of the many lake front parks, go downtown to shop at the many stores or to a carnival in the streets! We didn’t stay bored long!! But as always, change came to our town. We were the fastest growing town in America for a few years and almost all of our farms were turned into small factories, stores and homes. Suddenly our little town turned into a big city. We don’t feel as safe as we did. A lot of new people moved in from bordering areas and they brought their attitudes with them. That’s when the crime and drug rate went up and good parents had to keep closer tabs on their children. I don’t think we’re as bad as the bigger cities around us yet but sadly we’re getting there. There was always talk about our town getting swallowed up by Chicago and Milwaukee and it feels like it’s happening. We’re the mid way point between the two and their gangs meet here to often now for no good. Sad! Our little small, safe town isn’t that way any more. But truthfully, I’d rather live here then thousands of other cities. And no matter where you go now days you’ll find violence and drugs. Even the small little towns in the southern states. I like to travel but it always feels good to come home to Kenosha!

  3. Two of my brothers and I were born in Kenosha but moved to Ohio when I was in 6th grade. I, too, have had five generations in Kenosha. I still have cousins who live there.
    My great-grandfather was born in Luxembourg then emigrated to the U.S. in 1861. In 1882 he settled in Kenosha, established a business on the north side and raised his family there. All but one of his children lived there for their whole lives. Both of my parents graduated from Kenosha High School (now Bradford) in 1933. My best friends were my cousins who lived nearby and we played together often. I have very fond memories of walking thru Lincoln Park to get to St. Mark’s School, ice skating on the Lincoln Park Lagoon, fishing off the pier with my grandfather, and being able to walk anywhere, even after dark, without fear. Even after moving to Ohio, our family returned to Kenosha once or twice a year to visit. Always had smoked whitefish at my Aunt Dorothy’s. For several years we rented a cottage at Twin Lakes near Tyson’s summer shop. Recently I’ve been building my family tree and have often Googled sites, buildings, and houses to include in my remarks. I even took all five of my grandchildren to Kenosha one summer to see where “Grams grew up.” Of course they got bored until we saw the Tall Ships! They were amazed to see a lake so huge that they couldn’t see the other shore.
    I totally agree with Rita Ginocchio – the memories of Kenosha are wonderful! I still think of it as a great place to raise a family.

  4. I moved to Kenosha 20 years ago to raise my family. While there’s not a lot going on here for teens and young adults, it’s a great place to be a child or middle aged in. My kids are almost grown now and I’ll probably leave Kenosha. Despite the many beautiful things about this city, I can no longer tolerate the residents complaining about the black and brown people in this city. I can’t see wanting to grow old with my fellow Kenoshans.

    • In the last 2 years we’ve driven from liberal Chicago close in suburbs to Kenosha for the beach. We’ve lived also in Madison, Portage, DC, and enjoyed waterways all over from the boundary waters to ft. Lauderdale. Kenosha shows the complacency, hostility and bigotry of NYC, Chicago, and all of the older cities that I’ve visited in the last 68 years. So if you have the bucks and like the Gold Coast or the Villages, or maybe Marinette, go for it. Tahoe is out of reach for us, but if you can, go for that. They have 2 excellent supermarkets there. At least I might catch a lake trout in Kenosha.

  5. Haha half of Kenosha is just as ghetto as Racine. Take away the two colleges and this place would be horrible. Also has a very high rate of heroin addicts. This was obviously written by somebody that lives in the outskirts

    • Then Try Zurich, Munich, and Chicago, all of which I’ve experienced in the last year. You won’t escape those problems, just get to see better theater. Wearing a mask of course.

  6. Bravo!👏 Mutual respect, what a refreshing idea. But please be careful, as there was just a hint of the new “automatic anger” which has recently replaced disappointment. Pity those who cannot or will not see the good.

  7. This is a wonderful article! My question to the writer from Harper’s: Isn’t it usually gray everywhere in the Midwest in February???

    I am originally from Madison but moved down here to Racine to be with my partner. He came from Italy @6yo, growing up in Kenosha. For 3 years I came down every other weekend and we always would drive to Kenosha lakefront. We could easily spend 3 hours walking or driving around depending on the weather. Still after 18 years, living here in Racine, we enjoy doing that and spending hours at Petrified Springs.

    Some people need to take there noses from up in the air, see people and places with kinder eyes and enjoy life more!!!

  8. Dear Marielle…
    I do not “tweet” and therefore missed the affront to Kenosha. It’s probably just as well I did since it really irks me to no end when people throw stones in that direction. Especially if they didnt grow up there when it was more like Mayberry and less, well, less like it is now. Oh sure, there are still pockets of feel good places. Tenuta’s delicatessen for one and Eichelman park for another. Anywhere along the Lakefront holds fond memories of a life without concern as a teenager. Our football stadium was down there. Did you know that ? Boy, did we ever freeze attending the games but it was a good excuse to be bundled against the cold wind off the Lake with your steady boyfriend. You barely watched the football game but you stood and cheered when the crowd did as if you really knew what was happening. Your parents would ask when you got home for details and you should have some excitement to recall.
    Your mentioning Emil Pacetti is poignant. His name is etched in the history of Kenosha music just as much as any well known musician of that era. One of my Bradford classmates, Jim Szantor, is a jazz musician. Studied the clarinet and wrote for Downbeat magazine as well as a jazz column for The Chicago Tribune. Talking with him is a an incredible experience. He’s rubbed elbows with the best in the jazz world and is still in contact with many .
    Our graduating class (Bradford 1961) is still in touch via a website. We celebrate our birthdays, share photos of the grandchildren and mourn a loss of a classmate. Lately that is all too often. Our 60th class reunion is next summer. Plans have already been put in motion; we just need this Corona virus to go away so we can look forward to it happening and not hoping it will .
    Five generations of my family claim Kenosha as home. I personally feel those who are doing the loudest griping (sp) did not have grandparents or even parents grow up there. If they did, they would know what Kenosha was and strive to make it that way again. They’ve come from neighboring states for various reasons. It always amazes me they don’t miss their own hometowns, families and friends.
    But what they say and do is often selfish and what they want is unearned. They have a “give me” because I’m here attitude and not respectful of the multi cultural past generations that worked hard to build this Lakefront town into a place to raise your children and live safely and peacefully. Our monuments are spray painted with graffiti and Monday mornings on every beach there are massive remnants of what they’ve left behind on the weekend for someone else to clean up. My father used to remind me as a child “you werent raised in a barn” when I failed to clean up after myself. It’s what I think now when I see this slovenly attitude of people. Maybe they were, raised in a barn !
    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I’m happy to know someone else remembers the same Kenosha I do. It was a well kept secret and oh, how I wish it still was.

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