Wisconsin-lllinois 'Rivalry' Seems A Bit...One-Sided

Nov 10, 2017

Certainly, Wisconsin and Illinois have storied rivalries in the sports arena: the Green Bay Packers vs. the Chicago Bears, the Brewers and the Cubs, the Bucks and the Bulls. But a few of our listeners have been wondering if that competitive spirit runs deeper than the action on the field.

One such listener, Jason Gessner, reached out to Bubbler Talk and asked, “Have Wisconsin and Illinois always had contentious relationship or is that a more modern development?”

The Packers/Bears rivalry is one of the oldest in the NFL— the two teams have faced off twice a year since 1921. And Jason is acutely aware of the trash talk: he’s a Bears fan living in Bay View.

Credit David Banks/Getty Images

But over his 12 years of residence in Wisconsin, the Illinois native has also observed among neighbors a broader attitude of dislike toward his home state – one he still doesn’t quite understand.

“I had just never really known that there was sort of a bitterness about Illinois,” Jason remarks. “It just sort of took me aback, when I learned there was this negative stereotype. Things like, ‘Folks from Illinois come up and buy vacation property on our lakes, and take up space, and drive crazy, and are disrespectful.’ Just sort of a general, ‘Bah, those guys!’”

“When I was growing up, friends and family really loved Wisconsin -- the outdoors are beautiful here, you can come up and go fishing or see a ballgame or whatever,” he continues.

Cheeseheads vs. Chicagoans

You may have heard some choice nicknames tossed back and forth across state lines: Wisconsinites are “cheeseheads,” Illinoisans are (warning: links contain explicit language) “FIBs” or “FISHTABs” – both terms made up of four-letter words we can’t detail here.

Justin Kaufmann is a self-described “true blue Chicagoan,” right down to his place of employment – WGN 720, one of Chicago’s top AM stations, where he hosts “The Download.” Like Jason, he's heard a lot of complaints about Illinoisans from their neighbors to the north. 

But fun fact: Justin is originally from a small town in Illinois called Wonder Lake, which is actually closer to the Wisconsin border than the Windy City. But growing up, he very much identified with Chicago – and still does.

“I always thought of myself as a Chicago suburb[anite] -- I would thump my chest as if, you know, ‘If you mess with Chicago, you’re messing with me!” Justin describes. “[But] I could walk to the Wisconsin border. So it’s a strange thing to think about that.”

As for the stereotypes Wisconsinites hold about his home state, he says it all boils down to one thing: “I think every knock on someone from Illinois is the fact that we kind of use and abuse Wisconsin,” he comments.

This point of contention is familiar to Lake Effect producer, Joy Powers, who is from Lake Geneva, a small, Wisconsin resort town near the Illinois border. Her mother JaNelle is originally from Chicago, and even though she's lived in Wisconsin for nearly 30 years, she still identifies as a Chicagoan.

Joy called her mom to dissect some of the complaints they hear about people from Illinois. And it turns out most of these are the same issues JaNelle has with tourists in general.

“The tourists make me crazy!” JaNelle shares. “They're on vacation when they come here, so they don't care that they're putting trash, and God knows what else, on my lawn and in my bushes."

Governing (With Help) From Afar

Somebody else with an interesting perspective on the Wisconsin/Illinois divide is Milwaukee Ald. Bob Bauman, who represents the city’s fourth district.

Bauman grew up in Edgewater, a neighborhood on the North side of Chicago. In fact, he owns the duplex he grew up in – so he’s still an Illinois taxpayer! But he’s lived in Milwaukee for 40 years, and has made a career of bettering this city.

One of the major ways Bauman says he does that: by taking cues from bigger cities like Chicago. He has modeled some of the ideas he’s kick-started as a lawmaker in Milwaukee after policies he’s noticed in Chicago – for instance, the Common Council’s traffic calming and honorary street name ordinances. Bauman and some of his colleagues are currently working on a new affordable housing initiative, and they’re looking at Chicago’s methods for guidance.

The alderman says the two cities should view one another as complements, not competitors.

“It’s a matter of sharing ideas and seeing best practices in other cities, and learning how they go about solving a problem, and then adopting it to our particular circumstances here,” he explains.

“We share the same weather, we share the same lake, we really share the same basic demographics…we should work together more than we should compete,” Bauman adds. “I’m trying to encourage my colleagues and the overall Milwaukee culture, to think a little bigger than what it has historically done, because we’re in a competitive environment in terms of competing for talent and employees, and businesses that often follow the employees and follow the talent.”

Success in business and industry is a big reason many city for why Wisconsin and Illinois should work to cooperate wherever possible. One such opportunity would have been the deal to bring tech company Foxconn to the region – an opportunity in which Wisconsin succeeded, but some say could have been made better with help from our neighbors to the south.

Joel Rast teaches at UW-Milwaukee, where he oversees the Urban Studies program. He says the key to economic cooperation is an expanded view of a concept called “regionalism.”

“It’s something that people started talking about as businesses became more and more mobile and globalization became more of a phenomenon,” he explains. “The concern was that businesses are looking at different places to locate -- and if municipalities are all fighting with each other over trying to get these businesses, then that makes the region as a whole look bad, and may drive businesses someplace else.”

Animosity or inferiority?
Credit Katherine, fotolia

When we talk about the frustration between Wisconsinites and Illinoisans – particularly when it comes to Milwaukee and Chicago – it all appears a little one-sided.

“Living in Chicago, there’s something about being in a cosmopolitan city, where we love the concept of a second city,” Justin Kaufman says. “[We can] be the underdog to New York, but anyone who might be an under dog to us, we’re like, ‘We don’t care.’”

JaNelle Powers agrees.

Although I am told from Milwaukee people that the rivalry between Milwaukee and Chicago exists in the minds of Milwaukeeans, in the mind of Chicagoans, we don’t even think about them,” she explains. “We knew Milwaukee existed in Chicago, we were just very single-minded. If we thought about another city, we’d think in terms of New York -- that would have been more of a rivalry to us than Milwaukee or Wisconsin.”

READ: WBEZ’s Curious City explores Chicago’s fascination with New York

Justin and JaNelle aren’t alone: to many, this regional rivalry doesn’t seem all that mutual. Often, it seems more like an inferiority complex on the part of Milwaukee. And when it comes to Chicago vs. New York, the Big Apple doesn’t seem to care too much about its smaller rival, either.

So this type of animosity isn’t unique: New Englanders have a famously contemptuous relationship with the people of Boston; Minnesotans poke fun at their rural neighbors in Iowa; plenty of European nations have their own regional conflicts, too.

But around here, there’s one prevailing matchup that we all seem to believe in…

“Oh, absolutely – Bears vs. Packers, that’s a fact,” exclaims JaNelle. “That’s a fact!”

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