Leftovers: ‘Kenowhere’ no longer

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“Part of me is sad I’m not there to help and part of me is glad I’m not there to see it happening. My childhood home town of Kenosha has been fertile ground for racial conflict for a long, long time.” — Bruce Preston

My time in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was idyllic, if not ideal. 

In my mid-20s, I had lived in a few different states and knew just enough about life to be over-confident. The realization that the world could be a scary place was the furthest thing from my mind in those joyously reckless days. And I had a like-minded partner-in-crime who was as thirsty for new experiences as me. 

Maybe because we weren’t completely jaded yet, Bruce Preston and I bonded instantly. We became connected over music, journalism, a love of communication theories, travel, musical theater, social justice, and of course, partying. With completely opposite upbringings, Bruce somehow “got me” and I in turn got him. 

And really, isn’t being understood one of the best ways of all to be loved?

A multi-generational Kenoshaite, Preston comes from a large, outwardly conservative, Catholic family. Standing well over 6 feet tall, his father Donald was a career law enforcement guy who always brought his brand of keeping the peace home with him.

“My dad went from being a corrections officer to a statie to the county sheriff’s office, and retired as a lieutenant,” Preston said. “My grandfather was in law enforcement and two of my brothers and a nephew are in it, too. It’s a family business even today.”

Jeannie, Preston’s mother, never approved of me, thinking I’d give him “big, unrealistic ideas.” But Jeannie loved the arts and quietly instilled a more tolerant and open-minded perspective in Bruce and his brothers and sisters. As a mother, she knew “I got” her son. But I blew it the time we gifted her a water glass swiped from a hotel in Chicago after seeing Oprah (pre-syndication). Jeannie was appalled and decades later she brought it up at Bruce’s wedding, not without mild reproach.

Sitting pretty on Lake Michigan, Kenosha is an hour from both Milwaukee and Chicago, but it hasn’t always been the bedroom community it is today. A true union town, Kenosha was home to the AMC Pacer and Gremlin auto factories, along with other now defunct or relocated industries. As factories and businesses started closing in the early 1970s, the despair felt in similar cities across America settled in.

It was, as Preston said, “just an isolated little factory town, surrounded by farms. Everyone called it ‘Kenowhere.'”

Preston said Kenosha had always been proud of its blue-collar heritage, and things seemed calm on the surface.

Bruce Preston and husband Doug Ignatius, wearing the hat, on the shore of Lake Michigan during a 2019 trip to Wisconsin. (Courtesy Bruce Preston)

“But after MLK was assassinated, there were race riots and in reality, we were systemically segregated all along,” he said. “Remember my first bartending job? I worked at that redneck place for almost five years and can count on one hand the number of black people I served. No one thought segregation was a problem because it didn’t impact most of us. We never had a problem with race – said all the white people. Now with the perfect storm of no jobs, COVID-19, and intentional outside agitation, it’s beyond the worst.”

Preston now lives in Cincinnati with his husband, Doug Ignatius. We reminisced about the many parties we had in his garage (Donald was on patrol, of course).

“It really was just like ‘That 70s Show,’ wasn’t it?” he said.

The Wisconsin small-town setting was uncannily accurate (in reality, “That 70s Show” was said to be based on Racine, which is 10 miles from Kenosha). I became a little nostalgic myself. 

Unable to avoid it any longer, I asked Bruce what he thought Donald would do if he were alive today to see the violence and outsiders with agendas that have nothing to do with restoring peace to Kenosha.

“Donald would load his gun,” he said simply. “My father was a racist. The only black people he knew were the ones he saw in jail. But he saw white people in jail, too. He just didn’t see any reason to make a choice and change his mindset about equality, much less have an inkling about white privilege.”

Then he said something I’ve never heard him say before: “That’s actually the gift of being a closeted little boy, living in a place like Kenosha, Wisconsin. You wonder what else people are lying to you about.” 

Now, with a place in the daily news headlines, Preston’s hometown is “Kenowhere” no longer. We both hope healing and progress come soon to this speck on the map of the Midwest. My memories of garage parties, tipsy Christmas midnight mass, and soul-searching conversations deep into the night depend on it.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.