When I moved to Milwaukee, WI one year ago, my impression of the city was based on a handful of visits and several news reports listing Milwaukee as the most segregated city in America. I figured it was a close-minded small city with a bunch of breweries and accompanying drunken young people. What I have found is actually a city with tremendous placemaking activity going on and an attitude of real excitement for building a better city. Milwaukee is revitalizing its downtown, transforming unused spaces and even making inroads to change its segregated reputation.

One of the activities that has truly impressed me here is an annual event called Doors Open. For one weekend in September, more than 150 buildings throughout the Milwaukee metro area open their doors and welcome visitors throughout the day. Many are impressive historic sites like cathedrals, court houses, and grand hotels. Others are smaller office buildings, elementary schools and even homes. But all offer the chance to see inside a building you might never get to visit otherwise, and to experience a piece of Milwaukee history—dating from as far back as the 1800s all to way to brand new buildings that have only recently begun to grace the Milwaukee skyline.

This past weekend was the fifth annual Doors Open event and thousands of people attended. I found myself inside an incredible Polish Catholic Basilica, the likes of which I have never witnessed in North America. I had seen the spires from the Basilica of St. Josaphat before, but I’d never taken the time to step inside. It was masterfully and intricately built, with gold and mosaics and stone carvings covering every surface. I was surrounded by people viewing this structure—religious or not—who found themselves in equal awe.

Other buildings that participated in the event included: a Frank Lloyd Wright house, a historic movie theater, a US Bank office building with a look-out deck dozens of stories high, a printing company, a lift bridge house, and a historic cemetery, to name just a few. Every building was free and open to the public, and many of the sites also offered in-depth guided tours. Certainly some of these buildings are open to the public on a regular basis, but the Doors Open event truly brings the city together and highlights these places as part of the city’s history.

The event website has more information and there are plenty of additional photos here. With enough coordination, I think this sort of event would be completely doable and have a wonderfully positive impact in any town, big or small. It’s a unique way to build community, teach history, and offer a free activity, open to all. Besides the people-power needed to plan and execute, there is little financial expense in putting on an event like this. It is about celebrating what already exists in your town or city.

Doors Open gives me faith that Milwaukee is on its way to becoming a Strong Town.