December 9, 1999
Volume 20, Issue 50
The Making of Our City
- by Dave Lurssen
John Gurda's Milwaukee
Historian Uncovers the Making of Our City
A bottle of beer after work, a weekend festival, a ride on the heavy-metal thunder of a Harley: These are among the enduring images of our working-class town, but they're only part of the story told by John Gurda in The Making of Milwaukee.
Published last month by the County Historical Society, it's the first comprehensive, all-new book on the Cream City's history since the 1948 edition of Bayrd Still's Milwaukee: The History of a City. With his lucid writing and many photographs, Gurda shows again and again that there's much more to our city's legacy than beer, bratwurst and motor bikes.
"The high proportion of Germans here meant that the dominant ethnic group was not English-speaking, and it's had a lasting impact," Gurda explains. The poet-turned-local-historian is talking with his usual gentle affection about Milwaukee's identity. A century ago it was as much a Central European city with its beer gardens, musical societies, bazaar of languages and skyline of gothic spires as a Midwest factory town and shipping hub, a distinction that lingers on today like a ghost. A noisy ghost.
"The fact that the Germans were dominant made it OK for other ethnic groups to be different," he continues, amplifying one of his book's themes-Milwaukee's cultural diversity. Although in the past Milwaukee clearly honored some heritages more than others, Gurda asks, "What other city has 600,000 people coming to a procession of ethnic festivals? Or Holiday Folk Fair, the biggest indoor ethnic event in the U.S.?"
he Germans brought more to Milwaukee-which became a city in 1846, just before the first big wave of German immigrants washed over Wisconsin-than a love of beer and sausage, and left behind more than some solid Teutonic buildings and an enduring taste for food. They also brought a strong work ethic coupled with socialism-not the strain that inspired the Stalins and Pol Pots to murder in the name of progress, but a moral imperative that guided such pragmatic, hands-on mayors as Daniel Hoan and Frank Zeidler to work in a practical, democratic way to improve their corner of the world. They brought a relatively graft-free City Hall to Milwaukee-something almost unknown in America.
"The legacy of socialism has made Milwaukee one of the best-governed cities in America," Gurda says. "Before they were elected to local government, we were just as crooked as Chicago, Boston or New York."
And the handiwork of Milwaukee's socialists, frugal as Dutch uncles but willing to invest in the future of their city, survives in Milwaukee's livability. "Aside from its intimacy as one of the biggest small towns, it has a character you don't find elsewhere," Gurda continues.
Part of that character resides in our web of county parks, which makes us one of America's greenest cities, envisioned by the socialist park commissioner Charles B. Whitnall (whose name is honored by the beautifully planted South Side park) as a way to bring trees and playgrounds to those who couldn't afford their own. And that character resides in such facilities as County Stadium and the Milwaukee Arena, built at a time when some business leaders weren't concerned with providing public space for after-work entertainment. Even Milwaukee's commitment to public television dates from the agenda of our last socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, who left City Hall in 1960.
"There remains a sense of collective ownership, a concern for the public good that other communities have long since forgotten," Gurda writes at the conclusion of his book. "Although it may seem imperiled in an age of shrinking government and endemic selfishness, that quality offers Milwaukee its best prospect for the future."
ohn Gurda works from an office not far from his home in Bay View, where he has lived with his wife Sonja for 21 years and raised three children. "There are still people in Bay View who make me feel like a newcomer and that's not a bad thing," he says.
His office is a second-story walk-up in a 1920s-vintage corner building, with a tiny waiting room that gives onto a frosted glass door stenciled PRIVATE. Inside the crowded inner room, Gurda conducts his research from an old mission desk. Add a flashing neon sign beyond the window and the setting is pure Sam Spade, an analogy helpful in understanding the task of a historian trying to reconstruct the past from the clues it left behind.
Actually, Gurda's office belonged to a dentist. A hump under the rug reveals where the chair was mounted. "It's a place of bad memories," he jokes, chuckling softly.
"I have little interest in history as nostalgia," Gurda says in mild rebuke of those who refuse to learn history's lessons. "I'm interested in how things have changed. Nothing stands still, especially in cities."
Nor has Gurda stood still since he returned home from Boston College in 1969. Like many members of his generation-he was born in 1947 at the onset of the Baby Boom-he was imbued with a sense of public service, inspired by John F. Kennedy's maxim about doing things for your country. For several years he worked at the Journey House community center on 16th and Washington, not far from the neighborhood where he was raised by his parents and Polish-immigrant grandparents.
"I grew up with a strong sense of place," he says. That sense was galvanized when he wrote a report on the neighborhood served by Journey House, published by the Council on Urban Life.
"One thing led to another and here I am," Gurda says, modestly passing over a career that includes neighborhood studies commissioned by the University of Wisconsin and the United Way, a history of Milwaukee's Greek community commissioned by the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, the Milwaukee entry in Microsoft's CD-Rom encyclopedia and the captions for the popular Neighborhood Poster Series-which can be seen on the walls of many local homes and businesses-published by the City of Milwaukee from 1982-1990. Along the way he earned a master's degree from UW-Milwaukee for a thesis on Jones Island, the fishing village that became the port of Milwaukee.
"I came out of there with more respect for evidence," he says, like any good detective.
traditional, tenure-chasing academic career is less interesting to Gurda than an active role in the community, and he certainly has no patience for the toxic theorizing that obscures some of our nation's ivory towers. Gurda has made a profession as a public scholar, putting the lessons of the past into the present tense through books and lectures, a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and even regular appearances on the weekly "Hotel Milwaukee" comedy-and-variety show heard on WHAD and other Wisconsin Public Radio affiliates, where he fields questions from cast members on the city's history.
"He is our link to the past, a contrast between what's happening now in Milwaukee and the city's history," says "Hotel Milwaukee's" producer Pam Percy. "John's knowledge is incredible and his voice and demeanor is perfect for radio-he sounds so warm and accessible." And the show allows Gurda to show off some otherwise hidden talents. "He's actually sung on the air, a song he wrote about Milwaukee," Percy says.
But what's the value of local history nowadays? How does knowledge of Milwaukee's past help us navigate a virtual-reality age where Internet chatrooms take the role of the neighborhood tavern? Where pundits talk of "cyber communities" linked not by land or blood but by the interests and lifestyles of widely scattered individuals? And where a "me-first" economic ethos has led to a society of rootless professional nomads, going wherever the money is good?
"History becomes more important in this environment," argues Gurda, softly. "People need to have a sense of connection to what has gone before them. If you want to understand who you are as a person or as a community, the first thing you have to understand is your history."
But maybe in Milwaukee, rootless professionals count for less than in other areas. Milwaukee is an American city with an unusually high percentage of natives or locally born inhabitants. Many who do leave, like Gurda himself, soon return.
"Milwaukee has enough economic and cultural opportunities. It has enough of everything for many people," he explains. "At the same time, living here doesn't break your back like Chicago or New York. It's not as stressful."
he Making of Milwaukee covers 12,000 years in its 450 pages, but the last 200 years account for 99 percent of the text. The story begins in the swampy, wooded terrain where hunters chased the mastodons that followed the retreat of the glaciers. It moves swiftly through the tribes of the upper Midwest, especially the Potawatomi who were expelled from the territory in the 1830s and returned only in 1991 to open a casino in the Menomonee Valley. It passes swiftly through the era of French explorers and traders and their war with Britain, and the passing of Wisconsin from British to American hands. The historical record finally becomes more dense with the establishment of a permanent community in the 19th century at the place where the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers meet Lake Michigan, and its settlement by people of European, Asian, Latin American and African descent.
Along the way, Gurda unearthed facts that will surprise many Milwaukee natives. Who knew that Green Bay was a bustling city when Milwaukee was only a struggling trading post? More significantly, the first black church was established here in 1869, just a few years after the old German and Polish churches, showing that African Americans have been part of Milwaukee's mosaic longer than many other groups, although-as Gurda chronicles-they have always suffered the worst from economic downturns, faced formal segregation before the 1950s and lingering social segregation since, and have generally suffered the same prejudices they have endured throughout the urban North.
Although Gurda doesn't name every ethnic group that found a home in Milwaukee or every individual who had a role in building the city, The Making of Milwaukee isn't intended as an exhaustive compendium of fact but as a narrative of the big stories, told with telling details and examples. It's not the kind of dry history lesson many of us endured in school.
"I hope people come away from the book with a sense of the richness of Milwaukee's past," Gurda says. "I tried to tell a story which has thousands of branches and side trips. I hope the reader will move through time and emerge somewhere else with a sense of connectedness with the past."
Despite the legacy of our distinctive past, Milwaukee has not remained an island. Especially since World War II, the city has increasingly been swept along with the same trends that have buffeted America. Many public services have been privatized, including County Stadium, the Public Museum and the County Hospital. Loss of heavy industry occurred here as much as in other factory-belt towns, Gurda's book notes sadly. Unbridgeable gaps in social status separate the inner city from Mequon. Urban sprawl has paved and landscaped the farms and woods that once surrounded Milwaukee.
"The city is fast becoming one node in a megalopolis sprawling from northern Indiana to Madison," Gurda writes. What suffers, he adds, is the commitment that can come with a sense of community.
Next for Gurda is a project narrower in scope than the making of one of America's big cities. In fact, it's a return to the neighborhood studies that began his career, albeit this neighborhood's residents are all dead. The project is a booklet on Forest Home Cemetery, a commission from the graveyard's managers in honor of its 150th anniversary next year.
"The Making of Milwaukee was big enough," he says, enjoying a quiet chuckle. "I'm reluctant to think about the next big project. I'm willing to let it come to me."
Although an elegiac tone clings to some of Gurda's history like the ghostly smell of hops from the breweries that have mostly moved away, The Making of Milwaukee is intended as more than a remembrance of things past. Gurda shows us that there is no present without the past, and no future, either.
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