Monday, February 8, 2010

Advocation for the City of Milwaukee

I wrote this essay for a class I had last semester, and I think I want to keep refining it. I've really become interested in the idea of essay-writing, especially essays which interject personal accounts, or perhaps fictional elements to help reinforce their factual points. Let me know what you think...

Advocation for the City of Milwaukee


Walking back from work late one night, I come up the alley on my block and up the back steps of my home to find my father sitting on the stoop reading the headlines of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The standard “what's news” chat we often engage in segues into slightly more serious conversation. “Did you see this?” My father says pointing at an editorial in the paper entitled “Careening Down the Road to Civic Suicide”. I look over his shoulder to skim the the first few lines of the article.
We're running out of gas, folks. As city and county officials finish their budget deliberations in the days ahead, Milwaukee is poised to take a historic step backward in its pursuit of the common good. Previous budgets have sliced away fat and cut into muscle. This year's versions go all the way to bone. (Gurda, “Civic Suicide” 1)
“You know, they're not even close to paying off the cost of snow removal and salting the roads from last winter.” my father adds. I thought back to last winter when they didn't even attempt to plow many of the city's side streets unless it was absolutely impossible to drive in, simply letting the weight of passing cars pack inches of snow down on the road.
My father is a Captain on the Milwaukee Fire Department and often catches wind of news of the city's government from friends who are city employees before it appears in the paper. “Our department is probably taking budget cuts too” he adds. He does not have to remind me that this is a red flag for serious trouble; he has often explained to me that budget and wage cuts for public safety officials are basically unheard of unless things really get bad. He shows me where the article reports that for the Fire and Police Departments, the mayor proposes “cuts of 5% and 6% in their respective budgets. Nearly all city workers would be subject to both a wage freeze and unpaid furloughs, and all city taxpayers would face a 4.4% increase in property tax bills and higher fees for sewer, garbage and water service.”
The article prompts a discussion about more general problems in the city. My father begins to relate experiences he had while being stationed at firehouses in blighted inner-city neighborhoods. I do not take his thoughts on the nearly insufferable crime and poverty rates these neighborhoods deal with lightly. The list of challenges facing Milwaukee included in our discussion goes on: a failing public school system, declining public services, and the overall inability for Milwaukee's leaders to come together and bring about progress. All of this amounts to unsettling suggestions about Milwaukee's future.
“Milwaukee is on the fast-track to becoming another Detroit.” says my father. As unfair as it might be to the people of the City of Detroit, it has become the embodiment of declining quality of urban life and the diminished viability of the American city. To have the city I call home labeled as some kind of degenerate felt akin to a personal attack. I knew that prospects for the city hadn't always seemed so hopeless, and I wanted to know what had changed so drastically.


In 1904, many of Milwaukee's voters had become fed up with the sloth and corruption that had plagued the politics of the city's Republican and Democratic leaders, and elected members of a growing Socialist party in Milwaukee to 9 of the 46 seats on the Common Council and a few other minor offices in municipal government. They quickly gained a sterling reputation amongst their constituents for their honesty and unwavering commitment to civil service. In 1910, largely because of popular support and assistance in their campaign, Milwaukee's Socialists were elected to 21 out of 35 seats on the Common Council and Alderman Emil Seidel was elected the city's first Socialist Mayor, along with Socialists Charles B. Whitnall and Daniel Hoan as City Treasurer and City Attorney. The fact that voters chose to elect Socialists for the majority of municipal offices didn't indicate that the populace was made up of hard-lined Marxists. They elected them on the basis of their ability to produce results; for their honesty and pragmatic commitment to increasing the general quality of life for Milwaukee's citizens in the most efficient manner possible. (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 214)
The Socialists quickly went to work improving the quality of life for Milwaukee's large class of laborers. Minimum wage was raised and an eight-hour day became the standard for all city employees. Health Department inspections of industrial complexes, processing plants and schools were expanded. A city quarry to provide building materials for public works projects, and the municipal street-lighting system were established. The Milwaukee Vocational School was established to provide workers with the chance to gain valuable job skills and thus better paying jobs. City Attorney Dan Hoan worked to improve the transit system, which was monopolized by the privately owned Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company, by waging legal battles against their tendency to skirt their obligations to maintain streetcar tracks and pay licensing fees. (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 214-215)
The Seidel administration balanced its expanded program of city services and publicly-owned enterprise with a commitment to meticulous fiscal responsibility and efficiency in the mechanics of municipal government. The city's budget items were scrutinized to eliminate any waste, and department budgets were precisely allocated to prevent overspending. City property was carefully inventoried. No measure was considered too small to take if it could save the taxpayers money. During efforts to improve voting procedures, Seidel's administration went over the polling lists and removed enough dead voters' names to save $500 in printing costs. (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 215)
We wanted our workers to have pure air; we wanted them to have sunshine; we wanted planned homes; we wanted living wages; we wanted recreation for young and old; we wanted vocational education; we wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness.
And, we wanted everything that was necessary to give them that: playgrounds, parks, lakes, beaches, clean creeks and rivers, swimming and wading pools, social centers, reading rooms, clean fun, music, dance, song and joy for all. That was our Milwaukee Social Democratic movement. (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 215)
City Attorney Daniel Hoan was elected Mayor in 1916, and summed up his approach to municipal government by saying: “The objective is to give the best government possible, and, though not necessarily at a low tax rate, at the lowest cost that can be paid.” Hoan maintained and elevated the financial prudence of his predecessor Emil Seidel, and put the city's departments on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. As an astounding result, he was able to eliminate the city's entire public debt. At the same time, the city was able to fund innovations in public services; in 1925 the city's first sewage processing plant was established, improving water quality and, as a result, public health. The plant converted treated sewage into a unique fertilizer called “Milorganite” which was sold to the general public and the profits increased city revenue without increasing taxes. (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 260)
Hoan made vast improvements to the lake front, creating both a modern port for the shipping industry and public access to the lake front with the development of public beaches and parkways along the shoreline. The nation's first municipally owned housing project was established in Milwaukee to ease the post-World War I housing shortage for working-class families. City planning was improved with the introduction of zoning regulations. The Health Department established neighborhood-based vaccination programs which extended the life expectancy of residents. The park system was vastly expanded from being meager and inadequate to one of the best in the nation, featuring as much public green-space per square-mile as nearly any city in America. Even during the Great Depression, Hoan was determined to preserve the strength of municipal government, saying: “A business may quit- your city can't.” During the 1930's Milwaukee was awarded over 12 first place awards for public health, fire prevention, and traffic safety. Mayor Hoan was pictured on the cover of Time magazine in 1936, which touted him as “one of the nation's ablest public servants” and said that “under him Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the U.S.” (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 302)
I do not mean to paint the Milwaukee of yesterday as a Utopian city. A closer examination of Milwaukee's history during its Socialist administrations reveals that problems and challenges were plentiful, not unlike today. Milwaukee's Socialists had to be engaged in a constant struggle to improve and maintain those things that were essential to quality urban living. “If you take a longer view, if you try to put the current crisis in its historical context,” says Milwaukee historian John Gurda “some facts are painfully apparent. Milwaukee has never been a wealthy community. Blue-collar workers dominated its population for well over a century, but those workers demanded a level of services consistent with their idea of the good life: plentiful public parks, nearby public libraries, solid public schools and a sound public infrastructure.” (“Civic Suicide” 1) There is no doubt in my mind that holding these services as high priorities were essential factors in understanding how Milwaukee functioned so well as a city back then. Even more crucial however, was the level of commitment to civic responsibility shown both by the city's leaders and its residents. What set Milwaukee's Socialists apart was that they were simply good, honest people who were intensely devoted to the idea of being true public servants. I cannot help but wonder if that same quality of character extended to Milwaukee's citizens. Citizens had to be deeply engaged in political and social issues at the local level to confidently elect third-party candidates to municipal offices. It is likely that this type of engagement in addressing the challenges of the urban condition, on both the part of citizens and elected officials, is lacking in contemporary politics in Milwaukee.


Despite the fact that he has lived in Milwaukee since moving out on his own at the age of 18, my father would hesitate to say that he is attracted to the qualities of urban life itself. He grew up in a semi-rural town just outside the Milwaukee metropolitan area, and says that he is more attracted to the sense of independence and freedom that comes with the territory of living in a place where the population is more spread out. My father was attracted to the idea of becoming a firefighter because he wanted to help people, and he chose the Milwaukee Fire Department in particular because the need for firefighting is greater in an urban area. I find it interesting that his attitude reflects the way that I suspect most urbanites feel about cities. Despite the fact that urban areas have always had great challenges to overcome, an attraction to the vivacity of cities, whether it lies in greater opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship, or entertainment and cultural attractions, seems to drive them to accept the challenges and shortcomings of city life.
Truly loving a city, like loving another person, is an incredible amount of work. In most cases, growing attached and committed to a city is probably not something that can be rationalized in terms of investment versus output. Writer Nelson Algren's essay and prose-poem Chicago: City on the Make, echoes the mixed sentiments and feelings residents often have about their cities: “It isn't hard to love a city for its greater and lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet.” wrote Algren “Or for its broad and bending boulevards, where continuous headlights follow, one dark driver after the next, one swift car after another, all night, all night, all night. But you can never truly love it till you can love its alleys too.” (25) It seems strange, but maybe developing a certain level of intimacy with the more frustrating side of urban life is necessary to become genuinely attached to it. “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies.” Algren continues “But never a lovely so real.” (23)


Since cities aren't easy to genuinely love, it follows that some people are not going to be able to fully commit to life in the city. Years ago this would have meant that they would have sacrificed the benefits of urban living in favor of rural or small-town life. The relatively recent development of suburbs has changed all that. Suburbs are designed to give residents the best of both worlds; close proximity to the city and other surrounding municipalities combined with personal automobiles and the interstate highway system gives suburbanites greater ease of access to what lies beyond the borders of the place they call home. At the same time, the place in which they reside is still considered an independent municipality, freeing them from ultimate political and social responsibility in dealing with the problems of the other areas which they are so connected with, particularly the central city.
“As recently as 1950, 72% of the metro area's residents lived in the city.” says Gurda “The comparable figure today is 39%. Suburbanization has created an enormous class of people who no longer feel a vested interest in the welfare of the city. The results are dwindling financial resources, diminished political clout and a splintering of the consensus that once underpinned our common wealth.” (“Civic Suicide” 2) This condition of the contemporary metropolitan landscape has sapped much of the strength out of American cities.
“America is an urban nation” wrote former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Ziedler in the opening lines of his political memoir A Liberal in City Government, “More people live in cities than in rural areas.” (1) In fact 84% of Americans live in a metropolitan area consisting of a city of 50,000 or more, plus surrounding suburbs which share close economic and social ties with the urban center. (Bradley, Katz 1) People who live in suburban areas might not consider themselves “urbanites” in the typical sense, and understandably so. It is important to note however, that since suburban communities are vitally connected, particularly economically, to their urban centers, the welfare of urban areas is really inseparable from the welfare of America as a whole.
Frank Ziedler, the last Socialist mayor to be elected in Milwaukee, dealt with the consequences of these changes throughout his mayoral career from 1948 to 1960.
Inside American cities subtle changes in living patterns were taking place that required changes in public plans and policies. One of the most important changes was the flight to the suburbs by middle-income people as well as upper-income people... This flight was prompted not only by the proliferation of the motor vehicle but by the hard-surfaced road and the electric power line. Many people found it more attractive to move to the open spaces of outlying areas than to live in the cities which had become so congested...
This outward movement left the lowest income families in the center of the cities. The population in the central cities therefore tended to be smaller and poorer. The core of the cities began to decay because many of the families could not pay enough for good shelter for themselves, nor could they supply the necessary purchasing power to keep the central business district thriving...
With the flight of many middle-income people... the more upscale merchants departed also... As if this were not bad enough for the tax base of the central city, industries also moved out to newly incorporated suburbs where taxes were lower...
An increase in prices and the demanded increase in public services brought a greater strain on the public treasury. These increases forced a rise in many types of taxes, but especially in property taxes, the mainstay of city government finances.(Ziedler 45)
All of this amounted to a city which faced greater and more numerous problems than ever before with less resources to fuel efforts to address these problems. The city also faced hostility from suburbanites, who, despite the fact that many of them had previously been life-long city residents, felt no empathy towards Milwaukee's dire situation.
Too often, suburbs would pick and choose which instances they wanted to be connected to the city, and which instances they would distance themselves from it based on what was most advantageous for them. In a letter to a suburban newspaper, the West Allis Star, Mayor Zeidler pleaded with residents and leaders of the community for “a yielding of 'sovereignty' to solve metropolitan problems” pointing out that metropolitan communities were not absolutely independent from one another. He cited the fact that “West Allis itself was dependent on Milwaukee for water and on the Sewerage Commission for sewer service.” (108) This picking-and-choosing on the part of the suburbs continued to define city-suburban relations. “Most galling was the suburbs' obvious desire for city resources, particularly water, and their equally transparent unwillingness to share responsibility for city problems, particularly those associated with poverty.” says Gurda. (“Milwaukee” 341) Mayor Zeidler focused a great deal of his efforts addressing the growing problem of overcrowding and structural decay in inner-city neighborhoods. Before the slums could be cleared and renovated however, he needed to provide alternative residencies for people living in these neighborhoods. His solution was to build low income housing on open land in the city's outer areas. This proposal was met with great hostility from the outlying suburbs who were nearby the proposed sites, even though it was questionable whether they should really have much of a say in a decision that takes place outside their municipalities' limits. (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 342)
I don't mean to try and place all the blame for urban problems on suburban communities. I am more concerned with pointing out that the suburban tendency to create a lifestyle which attempts to select the perks of urban life without sharing the responsibility of its burdens won't work in the long-term. This misnomer not only impedes upon the quality of life for people living in the urban center, but will also catch up to the suburbs. The symbiotic relationship that cities and suburbs share means that what is poisonous to one will also spread to the other.


While driving east down North Avenue in the City of Wauwatosa, which borders the west side of Milwaukee, a co-worker of mine was recently involved in an car accident in which he was rear-ended by a car which failed to brake quickly enough while he was stopped at a red light. After being hit, the driver quickly backed away and sped around and ahead of him. A police officer coincidently pulled up behind him and checked to see if he was okay. “This happens a lot a few miles down the road, a lot of uninsured drivers on the streets once you get into Milwaukee” the officer explained “but it isn't uncommon over here either.” A few miles east down North Avenue takes you through the inner-city, which was the direction the driver sped away towards. My friend was surprised by the incident. Part of the reason he chose to live in Wauwatosa even though he attends classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is so he wouldn't have to deal with this sort of thing.
"The slums get their revenge, always somehow or other their retribution can be figured in any community." (Blanton 430) warned the Chicago poet Carl Sandburg. Problems in the inner-city and other urban areas are truly everybody's problems, not simply because of some sort of responsibility to insure social justice for our fellow human beings, but also because if these problems were left completely unchecked, they would only spread and grow, and no imaginary municipal boundary lines could completely contain them.
The City of West Allis, another city bordering Milwaukee's west side, which was mentioned earlier as one that during Zeidler's day seemed eager to distance itself from urban problems, has experienced a steady increase in crime since 1999 to 2007. In 2007, statistics show that the crime rate was actually slightly higher than the national average for US cities. (West Allis 1) A friend of my father, who is a West Allis police officer, mentioned to him that she had noticed the increase, and that much of it seemed to be concentrated around large apartment complexes that were developed as the population has grown. The city of West Allis, as well as other areas bordering large urban areas, will likely become more densely populated as the population of the metro area continues to sprawl out from its urban center. As it continues to become slightly more urbanized, it will likely begin to experience the same types of problems often associated with urban areas, problems which residents of the West Allis of Zeidler's day would have probably thought themselves immune.


In the metropolitan age, Milwaukee has in some ways moved away from what it was during its Socialist hey-day. While the Socialist era in Milwaukee stands as an example of the city's, and hopefully Greater Milwaukee's potential to unite under the pursuit of the common good, it cannot be viewed as a blueprint for renewing a larger sense of community in the Milwaukee area, simply because so much has changed since. Milwaukee's future is uncertain as we struggle to adapt to the new dynamics of metropolitan life, especially because the particular mechanics of those dynamics have yet to be fully understood.
Between the pseudo-Victorian trophy houses going up in Mequon and the aged duplexes coming down in the inner city, there yawns an all-but-unbridgeable gap in social status and economic well-being... Traditionalists might be inclined to view the recent changes as Milwaukee's death knell...
It is much to early for an urban obituary, and it will always be too early simply because change is the one inescapable fact of urban life. (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 440)
Even if looking to the successes of Milwaukee's past doesn't produce a cut-and-dry recipe for quality urban life which can be applied to Milwaukee's current situation, it can provide us with something even more essential: a timelessly valuable attitude of mutual responsibility and concern for our collective well-being. In order to ensure the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, this idea should always be at the heart of the decisions we make in creating our community, regardless of the particular concerns of the here-and-now. “Although it may seem imperiled in an age of shrinking government and endemic selfishness, that quality offers Milwaukee its best prospect for the future. Conflict will not cease and the way ahead will never be clear, but a sense of civic possibility endures.” (Gurda, “Milwaukee” 441)


  1. Yams this is great!,

    i was originally skeptical about "essays which interject personal accounts, or ... fictional accounts", but specifically where you talk about Sir's sense of responsibility towards other people in metro Milwaukee, fits with the idea of social responsibility, especially when you live in and are part of a community of people.

    The tone of your essay suggests a personal attachment to the city, as opposed to a dry scholarly essay.

    I was struck by the end of part IV where you say, "I don't mean to try and place all the blame for urban problems on suburban communities. I am more concerned with pointing out that the suburban tendency to create a lifestyle which attempts to select the perks of urban life without sharing the responsibility of its burdens won't work in the long-term." I think this is true, but from my lack of research on the topic i know little about the ins and outs of this argument, I would be interested in other examples of the suburban communities taking advantage of the inner cities resources

    you should publish this before you become the first Socialist mayor in the second wave of MIlwaukee socialism.

  2. great work james. I especially like the part where you talk about "loving a city." really interesting. you should do more with that.

  3. This was great James! Earnest! Honest. I am glad that there is a James Pederson living in Milwaukee.
    This recent realism (your painting and this, as opposed to earlier poems or abstractions) is really exciting. It seems that these works would be easier to digest for the average Milwaukeean. Is this the direction that your going to be headed in? Do you think essay writing will play a role in your career as an artist?

    I would love to sit down and catch up on Milwaukee when I get back, maybe at Oakland Gyros?

    Have you thought about submitting it to any local papers, or bulletins? I think it has a real capacity to inspire.

  4. ooops just re-read what I said. it didnt mean to say that your old abstractions and poems weren't exciting, I just mean old as opposed to new. For the record I find your poems and abstractions quite exciting.