Milwaukee’s Gilded Age and Aftermath

I spent most of my teenage years in Wauwatosa, one of Milwaukee’s oldest suburbs. In the 1960s, at the height of the city’s civil rights struggle, it was one of the hotbeds of racist resistance: when Father Groppi led a protest march into the town, he was met by Klansmen and other onlookers who waved signs reading “Keep Tosa White.” By the early 2000s, such explicit racism was rarely seen.

Everything Hoan did for the city, he saw in terms of helping the workers in whose name he governed.

Downtown Milwaukee, September 2008. From Compujeramy.

This piece is part of City by City, an online project. See the introduction and the rest of the series.

Like the uprisings in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, the Battle of Wisconsin has apparently ended rather short of liberal victory. Recall petitions are still being filed and donations are still pouring in, but the latest act of the struggle against Governor Scott Walker—a state Supreme Court election widely interpreted as a referendum on Walker’s actions—has yielded a narrow, though still recount-proof, victory for the Republican candidate.  Justice David Prosser’s success has more than symbolic importance: it could prove decisive when the numerous challenges to Walker’s anti-union budget bill reach the state’s highest judiciary body. In short, Walker may have succeeded in making the Wisconsin legislature look like the Ukrainian parliament, but his political resilience, and apparently successful refusal to compromise, is beginning to look positively Reaganesque.

It is easy to see Walker’s intransigence—and the popular groundswell that brought him to power—as part of a nationwide political conjuncture taking shape in the recession years: the rise of a new grassroots conservatism, an emerging popular hostility to neo-Keynesian economic policy, and widespread anger at politicians perceived to be part of a stagnant establishment. But despite the remarkable uniformity of the Tea Party’s rhetoric, its politics remain local, and its  antecedents go back much further than the 1980s. The comparison that seem to be appearing everywhere is to the Gilded Age, when individual capitalists concentrated the reins of political and social power in their hands. In Wisconsin, the era arrived slightly late, and was represented above all by one man: Milwaukee Mayor David S. Rose, who came to power in 1898. Rose’s corruption, lavish lifestyle, and kowtowing to municipal utility magnates were legendary; the most lasting legacy of his administration was a massive bribery scandal involving streetcar contracts. Walker, for his part, has become ensnared in controversy after hiring the son of a prominent construction lobbyist to head a state bureau responsible for environmental regulation. Meanwhile, his sniveling response to a prank caller pretending to be one of the Koch brothers has left little doubt about who calls the shots in his administration.


In Milwaukee, Rose’s decade-long reign—punctuated by a two-year stint by Sherburn Becker, “Boy Mayor of Milwaukee,” best known for his flashy cars and pink “Becker Hat”—came to an unanticipated end with an overwhelming Socialist victory in  1910. Milwaukee’s Socialists, who were tied closely to the city’s enormous population of German-speaking industrial workers, had gradually increased their share of the vote as the city industrialized and modernized in the 1890s and 1900s. Although they subscribed in principle to the goal of international social revolution, under the leadership of Victor Berger (who became the first Socialist congressman in 1910) they became firmly entrenched in electoral politics. In fact, they outdid their competitors: with an army of “bundle brigades” who distributed campaign literature and a network of well-organized locals and branches, they were a kind of forebear of the Obama presidential campaign. As Socialists, of course, they stood for the rights of workers and the eight-hour day—but as it turned out, other aspects of their platform proved more decisive. In Milwaukee, a city riven by official corruption and dominated by leading industrialists, the Socialist Party above all stood for clean, honest, and efficient government.

Of course, in early-20th-century America—even before the Bolshevik Revolution—no party calling itself Socialist could be allowed to escape the connotations unscathed. A 1910 Republican campaign ad declared that “Victor Berger promises, if his international party gains control, a bloody revolution. Victory for the Socialists means a conflict with the red flag of blood-lust, borne by such men as Berger . . . The time to kill the serpent of Socialism is now! Tomorrow may be too late!” Middle-class voters were unimpressed with the charge that the “many-headed reptile of Socialism” was more threatening than traditional politics and swept Mayor Emil Seidel, along with a broad slate of other Socialist candidates, into municipal office.

They were proved right. Once in power, the Socialists neither organized the working class for revolution nor threatened the Catholic Church (although Victor Berger made some loud anti-clerical noises). It is true that the Milwaukee police, unlike that of almost any other municipality, was ordered to protect striking workers instead of shooting them. For the most part, however, the city’s new masters showed that they deserved their derisive new nickname, “sewer Socialists”: they cleaned up public utilities, established vocational schools, and expanded the park system. And they succeeded in cleaning up city government, too—so well, in fact, that they would have likely made further gains in the election of 1912 had the Democrats and the Republicans not realized the precariousness of their position and joined forces against them. The “Nonpartisan” reign proved equally short-lived. Four years later, the Socialist city attorney Dan Hoan became mayor, a position he was to occupy for the next twenty-four years.

The paradox of Hoan’s mayoralty was his enormous popularity and influence in a city that had rapidly turned against the Socialists. As the US entered World War I in 1917, support for the Socialist Party collapsed: not only were many of the Socialists proud Germans, they supported a platform of pacifism and internationalism that was no longer acceptable in the jingoistic climate of the period. Victor Berger’s Milwaukee Leader was one of the first publications to be targeted for suppression under the new Espionage Act, and Berger ran his second campaign for Congress out of federal prison. He was popular enough among Milwaukee’s voters that he was reelected, then reelected again after Congress refused to seat him in 1919. Other Socialist politicians were less lucky, and Hoan never had the luxury of a city council majority to support his decisions; by the end of his last term, not a single Socialist remained.

As a result, Hoan and the rest of the Socialists focused again on what they did best: run a clean, efficient municipal government with a focus on public amenities and utilities. Everything Hoan did for the city, he saw in terms of helping the workers in whose name he governed. “Whether the worker be one who earns his livelihood by the sweat of his brow or a teacher in the public schools, or a small merchant or a member of the so-called white-collared class, he is very vitally and actively interested in clean government,” he announced in a rather self-congratulatory book called City Government. “Workers are necessarily interested in ideal health conditions in the city. They cannot live in suburbs . . . All workers are interested in maintaining high standards in public school education . . . Workers are interested in parks and playgrounds, the health-building and character building centers of the city.” The platform of the Socialists in 1932 was the same sort of mishmash of left-wing rhetoric and centrist practice, in which “the transition to a more humane system” entailed a tax credit for low-income homeowners.


Depressed Tea Party–era progressives tempted to find in Hoan a figure of nostalgia would be alarmed to learn that municipal debt was one of his principal targets. “A policy of extravagant borrowing,” he insisted, “is the ruin of the entire municipal structure.” Indeed, he considered the “hard but sound road” by which the city “conserved and marshaled its finances” to finally free itself from debt in 1933 to be one of his greatest successes—a struggle he framed, in his characteristic rhetorical manner, as a battle against the bankers and the industrialists who were “not inclined to favor a pay-as-you-go policy.” Hoan’s attempt to run the city on a cash basis was not a historical accident or a vagary of the political context. The point of Socialist rule in Milwaukee, and the essence of its appeal, was that it could deliver better government and better services for less money. The consequence was a tightly wound and precisely balanced fiscal machine that performed well even as the city was devastated by Prohibition (which drove its famous breweries out of business) and the Great Depression.

Hoan’s apparatus could deal with these crises, even when, as in the 1940 to 1948, it was not run by a Socialist. Milwaukee had been an industrial metropolis since the last third of the 19th century; it was no stranger to busts and depressions. Industries had no choice but to rebuild, and when they rebuilt they inevitably brought fresh waves of immigrants, jobs, and capital investment to the city. In short, for all Hoan’s claims to the contrary, the large durable-goods manufacturers that employed the lion’s share of Milwaukee workers were just as invested as he was in the city’s success. Good government and ample city services kept the workforce growing and content, and the city’s financial situation made it an excellent credit risk.

World War II promised a return to lasting prosperity for the first time since Prohibition. The enormous wartime demand for machine tools and other durable goods produced by Milwaukee employers brought with it renewed employment needs, and, with European immigration shrinking drastically, the need for a new population of workers to fill them. The ideal candidates turned out to be blacks, both independent migrants and recruits, brought to the city from the deep South by industrial recruiting agents. Although Milwaukee had black citizens and black neighborhoods before this, they were not numerically significant until the 1940s. Even then, earlier clashes between unionized workers and black strikebreakers had shown how much industry could benefit from exploiting this population: deprived of access to unions, blacks would work for less money and in worse conditions than any of Milwaukee’s existing social groups. It helped, too, that they could be more easily fired and replaced. In Milwaukee as in other large Northern cities, it was this initial confrontation between, on the one side, the white working class and organized labor, which had fought so successfully for better working conditions, and, on the other, black migrants, who wanted the opportunities only industrial work could bring, that launched the still unresolved struggle for civil rights.

At the same time, there was still little reason to doubt that as long as the junction between industry, labor, and city government could be preserved, the pattern long established in Milwaukee and made efficient and streamlined by the Socialists could not fail completely. It would lead one wave of immigrants after another from menial unskilled labor to low-skill, well-remunerated union jobs, and their children into colleges and white-collar careers. Fueled by industrial development, the rising tide really would lift all boats, and the city would remain a sterling exemplar of efficient and provident government. What Hoan and his successors could not have known was that the period of industrial recovery that accompanied World War II would be the city’s last.


After the war, during the still relatively placid tenure of Socialist Frank Zeidler (1948–1960), it gradually became clear that the city was changing. Predictably enough (or so it seems in retrospect), the workers who were so necessary to industrial growth in wartime were easy to discard after the need for tanks and airplanes disappeared. The ranks of unemployed and underpaid black migrants began to establish themselves in what was now called the “inner core” of the city, north and west of the bend in the Milwaukee River. As black neighborhoods grew, they inherited increasingly dilapidated housing stock from departing whites. These were the skilled workers, craftsmen, and foremen who had formed the core of the Socialist voting bloc, the same people whom Hoan believed could not live in suburbs. Of course, when they got the chance, they showed with their feet that they could live in suburbs just fine. Independent of the city of Milwaukee, with low taxes and ironclad closed housing codes, the wealthy ring of suburbs around Milwaukee expanded in both population and political power, and the people who filled them no longer had any interest in Milwaukee city government. Demographically, too, the white population of the city had less and less in common with the blacks who replaced them: the children of Socialist factory operatives were Republican and centrist Democrat white-collar workers and professionals.

Although these developments were only beginning in the mid–1950s, there was already a growing sense that blacks in the inner core were experiencing pressures rather unlike those felt by the Irish in the Bloody Third Ward in the late 19th century and the South Side Poles in the early 20th. It took a series of increasingly violent and large-scale clashes between inner-core residents and police to bring this to the attention of city authorities, who up to that point had either promoted the traditional nostrum of “acculturating” black migrants or ignored the problem entirely. In 1959, Zeidler (who had been accused of being a “nigger-lover” during his mayoral campaign) offered a slightly more serious response; he organized several commissions to study “the problems of the inner core,” which eventually resulted in a widely publicized report. The timing was convenient: by the time the report was completed, Zeidler was almost out of office, and his successor—the Democrat Henry Maier—was left to fix problems Zeidler had not even begun to address.

Despite his enormous popularity and staying power (he was to remain in office for twenty-eight years), Maier was far from the ideal candidate for the job of fixing the inner core. Whether or not he was a cryptoracist who deliberately held back the movement for civil rights in Milwaukee—or, indeed, whether or not his dilatory tactics were influenced by political calculations in a city where the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace was to capture a third of the vote—it was clear that Maier did not see civil rights or engagement with the black community as major priorities. In 1962, for instance, he organized a Social Development Commission aimed at addressing inner-core problems. One of its members, a sausage-maker named Fred Lins, was soon quoted in the press as saying “Negroes look so much alike that you can’t identify the ones that commit the crime” and “An awful mess of them have an IQ of nothin’.” Maier promptly circled the wagons; even in his 1993 autobiography he was still making excuses for Lins, whom he painted as a victim of media scandalmongering,

Instead—and this often gets lost in discussions of the civil rights struggle in Milwaukee—Maier focused on a different issue: the city’s inability to fend for itself economically, as it did in the prewar era, at a time when both industries and middle-class white taxpayers were departing for the outlying suburbs. Maier used the opportunities provided by federal initiatives in the 1960s and ’70s to attract federal money to the city, especially in the form of urban renewal funds. He also began a desperate attempt to annex suburban land and force the suburbs to contribute to city coffers. His most prized effort was the creation of an Industrial Land Bank from a large tract of annexed land in the northwest of Milwaukee County. Maier hoped that this would encourage industries to remain within Milwaukee city limits (and hence remain city taxpayers) even as they escaped the congested downtown. By redeveloping downtown areas and promoting festivals such as Summerfest, Maier intended to keep the city solvent and preserve at least some civic investment.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s, Milwaukee’s nascent civil rights movement turned its focus to open housing, under the leadership of the white Catholic priest Father James Groppi. Both Milwaukee and its suburbs held to racially-restrictive housing policies, making it almost impossible for blacks to live outside the increasingly blighted inner core. When Groppi and a contingent of civil rights activists marched across the Menominee River (from the inner core to the working-class South Side) in 1967, they were greeted by thousands of whites who shouted racist slogans and threw bricks and other projectiles. Similar incidents occurred throughout the city as pressure on the Common Council to pass an open housing ordinance grew. Activists accused Mayor Maier of avoiding responsibility for the legislation, and he in turn attempted to denounce them as irrational fanatics. For Maier, open housing became yet another battlefield in his endless struggle against the suburbs: if he refused to support a citywide open housing ordinance, it was because he was pressuring the suburbs to pass equivalent legislation. His motivations may or may not have been noble, but it is apparent that he wanted the suburbs to take some responsibility for what he clearly regarded as a toxic black underclass that was rapidly taking over much of Milwaukee proper. His attacks on the media’s role in the conflict emphasized that a city-only provision was in the interests of insulated suburban editors. For his part, Groppi, although he supported a countywide ordinance as well, stressed the need for immediate action.

The open housing fight within Milwaukee was rendered moot by the  Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included strong open housing provisions—and should therefore have been a major victory for both Maier and the activists who opposed him. In practical terms, however, the struggle ended in failure. Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated cities in the US, with residence patterns closely resembling those of 1960. Yet it is also clear that the late 1960s represented an important missed opportunity for cooperation between city government and activists. Maier may have been too blinkered to perceive the influence of structural discrimination and the racialized nature of the city’s economic decline; Groppi’s tactics may have failed to effectively convert suburban complacency into positive change. It would be a pointless exercise to attempt to determine whether Groppi or Maier was more responsible: the larger economic forces at work are too important to reduce the question to personalities. Their common failure has shaped the outline of contemporary Milwaukee.

As an industrial metropolis, Milwaukee was already declining in the 1970s, helped along by the recessionary climate. It was only in the 1980s, however, that deindustrialization began in earnest across the Rust Belt. Nearly all of the manufacturing companies and breweries that had anchored the city’s economy went bankrupt, moved their operations elsewhere, or introduced large-scale automation to save on labor costs. Even if the new black working class had been in a position to take advantage of them, the well-paid but low-skill jobs that had sustained previous working-class generations were simply no longer available. Poverty, unemployment, and crime grew rapidly and, even worse for Maier’s vision of the
city, the Reagan administration drastically reduced federal subsidies to urban areas. (In Maier’s memoir, the city-oriented Nixon is a hero, while Reagan is essentially a criminal.) Beyond the mayor’s personal preoccupations, the loss of federal funding had significant longterm effects: working-class white neighborhoods had benefited much more from federal funding than the black inner core, and now the opportunity to right the balance had vanished.


John Norquist, the Democrat who succeeded Maier in 1988, exemplified the Clinton era. He denounced Maier’s practice of rooting out and exploiting any available source of federal funding as “tin-cup federalism.” Instead, he relished the title of “fiscally-conservative socialist” and offered the city a new age in which progressive policies were married to free-market solutions. The most immediately visible feature of his policies, however, was an embrace of the New Urbanism, an architectural and urban-design philosophy that emphasized mixed-use, low-rise pedestrian zones and traditionalist aesthetics. Norquist was opposed to freeways and helped demolish an unfinished freeway spur that had served as a lasting reminder of the failures of postwar urban planning. While his preferred solution—light rail—was never brought to fruition, he did oversee the creation of notable new architectural developments, such as the Santiago Calatrava–designed wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum that opened in 2001.

Norquist’s New Urbanist style, which primarily targeted the downtown and wealthy East Side areas, went hand in hand with an increased emphasis (which continued under Norquist’s successor Tom Barrett) on making the city attractive to young professionals and the creative class. Milwaukee was now presented as a city that had successfully negotiated the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. To replace the continually declining manufacturing sector, the city attempted to attract service, technology, and knowledge-based industries, particularly health and financial services. To a certain extent, this succeeded, since companies like Aurora Healthcare are now among the city’s largest employers. What it resoundingly failed to achieve was the citywide diffusion of walkable New Urbanist affluence: the creative class was increasingly concentrated in a handful of white-dominated enclaves surrounded by urban decay. The Norquist era was not good news for the city’s poor, especially urban blacks. Those who were employed were overrepresented in what low-wage manufacturing jobs remained, and the catastrophic situation in the Milwaukee Public Schools system left few graduates in a position to take advantage of the growth in professional jobs. Incarceration, for many black males, turned out to be the only alternative to unemployment.

The Clinton era brought Milwaukee two high-profile attempts to address the problem: school vouchers and the Wisconsin Works (W-2) welfare-reform program. Both were conceived in the context of conservative political dominance and a renewed emphasis on the power of free markets. The object in both cases was to improve outcomes for target populations and reduce government spending on social programs—though not necessarily bureaucracy, since the monitoring these programs require often implies an equally cumbersome support apparatus.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, supported enthusiastically by Mayor Norquist, was intended to allow some parents to pull their children out of public schools and use government-issued vouchers to fund private-school educations, including religious and charter schools as well as former public schools reopened as charters. Although studies suggest that the program has been fiscally beneficial for the city government, none of the measures of academic achievement appear to have improved in any noticeable way among the students who participate in the program. The charter schools that the program supports, meanwhile, are plagued with constant scandals revolving around mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. The public schools are doing no better: although vouchers were supposed to encourage public-private competition, reform efforts have repeatedly failed to deliver meaningful results.

The situation with the W-2 program is little different. At the time of its introduction, it was hailed as a revolutionary statewide attempt to replace welfare with temporary aid intended to encourage participants to return to work (“workfare”), and it served as the blueprint for the federal welfare reform legislation passed under Clinton in 1996. Initially, it proved successful at reducing the welfare rolls—an outcome cited to the exclusion of any other indicators—but subsequent progress has stalled, and participants have generally shifted to other forms of aid (such as food stamps). In the meantime, the program’s term of eligibility has expanded from twenty-four to sixty months, a tacit recognition of failure. Not unexpectedly, the outcomes in Milwaukee, where 80 percent of the recipients are concentrated, are worse than in other parts of the state. In a Clintonesque attempt to encourage public-private competition, the government agencies that were charged with distributing aid in Milwaukee were themselves deemed failing and replaced with a combination of six different for- and non-profit companies. No fewer than three of these have been found mismanaging or illegally misappropriating their funds. (The for-profit corporation Maximus, Inc., for instance, was forced to pay the city of Milwaukee a total of $1 million as compensation for large-scale billing violations.) Meanwhile, the computerized participant-tracking system that was supposed to ensure that all enrollees were actually working or participating in other assigned activities is widely ignored, leading to a general inability to track aid recipients.

W-2 and school vouchers have been rather more successful at cutting spending (and funneling it to private contractors) than improving outcomes, which suggests the nagging thought that the real purpose all along was to quietly divest from a city given up for lost. Yet other initiatives have had equally low success rates. In 1990, the black Milwaukee alderman Michael McGee threatened to organize a violent black militia—”I’m talking actual violence, bloodshed and guerilla warfare,” he was quoted as saying—if progress toward racial parity was not made within five years. This threat did not prove to be any more effective. Milwaukee still has one of the largest gaps in unemployment rates between blacks and whites.

Little has changed with the Great Recession. The numbers from the latest American Community Survey estimates paint no clear picture, but they do suggest one thing: the new, post-housing bubble poverty in Milwaukee is not all that different from the old poverty, at least if you happen to be black. The inner core derived little benefit from the bubble and suffered little fallout from its burst. Its desperation is decades-old, backed up by the stubborn facts of economic history. As white Milwaukee lived through its crisis—first abnormally high unemployment, now a partial and perhaps abortive recovery—black Milwaukee simply experienced more of the same. And if a full recovery does come, it won’t be black Milwaukee that benefits from it. Unless the public schools are finally successfully reformed, black men are released from prison and retrained, and low-skill jobs begin offering livable wages, the situation will remain as desperate as it has long been.


I spent most of my teenage years in Wauwatosa, one of Milwaukee’s oldest suburbs. In the 1960s, at the height of the city’s civil rights struggle, it was one of the hotbeds of racist resistance: when Father Groppi led a protest march into the town, he was met by Klansmen and other onlookers who waved signs reading “Keep Tosa White.” By the early 2000s, such explicit racism was rarely seen, and most young people were in the dark about the role their grandparents’ generation had played in those events. We knew the facts in the abstract, of course, and those who were particularly engaged with politics could even get direct experience with “the issues” by volunteering in Milwaukee itself. But that, of course, was “over there.” We went to the good public schools and joked about the bad ones; we had white neighbors and were uncurious about the real meaning of the epithet “ghetto.”

When I was 16, I began taking long nighttime walks. They served at first as an outlet for angst, but soon they all started to follow a similar trajectory. I would go as far east as I could in one night, and this always meant crossing the invisible line of privilege that walled Milwaukee off from its central city. I was, of course, slumming, daring myself to face the ghetto—and one night a black passerby stopped me in the street and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I did not belong. I did not cross the line in my walks ever again.

The next year, I started taking classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which meant a daily bus trip east along North Avenue. It turned out that seeing the same burned-out blocks and faded hair salon displays from a car and from a bus were two very different experiences—for one thing, overhearing conversations about crack addiction and casual murder tends to change one’s relationship to urban space. But it would be a stretch to say I was enlightened. The bus simply took me from one bubble, the suburban idyll of Wauwatosa, to another—the old-timey movie theaters and alternative coffee shops of the East Side. Like the other young whites on the bus, I wore headphones as often as I could. I did not nod or smile, and I was left alone in return. To ask me to be concerned about the city was one thing; to ask me to live in it was another.

Recently, I went back home and repeated the trip, in an attempt to determine what, if anything, had changed in the recession years. The only change that I could find was a raft of “Bronzeville Redevelopment Initiative” signs in the windows of empty buildings. This, apparently, is the only visible trace of an attempt to bring back the tiny black downtown district of prewar Milwaukee. It is too early to tell if the project will change much—but its website is a worrying sign. “The primary African-American economic and social hub of its time,” it cheerily announces, “Bronzeville brought all ethnicities together to celebrate African-American culture.” There’s no mention of the exclusion of blacks from labor unions, of black strikebreakers used to ratchet up racial antagonisms, of neighborhood self-segregation adopted as a survival strategy by the city’s embattled black community. It’s all Satchmo and black-and-tan clubs.

This whitewashed leftist pseudo-history is mirrored today on the right: in his inauguration speech, Scott Walker—who began his political career in Wauwatosa—painted Wisconsin’s history as a 150-year quest for “frugality and moderation in government.” He could not, of course, acknowledge the socialist Hoan as a predecessor. His goal, though perhaps more radical and invidious than that of the Bronzeville project, is fundamentally similar: it is to enroll history in a project of legitimation, to portray a Wisconsin without unions as a return to the historical mean.

Walker is right, in a sense. With government ranged against labor, austerity budgeting chopping off huge public services, and official venality a basic assumption of political life, 1900 does not seem so far away anymore. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that it is one thing to turn back the clock and quite another to make it stop there. The crowds that surged into the state capitol in what now looks to have been a futile gesture of protest are not just the soggy remnants of the Obama coalition. They are also the heirs of the Socialist bundle brigades that eventually drove Milwaukee’s bought-and-paid-for politicians out of office. They and their children proved, if nothing else, that “frugality and moderation in government” is a much more ambiguous—and potent—demand than Walker would have us believe.

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