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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 257-305
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Cities with Class?
Growth Politics, the Working-Class City, and Debt in Milwaukee during the 1940s
Nicknaming his city “Dear Old Lady Thrift,” Milwaukee Journal writer Richard Davis chastised city leaders for failing to build a “great city.” His unflattering portrait pictured post–World War II Milwaukee as a “plump and smiling city . . . [sitting] in complacent shabbiness on the west shore of Lake Michigan like a wealthy old lady in black alpaca taking her ease on the beach.” He continued, “All her slips are showing, but she doesn’t mind a bit” (Davis 1947: 189, 191). Reprinted in the Milwaukee Journal two weeks before voters [End Page 257] went to the polls to decide if the city would reverse its debt-free policy to finance postwar development, Davis’s depiction warned that Milwaukee was a chaotic and inefficient metropolis in danger of falling behind (“Not So Fair Is America’s Fair City” Milwaukee Journal [hereafter MJ], 16 March 1947). Her thriftiness bordered on stinginess, her complacency slipped into indolence, and her neglected femininity bespoke disorder. City leaders’ frugality, rooted in a tradition of cautious municipal fiscal policies, big city problems mismatched with small town attitudes, and public “indifference,” Davis contended, threatened the postwar city.
Davis’s attention was drawn to Milwaukee’s downtown. He poked fun at it as “possibly the least pretentious business district in all of urban America,” a city without class. “Numerous cities of half the size are twice as imposing in the height of their office buildings, in the number of their good hotels, in their look of hustle, bustle and wham.” He concluded this report of downtown decline with the warning that “blight is spreading rapidly” (Davis 1947: 192). Business and civic leaders in Milwaukee, as well as commentators in other cities, shared Davis’s anxiety about postwar urban decline, fearing that their “outmoded” city would impede progress and economic growth (Beauregard 1993; Isenberg 1995).1 Davis’s contrast between “Old Lady Thrift” on the beach and the prospect of an “imposing” downtown prompted his call to action: spend money, rein in the chaos of blight, and build a modern city.
On Labor Day in 1951, just four years after the “Old Lady Thrift” moniker had appeared in the Journal, business and civic leaders cheered the early phases of Milwaukee’s postwar development program. The focus of this celebration was a parade along Wisconsin Avenue, the site of a recent $2 million project to take out streetcar tracks and repave this main downtown thoroughfare. Streetcars, an important ingredient to the infrastructure of the working-class city, would be displaced by buses and cars. Described as “a most important phase in the city’s downtown modernization program,” this project had been funded by a bond issue (“Wisconsin Av. Work to Start,” MJ, 7 January 1951; “Start Avenue Paving Work,” MJ, 8 January 1951; “Ceremony Launches Repaving Project; Buses to Replace Streetcars,” Milwaukee Sentinel [hereafter MS], 9 January 1951). The two-hour Labor Day gala, which also included patriotic appeals to participate in a Korean War defense bond drive, attracted “100,000 Milwaukeeans [who] lined Wisconsin av.’s ‘magnificent mile’ . . . for a parade that had everything—bands, drum and bugle [End Page 258] corps, military might and precision, floats, horses, costumes, old vehicles and screaming sirens” (“100,000 Here Cheer Parade,” MJ, 4 September 1951; “We’ll Have a Parade,” MJ, 2 September 1951).
The Downtown Association, an organization of center city business leaders, sponsored the parade.2 The city’s labor councils, representing the AFL and the CIO, each contributed a float. They were overshadowed, however, by the many other entries in the parade. The lead paragraph in the Journal’s account failed even to mention organized labor’s participation in this Labor Day event (“100,000 Here Cheer Parade,” MJ, 4 September 1951).3 CIO attorney and former Socialist Max Raskin lamented this loss of Labor Day. Contrasting Milwaukee’s spirited Labor Day and May...