- Contesting the Postwar City: Working-Class and Growth Politics in 1940s Milwaukee by Eric Fure-Slocum
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013
xiv + 396 pp., $129.00 (cloth); $35.99 (paper); $29.99 (e-book)
In this remarkable book, Eric Fure-Slocum charts the emergence of "growth politics" in Milwaukee over the course of the 1940s. Delving deep into local archives and newspapers, Fure-Slocum provides a detailed, closely argued study of a single Midwestern city. Yet even as Contesting the Postwar City brings Milwaukee during and immediately after World War II to life, it also illuminates a larger debate over the nature of urban life in the postwar years. Fure-Slocum contends that many commonplace assumptions about the straightforward merits of economic development that would drive urban policy not only in Milwaukee but in cities across the country in fact developed out of a contentious class politics. The triumph of this constellation of ideas (what Fure-Slocum refers to as "growth politics") meant the defeat of a distinctive strain of working-class thought about what constituted a good and just city. The book brings together urban history and labor history, showing how the one is necessary to understand the other.
Contesting the Postwar City opens with an evocation of Labor Day in Milwaukee in 1951. To celebrate the holiday, business leaders organized a parade along Wisconsin Avenue, taking the opportunity to advertise the rebuilding of the city's downtown—a "modernization program" that featured ripping up the streetcar tracks and refurbishing the roads, which had been funded by a controversial $2 million bond issue. For the city's department store executives and civic leaders, the virtues of the rebuilding program were self-evident. The city center would become, as one pointed out, a "magnet" for people across the region, a shopping center and hub of commercial life. Yet the streetcars, Fure-Slocum points out, had their own history in Milwaukee, having been the site of working-class protest culminating in a victorious 1934 strike by streetcar employees for union recognition. The question of who could access downtown had also been the subject of struggle—in 1947, local business groups had sponsored an ordinance, opposed by the Milwaukee CIO Council, to prohibit parades of more than two hundred people during business hours. In the end, the business-organized 1951 Labor Day parade demonstrated the rise of a new vision of city life, one that was focused on commerce rather than democratic or working-class political power. "With unintended but glaring irony," Fure-Slocum writes, "Labor Day at the beginning of the 1950s foreshadowed the neoliberal city" (9).
Fure-Slocum covers contests over Milwaukee's future in a number of different arenas, including chapters on public housing, the city's efforts to regulate working-class gambling (especially bingo), and the role of the CIO in the city's politics and culture. The book is filled with fascinating, little-known episodes that limn the conflict between the view of city life propounded by the city's labor unions and working-class residents and that offered by the commercial elite. Fure-Slocum (echoing Joshua Freeman's classic [End Page 102] Working-Class New York) makes clear that for the industrial unions, labor politics never stopped at the factory door; a city in which working-class people could exercise clear, visible political power was integrally connected to contests at the contest. Especially impressive are the chapters on public housing, which contrast the expansive vision of the city's unionists—who advocated building housing that would be available to working-class residents more generally, as a bulwark against economic insecurity—with those of people such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, who argued strenuously for limiting public housing to the very poor (295–96).
But perhaps the most important and original chapter in the book concerns the intense battle over the 1947 bond referendum that raised the money to redevelop downtown. Fure-Slocum makes it clear that the measure, which passed only narrowly, was fiercely resisted by working-class leaders (including the city's Socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler...