Q & A with John Gurda
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write about Milwaukee's history?
John Gurda: I'm a native of Milwaukee's South Side and grew up in a household that blended European ethnicity (Polish for my dad, Norwegian for my mom) with more general patterns of the American middle class. The old connections were always important to me, and I began my career writing about the history of Milwaukee's South Side. I've broadened my focus in the last 35 years all the way out to the county lines. If I live another 50 years, maybe I'll expand to southeastern Wisconsin!
WHS Press: What do you find most surprising about Milwaukee's past?
JG: The dominant Germanism of its formative years. The citizenry's willingness to turn over their government to Socialists. The city's ability to thrive in the deep shade of Chicago.
WHS Press: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
JG: I hope they all contain something of interest for the reader, but I like some of the more self-contained set pieces: To Green Bay the Long Way, Unplugged, Meltdown at the Iron Mill, The Cost of the Eight-Hour Day, Close Call for Mr. Roosevelt, Winter at the Edge of the World, and Feast of Christmas Past (tallow stuck to the gums and all).
WHS Press: What aspects of Milwaukee's history do you find most interesting?
JG: The persistence of the past in our landscape and culture. The power of the past to explain our present. Mayor Dan Hoan's administration. Charlie Whitnall's work on parks. The unimaginably long and distant Native American period.
WHS Press: What do you want people to take away about Milwaukee's history?
JG: That it's not an antiquarian subject but something of vital relevance to the present. Most of all, I want them to see THEIR stories in the larger context of OUR story. History educates, enriches, and motivates.
WHS Press: What qualities make Milwaukee unique?
JG: Paradoxically, its intense Germanism and its world-class diversity. The crucial role that manufacturing once played. Its human scale. Its blend of big-city attributes (problems as well as resources) and small-city manageability.
WHS Press: What are the most dramatic changes Milwaukee has experienced over the courseof its history?
JG: Moving from commerce to manufacturing in the later 1800s, with the corresponding ethnic shifts. Trading corrupt political hacks for squeaky-clean Socialists in 1910. Evolving from a comfortably European-American city to a not-so-comfortable multi-ethnic city in the post-WWII years. Losing a major share of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s and '90s and transitioning to a service economy, a transition that is far from over.
WHS Press: Who do you see as the audience for "Cream City Chronicles"?
JG: The general reader interested in local history, plus students, teachers, and anyone else with an openness to the past.