"Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" Book Feature
This feature by author John Gurda appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on November 5, 2006
Cream City's chronicles tell the story of a changing Milwaukee
This is a column about, well, this column. More specifically, it's about a book-length collection of these columns titled "Cream City Chronicles." Published two weeks ago by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the book contains 63 stories that originally appeared in this space, some more than 12 years ago.
I'm mildly surprised that the column has been around so long. It debuted in the "Milwaukee Journal" in 1994 and moved to the "Journal Sentinel" when the city's two major dailies merged a year later.
The reason for the column's longevity may be its purposeful connection with the present. My monthly offerings have always had the same goal: to provide the historical context for whatever was happening in the community at the time, whether it was factories closing, landmarks opening, the latest scandal, the newest ethnic group or simply the changing seasons.
The total number of columns now exceeds 150, which, at roughly 1,000 words apiece, adds up to a good-sized book. Fortunately, that was an idea that occurred at the Wisconsin Historical Society, whose editors chose a generous sampling of the stories for publication in book form.
Every journalist has to make peace with a special kind of impermanence. However masterful the writer — and this newspaper and its predecessors have hosted some genuine masters — his or her work generally ends up lining a litter box, wrapping the garbage or being recycled into bus transfers and ceiling tiles.
I'm grateful that so many of these stories have been rescued from such ignominious ends, but "Cream City Chronicles" involved much more than sending a batch of old columns off to Madison. The trouble with commenting on the passing scene is that the scene keeps passing.
Many of the stories were decidedly dated — reflections of a Milwaukee that no longer exists. To mention just a few:
—A historical look at Cathedral Square opened with the ice-skating rink that anchored the Winterfest celebration. Winterfest is gone, and the rink has found a permanent home down the hill in Red Arrow Park.
—The 1996 opening of Discovery World at the museum center suggested a column about pioneer scientist Increase Lapham. Discovery World has since moved again, and its relocation will soon anchor another column.
—The International Arts Festival kicked off a story about Milwaukee's Jewish heritage. The Jewish community is as vibrant as ever, but the festival is just a memory.
—The 1999 demolition of Southgate, Milwaukee's first shopping center, was big news, historically speaking. Wal-Mart and Walgreens now have obliterated even the memories.
—A catastrophic 1997 flood introduced a column about the Pigsville neighborhood — one "g," please. Public officials have since spent millions of dollars moving houses, raising a protective levee and reshaping the Menomonee River's channel. So far, so good.
—Remember the feud between Mayor John Norquist and Police Chief Arthur Jones? Mitchell St.'s 1995 facelift? The closing of Pfister & Vogel in 2000? All old news, and not appropriate for a book that will presumably have a long shelf life.
In order to give the columns the "evergreen" quality suggested by the Historical Society, I found myself rewriting the first and last paragraphs of nearly half the stories in the book. It was more work than I'd expected and a sharp reminder that beginnings and endings are the hardest parts of any story.
Garrison Keillor has created hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Lake Wobegon monologues. The task, he once said, is made easier by the fact that his openings and conclusions are always the same.
"It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon," Keillor begins, and he invariably ends with "That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." With his first and last sentences nailed down, it's easy, relatively speaking, to fill in the space between.
Rewriting the Milwaukee stories was somewhat labor-intensive, but that, I would argue, is a measure of our community's vitality. It is our constantly changing cast of characters and the shifting landscape they inhabit that give Milwaukee — or any city — its particular dynamism. Without change, there is no history.
Another editorial task proved much easier: grouping the stories into easily understood categories. There were a few stragglers, but the major topics practically chose themselves: ethnic diversity, making a living, our distinctive political heritage, the central role of water in our history and, of course, celebrations — all of them central themes in Milwaukee's story since the beginning.
What "Cream City Chronicles" offers is a smorgasbord of our community's past — history á la carte, if you will. Taken together, these bite-sized stories add up to a full meal that goes a long way toward telling the larger story of Milwaukee.
It is my hope, as well as the Wisconsin Historical Society's, that readers will find the smorgasbord tasty, nutritious and not so filling that they lose their appetites for another sampler in the years ahead.
The Cream City's history grows richer by the year, and its chronicles just keep on coming.
John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian, writes for the Crossroads section on the first Sunday of each month. Gurda will discuss "Cream City Chronicles" at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Ave. on Nov. 13 and in Bay View on Nov. 16. Both discussions start at 7 p.m.