Historian Gurda brings Milwaukee neighborhoods to Waukesha County

By Tom Jozwik - Special to TimeOut

April 27, 2017


 People fish at the Kosciuszko Park lagoon near St. Josaphat’s Basilica on Milwaukee’s south side.
Photo courtesy of John Gurda

MILWAUKEE - Over the years, a number of neighborhood appellations have become household names throughout the Milwaukee area. Think Bay View, Riverwest, Sherman Park, Walker’s Point.

There are lesser-known Milwaukee enclaves as well: Layton Park, Silver City, Tippecanoe, Johnson’s Woods.

What they have in common is that all are among  37 locales featured in John Gurda’s outsize book “Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods.”

Gurda, 69, the metropolitan area’s best-known historian, has penned a score of books - pre-eminently, documentary-spawning “The Making of Milwaukee” 18 years ago. But “City of Neighborhoods” is the one that’s been labeled “the most comprehensive account of grassroots Milwaukee ever published.”

In his introduction to “City of Neighborhoods,” Gurda points out the 465-page tome “is based on my belief that every neighborhood has a story uniquely its own to tell, and that putting a broad range of community chronicles between two covers can encourage a sense of belonging within individual neighborhoods and a sense of mutual respect across neighborhood borders and even beyond the city limits.”

Narrative text, photographs and accompanying cutlines, maps and information boxes in Gurda’s book tell readers the White Manor neighborhood is alternately called St. Sava in deference to the Orthodox cathedral of several domes that has stood for 60 years near South 51st Street and West Oklahoma Avenue (where a prominent neighbor is fish fry famous Serb Hall); that Bay View was originally a Milwaukee suburb, the city’s first; that St. Luke’s Hospital relocated to the Jackson Park neighborhood from Walker’s Point in the early 1950s; that Southgate, also in Jackson Park, was Milwaukee’s “first modern shopping center.”

Gurda, a Bay View resident with a master’s degree in cultural geography, will bring his native Milwaukee to Waukesha County on Tuesday, via a visit to the Muskego Public Library. “An Evening with John Gurda” will consist of an illustrated presentation by the historian, followed by a book signing. Copies of “City of Neighborhoods” will be available for purchase.

“We have had John Gurda here before,” Muskego librarian Elke Saylor told Conley Media, “but it has been over five years. People kept asking us to bring him back and, given his new book, we thought the time was right.”

A rather perfunctory examination of the book’s photos, a number of them snapped by Gurda himself, reveals Milwaukee’s last of three 20th-century Socialist mayors (1948-60), Frank Zeidler, strolling in his Harambee neighborhood with wife Agnes and several children; an image of an early African-American citizen of the Rufus King neighborhood, baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron; the North Point Lighthouse and its tender’s tidy white frame dwelling next door; the semiprofessional Kosciuszko Reds’ wooden baseball stadium in the shadow of St. Josaphat’s Basilica; the elaborate high altar of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, located, as was the Reds’ ballpark, in the historic South Side area; young Billy Mitchell, future father of the U.S. Air Force, angling with his own father on the Kinnickinnic River.

Also noted: the Town of Lake water tower under construction circa 1940; a portion of an American centennial year - 1876 - map of the Milwaukee metro region; the lobby of the grandiose old National Theater in Clarke Square; a head shot of South Side pioneer George Walker (as in Walker’s Point) and the celebrated Allen-Bradley clock in the pioneer’s old neighborhood; that conversation piece of an Upper East Side residence constructed almost a century ago in the form of a boat; the semicircular arrangement of red brick buildings on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus that previously served Downer College for women; and UWM’s stately Mitchell Hall (where, more years ago than he cares to remember, this reporter met his future wife in a basement journalism classroom).

A 13-page index references all sorts of people, places and things (advertisements for Boston Store and the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad, city founder Solomon Juneau and wife Josette, the Beulah Brinton Community Center, the Gettelman Brewing Company, the statue of Gertie the Duck downtown). Most chapters begin with a striking Janice Kotowicz illustration symbolic of the neighborhood whose story immediately follows.

The only thing I’ll object to about “City of Neighborhoods” is that the one in which I primarily grew up, Morgandale, is not among those represented. Gurda notes in his introduction, however, that he “confined (his content) to the pre-World War II city” of Milwaukee. Oh, well. The historian will just have to think about producing a sequel for us Morgandalers and residents of the Wedgewood Park, Granville Station and New Coeln communities.

Asked whether his book’s overall subject, as a municipality of neighborhoods, is actually much different from other cities, Gurda responded that, while “all cities have neighborhoods,” the Milwaukee “topography really lends itself to the formation of small-scale communities. Three rivers and the broad Menomonee Valley divided the city into distinct ‘Sides,’ and each of them was further subdivided into neighborhoods. They range from isolated pockets like Pigsville to large landscapes like the Historic South Side.”

What factors have rendered resilient at least some of the communities with which “City of Neighborhoods” deals - and how are Milwaukee’s neighborhoods coping with 21st-century challenges?

“Just like all the children in a very large family,” said Gurda, “some Milwaukee neighborhoods are thriving while others are struggling. The strongest communities - places like Bay View, North Point, Brewer’s Hill and Washington Heights - tend to have clear borders, distinctive architecture, local businesses and robust organizational lives.”

Upcoming event

“An Evening with John Gurda”

- When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

- Where: Muskego Public Library, S73W16663 Janesville Road; Muskego

- What: The author of “Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods” will take an illustrated look at the city’s makeup, followed by a book signing and sale.