Nik Kovac’s 3/31/05 Interview with Frank Zeidler

The first thing I did when I got home – I was curious about Milwaukee history – I read John Gurda’s book. He mentioned your book. And I’d always heard about you. And so I read your book, the thousand pages, double spaced, that you wrote. It’s not published but it’s in the library.

Oh, that’s the one from 1948 to 1960.

Right, you wrote it in 1962.


I was surprised… Well, I was born in 1977 and didn’t know much about the past, I suppose… but I was surprised that 600 of the 1,000 pages were about public housing. I didn’t realize that that was really the dominant issue.

That was a big issue. It’s not now, but it was then.

So I was curious, because I know a lot has changed. Someone in my generation grew up with a very different idea of what public housing was than someone in your generation. You know, it really changed over the last 40, 50 years. It has a stigma attached to it now – not completely, but especially in some areas.


So I was very curious for something of an update. I did find one thing that you’d written after 1962, a Harambee neighborhood report…


That you wrote in 1972. In that you advocated “some public housing,” but you said the emphasis should be on “private, non-profit agencies.” How had your thinking changed?

By that time I’d had an evolution of… Public housing, but not in big clusters. There were a lot of vacant lands that were developing. They still are developing, in the older portions. And I felt that the Housing Authority then should in every neighborhood put in some housing for low-income people on these lands that are abandoned or red-lined. In ’72 Henry Maier would not do much of anything except build housing for the elderly, for the white elderly. However, the black elderly began to be numerous.

Another thing from that 1972 report: you complained about the “wholesale clearance of neighborhoods” and the “mass tenantry” which had developed under the Maier administration. Where do you think he went wrong, or what happened under the Maier years?

Well, the main point was, when I was in the office of Mayor, the attack made on me was that I was bringing blacks up from the South.

Right. I read all about that.

And Henry Maier did everything he could to avoid being thought of as being friendly to blacks.

Because of your example and what he’d seen happen to you?

What was that?

You think that your example of how you had been vilified, he didn’t want to be vilified in a similar manner?

Oh, definitely not. Apparently he talked to others about this: what I had experienced and he didn’t want to experience it. He had certain goals. He wanted to project himself as a liberal nationally for the Democratic Party, but locally he wanted to project himself as a person not bringing blacks into the community. He was quite successful, I suppose.

Well, he lasted a while, that’s for sure.


And then what about post-1972? Obviously, part of this was the national trend. Not a lot of public housing got built after the 60s, anywhere. It sort of became passe, or was considered a mistake. What did you think of John Norquist and his ideas?

He was much better on race relations. But he wasn’t particularly strong on any kind of thing like public housing. But he did have a vision of a city that was without freeways, and would be like it was in say 1900, where everything was in walking distance, and houses were close together. Stores were right up on the street. That kind of image he still has of a city 100 years ago.

When you say he was better on race relations… in what way?

Well, he didn’t go out of his way to identify himself as a white man. He had a Progressive streak in him that he got from his family.

How did Maier go out of his way to identify himself as a white man? What were some of the tricks he would use?

Oh, it would be hard for me to describe that at the present time. He had a lot of tricks. One of the principal things that he didn’t want was open housing. And he had a long fight with Alderman Vel Phillips over that. That finally blew up in the riot of ’67.

Were you involved in that fight at all? You were out of office.


You weren’t even…Were you advising Vel at all?

No, I had a hard time making my living at that time. Who wants to hire an ex-Socialist Mayor? My old business of being a land surveyor I turned over to somebody else, so I couldn’t go back to that.

You started out working for the Milwaukee Road, right?

No, I had one job during the war working for the Milwaukee Road, but I did work as a land surveyor. I also worked as a farmer, as a farm hand.

Yeah, I read some of your poetry about that.

Then I had a job as a secretary of the Socialist Party. While I was doing that I picked up the surveying business. Then when the war came I went to the railroads and worked in the engineering department of the Milwaukee Road. Lowest level appointment.

I’m curious about your personal history, particularly in this neighborhood. You bought this house in 1946, right?


So you’ve been here a long time?

Yeah, I’ve been here since ’46.

What has kept you here for 60 years?

Maybe inertia. When I was younger, with my family… During the war people didn’t want children, and we had to move several times. So once I got a place I stayed.

Obviously the neighborhood has changed a lot.

Oh yeah.

Can you tell me tell me about your experiences?

The neighborhood changed from being white working class. It consisted mostly of Poles and Germans, and a few Irishmen in here. By… I would say 1965, 1970 it began to become African-American. Now it’s very substantially so, maybe 95%.

That’s one thing I’m curious about. You mentioned inertia, but were there any political motivations behind you choosing to stay? Because when you were Mayor people accused you of moving to Mequon or wherever else…

When I was Mayor people said I brought the blacks up, but I didn’t.

But did you maybe feel like a personal responsibility, that you as Frank Zeidler, the symbol of this kind of change…

Maybe a little bit, but not that much. The main motivation was inertia. Ben Franklin said three moves is worse than a fire. You know, every time you move you lose this and that and so… And the place is not inconvenient.

Sure, no, the location is great.

You got the University [points toward UWM] and you can get downtown.

There’s a library a block away.

And we a branch library down the street. Well, that didn’t come until 1970. We have a community council here. The community council started in 1960, still functioning, probably the oldest in Milwaukee. It may not function much longer…

I dug this up, too, an article that you wrote in the Socialist Calling in 1954 about the Question of the Negro Migration. You wrote there, “The white property owner who finds a Negro family has moved next to him suffers an emotional short-circuit that no logic can reach.” This way in ’54 before it actually happened in this neighborhood. Did you see that reaction in your neighbors?


What kind of interactions did you have with them? Did you encourage them to stay?

Well, what would happen is, if a white family got attacked, and there were a lot of such influences, they picked up and moved.

Not just the family that got attacked but the whole neighborhood?


And by attacked, do you mean robbed?

Physically. Physically attacked.

Did you get the sense that there were even block busting realtors that were creating attacks?

Oh, block busting was very strong when I was Mayor. That was a major reason why. The idea was that Frank Zeidler is bringing blacks into your neighborhood because the guys in the real estate business were promulgating that.

Did this block get busted? Did people come here and tell you sell now before…

No, not this block. Block busting was just west of here. It started from Walnut Street going north. There’s still a little bit of it going on now.



In this neighborhood?

In the central city. White people offering to buy your house. We’ve had three different unsolicited letters saying we’ll offer to buy your house.

Is this block busting in the reverse direction?

No, the primary reason is, they get these properties, they can cut ‘em up into smaller pieces, and get very high prices.

You mean they would tear the house down and rebuild an apartment building?

No, they won’t tear the house down. They’ll just…

They would just compartmentalize it.


When you say block busting, are they using scare tactics again?

All they do is offer you the cash. In the 60s they said, “You’re going to get new neighbors. Do you want to sell?” That produced a real flood of people.

When people on this block started moving out, do you recall any conversations you had with people who were moving to the suburbs? You didn’t try to dissuade them?

Oh, they’d just go. [chuckles]

I talked to a gentleman yesterday, an artist, George Ray McCormick. He’s black, and he lives just north of Keefe on Teutonia. He said all the white families would leave in the middle of the night. They wouldn’t leave during the day. Was that your experience here also?

Yeah. Well, it continues to be, as far as I can tell, a very large influx of African-American people here. But some of the older African-Americans, when they get pensions, they retire south. They’re doing that now. Particularly this one Milwaukee County went through this pension business and people got big payouts, like the person next door to us. They moved down to Gulf Port, Mississippi. Why endure Wisconsin weather if you get $300,000 payout. You can go down there, build your house, and live down there.

When you look back on urban renewal and the slum clearance and the public housing that was supposed to come with it, I’m sure you’re aware that it’s subsequently been called: “Negro removal.” Have you heard that phrase?

What’s that?

They’ve called urban renewal “Negro removal.” Critics of urban renewal, after the fact.

Yeah, there were some critics.

Do you think that is a valid critique?

That’s a very interesting thing. The first housing project, Hillside, was in a very terrible slum area. Buildings there were from maybe just after the Civil War. And so there was a demand on the part of liberal people to provide housing for low-income people, including black families. Then the realtors stopped public housing about 1952 and federal law permitted the buying up of slum areas and selling the lands to private people. That took place primarily along Walnut Street from 6th to 10th. That gave to the idea that we’re chasing out blacks. Now that was a very bad slum. A very decayed area. But the rumor now goes, “Oh, that was such a nice Bronzeville.” It was terrible. It was a terrible area.

So people who are thinking back on Bronzeville…

They reversed positions, they did. But if you ever look at some of the housing studies made there. There were no toilets, sagging porches, broken houses of all kinds. There are pictures that you can pick up on the internet showing some of that. Terrible slum conditions. When I look at that, “How did Mayor Hoan and the Socialists allow that to happen?” That kind of a condition to exist.

Was it possible that at one point Bronzeville was the way people are now remembering it, and that by the 40s it had decayed?

No, Bronzeville never was a good place, physically.

Maybe the memories aren’t so much that it was a wonderful physical neighborhood but that at least there were black owned businesses and jazz clubs. At least there was a thriving black community.

Well, it wasn’t thriving. And there was a lot of vice. Black and tans, taverns. And crime. You know, a lot of violence in the area.

You said in 1952 the realtors blocked a lot of your slum clearance plans.


I read about a lot of that in your book. In 1959, I think, you did finally get the state legislation that you needed, but you were sort of on your way out. So most of the slum clearance happened after you left, right?

What happened was much of the area just collapsed. It wasn’t slum clearance. It just collapsed. The City, under Mayor Hoan, had got some pretty strong powers to tear down dilapidated buildings. So there was a lot of that going on all the time. And that area just simply collapsed.

Which area?

What was called the Inner Core.

I’m curious what you thought, because Maier did do some official urban renewal. There was some amount of collapse and fires and vacant lots, but then there was up in the Kilbourntown 3 area, there was a massive clearance, and then there was also for the freeways a massive clearance, close to here.

The freeways, the north freeway, took out a very bad set of streets. Very dilapidated. For instance, between 7th and 8th Streets there were two alleys and there were all kinds of houses on those alleys. And on the southside they went through cottages cheek by jowl of the old Polish working class with almost no yards or anything like that. In one sense the freeway did get rid of a lot of blight. The freeway routes. Of course, that’s why they picked them.

Part of clearing the blight was that public housing was supposed to be side by side, so that people would have somewhere to go. Did you think that it was handled properly? The freeways did get rid of blight, but did it really create housing options for the people who were evicted?

I wasn’t directly connected anymore. It became a County function. But I think they paid ‘em off pretty well. The County didn’t shortchange them on the value of their homes.

At that time [1957] the main issue was race relations. See, the idea of anything like that would indicate, “Oh, you’re just inviting blacks to come up.”

Your plans were very ambitious, in terms of the amount of slum clearance and the amount of public housing.


And as you say the main issue was race relations, so Maier retreated from that. I found this, the 5 year report from 1974–79 of the City Development Commission. In here they’re not talking about building new housing. They’re talking about loans, low-interest loans for people to rehab. They’re talking about buying abandoned or foreclosed houses for a dollar. They were taking a more step by step approach. No big plans. Did you think this was a mistake? That Maier was retreating from really solving the problem, or did you think it was just a response to the reality where it wasn’t feasible to do the big project?

Maier’s main objective, in anything that he did relating to housing – for instance, he created the Department of City Development so that he could control the Housing Authority and the Redevelopment Authority, both of which are really to be bodies politic and independent of the city, but he got one man to run all of that, and there would be therefore no policies that would stir up the black/white relationship identification with Maier – That was his main purpose.

If you had been Mayor in the 70s – if you were still Mayor – would you have still been pushing for these big slum clearance projects?

Yeah. The reason was there was still a lot of slums.

What about now?

Interesting thing is there is a general decay going on in the area west of here, but it’s manifesting itself largely by individual houses coming down or getting burnt, and there’s no master plan for the area. Nobody really knows what kind of a good master plan you ought to have for a city. I used to advocate a lot for the work of a master plan for areas. Now you don’t have any master plans. The initiative for change is taking place largely through private developers, many of whom are Russian immigrants.

Do you think that is overall a good thing?

No, the reason is what they’re doing is they’re working on odd pieces of land, building condominiums, hyping them, and selling them for above 170 thousand a unit. Now that’s the beginning of slums and slumlords. The real bad example of it, I think, is that which happened along Commerce Street.

So you think those are the slums of the future?

Yeah, I think those are the future slums.

My dad thinks the same thing.


My dad has the same opinion. Every time we drive down Commerce…

Yeah, no lots, no nothing there, and overpriced.

I would agree with that. That was my first instinct. And my dad thought so. But I have a friend, a white friend of mine, who just bought a place on Palmer and Keefe, so he’s the only white guy on the block, and I asked him if he thought Commerce Street were the slums of the future. He said, “Well, I don’t like the way they’re designed, but that location can’t fail.” So he thought if it ever got to a point where the value of those houses were going down, they’d just… private enterprise would just tear ‘em down and build something new and better because it’s so close to downtown and money’s coming back. I don’t know where exactly it’s coming from, but there does seem to be money from somewhere.

Well, the Riverwest area, there’s a lot of speculation in there right now. Paying fantastic prices for very old houses in there. That’s the new developing thing. But the black community is an interesting thing, because they’ve already expanded far out into the northwest. And the white families that were out there, that built those bungalows and houses, they’ve gone out into the suburban communities. I have a friend of mine who lives on 76th and Capital. He’s moving to Hartford because there was an attempt to break into his house.

When you see the future, and that the black community is expanding, and to some extent moving, because Riverwest is… there’s not very many black people left in Riverwest. And so one theory I’ve heard is that the black community is being pushed north and west. That it’s moving north and west but it’s losing…


[At this point there’s a gap in the tape as I didn’t notice to flip it right away. But I remember him saying he’s not qualified to predict 20 years into the future. In my notes I have him saying, “Not much going to change that,” I think in reference to large minority community in the central city, and then mentioning the fact that MPS is now 60% black and 20% Hispanic.]

The question is, “Do they have the capacity to provide shelter for themselves?” and I think they do. The biggest change that I’ve see taking place in the last decade has occurred around Walnut Street, in 16th to 17th. A lot of this leadership comes from black churches. They seem to be able to get the money and to build the buildings.

So you see positive signs from within the community?

There was, you know, a lot of white people, and I would belong to some of them, trying to provide shelter for the blacks, feeling they couldn’t do it themselves. But they’re doing it themselves better than we could do.

Do you think there’s any hope for integrated communities?

Not right away.

When you say not right away, people were talking about this 50 years ago.

Not in 20 years.

What about this neighborhood? Are you the only white person on this block?

No. My neighbor is white. Two neighbors. And there’s another white man who is married to a black woman, lives up the street. But everybody… and now white people in this apartment building – students.

They’ve just moved in?

Yeah. But this will be an African-American community. Probably by the next election the Mayor will be African-American.

What did you think of the election between Pratt and Barrett? Did you have an opinion?

Yeah. Pratt was a nice guy, but he’s not capable of managing the city.

And what’s your impression of Barrett?

Low-geared guy. Very good. Not making many waves. Something, I think, that was needed right now. There was too much of a hullabaloo in the Mayor’s office over a period of time. So he’s a low-keyed fella, but I regard him as competent.

I bumped him into him the other week at a fund-raiser and I told him that I was reading your book and hoping to speak with you. The first thing he said was, “Well, I’m not as deep as Frank Zeidler.”

What’d he say?

I’m not as deep as Frank Zeidler. He’s a lot deeper than I am. Then I told him that so much of your book was about public housing. And I said, “What’s your attitude towards public housing? They’ve torn down Cabrini-Green in Chicago and Pruit-Igoe in St. Louis, and there’s this national stigma now.” He said, “Well, that’s true nationally, but in Milwaukee the public housing that did get built was on a humane scale.”

Yeah. Public housing high-rises didn’t work. We built one of them that’s still working, but…

Where’s that?

That’s over on the second Hillside Project. But in St. Louis, too, they had to tear down high-rises because people in them stole the light bulbs out of the elevators, and attacked people in the elevators, and so on. And in Chicago, the south side, these great big…

The Robert Taylor homes.

Yeah. They’d been better off just to confine themselves to two-story buildings.

Most of the public housing in Milwaukee wasn’t high-rise. How would you rate the various projects?

They’re good ones. But there’s one that they’ve… there’s a kind of a dullness to them. For instance, the project on 64th and Silver Spring, WestLawn, there’s not enough diversity of appearance. And the same thing I find is true of SouthLawn, which is on 25th and Morgan. There’s not enough diversity of appearance.

Have you seen what they’ve done recently to Hillside and ParkLawn? The porches.


Do you approve of those, or do you think those are still too dull?

I think it was a good idea to open up those streets. They did the same thing with ParkLawn.

I haven’t actually done this research yet – maybe you know – have the public housing projects been integrated to any extent? Are there black and white people and Hispanic people living together in one housing project area?

I don’t know. I can’t tell you what the social experience is of those people. Apparently, the key is what happened in Hillside. There you do have white people coming in there, but not living there. However, when you think of what those housing projects in my time did. Howard Fuller, the big wheel at…

The superintendent.

He came out of those projects. Alderman Johnson Odom lived in them. Oprah lived in those projects. A whole bunch of people who are now African-American leaders came out of those projects.

One of the things you wrote about housing projects in general in 1962 was. “The attack against public housing was made on the grounds of Socialism, then on of paying the rent of the poor, and finally on the grounds that it would bring more Negroes to the city.” Since then there have been some new critiques – a lot of them against the high-rises, which you don’t approve of, and didn’t at the time, even – but people like Jane Jacobs, who says, “Low-income projects became worse than the slums they were supposed to replace.” A lot of Liberals have shied away from government owned housing.

That didn’t happen here. Why it didn’t I don’t know, but the management of the housing authority… apparently it didn’t happen here.

Do you like to take some of the credit for that?

No. [laughs] That was an accident of fate. But later on I modified my position. Since you had all these vacant lots up here, gradually you infiltrate with public housing. Some low-income housing in there in the neighborhood.

More of a spot redevelopment?


And you think that that, if it’s possible, is preferable?

Yeah. [phone rings, so I’m not sure if he fully heard question, though]

So there is some good to this story.

Oh yeah.

Milwaukee did better than a lot of the rest.


But I definitely sensed a lot frustration when you were writing in 1962, that so much good that could have been done wasn’t.

Yeah. Could have rebuilt the whole city. But then as I look now, well, it’s rebuilt itself at a slower pace simply by collapsing and leaving open spots.

So, in retrospect, what would have been better? Do you think that a massive rebuilding project might have created more problems than it solved?

No, it would have been better. A well-planned project, you know, like Greendale. I was motivated much by the Greendale planning. I worked there at one time.

So you would disagree with the current national mood against big government housing projects?

Yeah. What’s happened is that the housing market is getting priced out of the level of the ordinary person.

The buzzword now is “affordable housing.”


The buzzword then was “public housing.”


The big story I was covering in New York is they want to build a new sports stadium. He wants to build these high-rise luxury condominiums. And the deal he’s got to cut to get this done is, “Oh, well half of them are going to be affordable.” So now instead of having the government build housing and letting poor people live in them, it’s a developer builds it privately but agrees to keep the rents… basically it’s like rent control.

Yeah. That came in later.

Did that happen in Milwaukee?

Oh yeah, on a big scale. A lot of the stuff that you see on the south side, two-story buildings, those are rent subsidized.

What do you think of that approach in general?

Well, it’s a practical approach, but what has happened is that private profiteers have inserted themselves between the housing needs and government building and services.

Going back to what might have happened if you’d gotten what you wanted, the key moment that you identified in your book was the Taft-Ellenger-Wagner bill.

Mm huh.

It was up in 1948…


… didn’t pass, did finally pass a year later.


You said that was a really important year because there was a momentum within Milwaukee…


…that was building, and by ’49 the momentum had slowed and the private builders and realtors had organized enough against it.

You had only a very narrow of time between ’48 and ’52 that you could really build and address the slums. You say, “Why did you want to do that?” Because there wasn’t any housing built from ’29 to ’46.

So let’s just say things had gone differently in Washington, and all your ducks in Milwaukee had lined up in the right row, do you think if you’d rebuilt the city more quickly, how would the city be different? Would you have the black ghetto in the middle of the city?

You may have had the black ghetto anyway. Simply because of the fact that the cotton picking machine put these people out of work, and they came north for industrial employment.

Do you think there was any way, though? Because I look back on it and I think, “God, we had a Socialist Mayor at this time.” In the 50s this was happening everywhere, the ghetto formation and the white flight, the block busting, but that’s under mayors like Maier, who are complicit with the business interests. We had a mayor who was fighting them tooth and nail, right?

Under the American constitution you couldn’t stop this. You can’t stop now the internal Mexican migration. And over a long period of time maybe the dominant people will be those of Hispanic origin. You can’t stop a million Mexicans from crossing the border every year. They find a way in. So you see a growing Mexican community on the south side. It’s very interesting that despite Maier’s intensive resistance to the black community, the community increased at the rate of about 4,500 to 5,000 people a year.

That was your point all along. The cause and effect was messed up. You said the black people coming here is inevitable because of larger economic forces, and since they’re here let’s learn to live with them and let’s make everyone’s life better.

There’s no doubt that a lot of them… they came to Detroit, you know, and to Chicago in great numbers. Those that came to Milwaukee were often people who had stopped first in Chicago. But there’s no doubt that the social security system that the Socialists had got here in the form of public assistance, relief, and so on, was a factor bringing them. It helped them.

So you think that some did come here from Chicago because welfare was better here?

Yeah. I do. And there’s a certain amount of this same kind of movement going on now in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

At the time, of course, this critique was leveled at you constantly. What would you say to someone who said, “You’re inviting them here by having this good welfare system?”

Well, to say, “It may be the case.” [laughs] May be the case. That’s the main reason why you have the W-2 law, to discourage that. The Wisconsin Works law that says you can only be on relief five years, and then if you’re on relief you have to work. That’s the origin of the law. It discourages heavy internal migration.

On a personal note, this heavy internal migration has surrounded you, not completely, but… What you would say to your white neighbors in the 50s, who might say, oh, their worst fear come true? But is it really so bad? What is the experience like?

I didn’t talk to many of them in the 50s on that subject. You know, the most I could say is, if they said, “Real estate guy says you’re bringing blacks up in the community,” I’d say that’s not the case. They’re coming here of their own volition. That’s the most I could say. But then I also said if anybody gets here, they have the same responsibilities, the same duties, and the same rights. You’ve got the rights, but you’ve got the duties.

One other quote you had from that book. You said, “The forces of inertia controlled the situation.” I think referring to the builders not wanting public housing because it would mess with their slum profiteering and their blockbusting and so forth. Do you see those same types of forces still at work today? You mentioned how over time the city has ended up rebuilding itself, but do you see the same kind of negative business interests?

Yeah, well the builders themselves are a very potent political influence. What helped them mostly was when Milwaukee had to put its water service outside its boundaries in 1959, and then that opened up a lot of new spaces for them to build, and so the pressure of building in the inner city wasn’t so great anymore. Then, with the Russian Jewish immigrants in Milwaukee they started a condominium pattern, and that’s what’s going on now.

It’s a national trend, too, isn’t it?

Yeah, it’s a national trend.

I hadn’t heard that before, that it was mostly Russian Jewish developers. I assumed it was just national real estate money coming to Milwaukee.

Well, in Milwaukee it’s a Russian Jewish trend. Mandel, they’re the ones who are doing the building.

Other than Commerce Street, are they doing that kind of development in this area too?

No. They’re east of here. They operate east of here. Then you have these superbuilders that are out in Waukesha County. That are building 300 thousand dollar houses, and they’re producing a problem of water and sewer. This is what bothers me, is the lack of land use planning.

That was the other big issue of your administration: the suburbs forming.

Yeah. Well, it was a great idea of land use planning. I ran into a mayor in 1948. That was the main issue of that time. We were planning for the future. As I said I was influenced by Greendale. [chuckles]


New towns. Ebenezer Howard’s new towns. Did you ever read about it?

Yeah, I read Jane Jacobs. She vilified him. [laughs] Then I read you, and you mentioned the garden homes. Have you read Jane Jacobs book?


What do you think of her ideas overall?

Well, I think they’re interesting but I don’t think they’re practical. I think she reflects a New York, eastern viewpoint of cities.

You mean because they’re denser?


And because the kind of streetlife she’s talking about doesn’t really exist anywhere in Milwaukee, and maybe never did. Is that what you mean?

Yeah, the dense population of eastern cities influenced her… I used to read a lot of what the Germans did in replanning their communities, and the English, you know. She reflects something of that kind of design they had. Germans and the English are very good at city planning.

When you were hoping to have a master plan or total plan for Milwaukee, it was coming out the German and English ideas?

It was influenced by it.

What would Jane Jacobs have said if she got a look at your master plan?

She probably would have opposed it. [laughs] Wasn’t hers.

But would it have had some of her ideas in it, in terms of the mixed use?


The location of the housing projects didn’t work out quite the way you had planned it. Here’s what you said in 1962: “I always felt that public housing to be most effective for clearing slums should be on new land, in order to relieve the population pressure of the slums, in order to reduce costs, and in order to give low-income people a living area closer to the open countryside.” Now, with the one exception of Parklawn in Granville, that was politically impossible.


Because the builders wanted to build there anyway and they didn’t want Negroes coming.

Well, both Southlawn and Northlawn were on open lands at the edge of the city.

Yeah, But those were veterans projects. Mostly white, right?

Yeah, they were veterans projects, for veterans, so they were at the edge of the city. What happened was this portion of Milwaukee was very dense. Houses on alleys. You still got ‘em. High crowding. The old Germans built in such a way that they shut each other’s sunlight out.

So when I asked you before if creating a black ghetto in the central city was inevitable, and you say maybe it was, but if it had somehow been possible, politically, to build racially integrated low-income projects far out, would that have radically changed the city?

Well, Westlawn did turn out to be a black project far out.

Yeah, eventually, yeah.

So did Berryland. Which is another one that I built. They were all on open land. The idea was to build these projects so that you could clear up the slums in the inner city.

Do you have a feeling when you look back of what might have been? If only I had a few more Socialist on the common council, like Hoan did at one point. If you had really pushed through the master plan? The purpose of the master plan was not integration, necessarily. It was just good housing for everyone and good planning. A lot of people since have said that the problem of segregation is the core problem – that’s what’s preventing black employment is their being cordoned off.

A lot of white people said that that’s the core problem, and a few blacks did. But basically the period that blacks, like the old Germans and others, were more comfortable in their own neighborhoods. In other words, what was spoken out wasn’t what the feeling, the sentiment of people was.

How do you feel about it? Do you feel that segregation is…

No, segregation is… I think it’s oftentimes dangerous.

How would you say the black community in Milwaukee today is living?

Far better than it ever was. The basic reason is that they had these bungalos, these Milwaukee bungalos and flats that were built 50, 60, 100 years ago and are better than anything else. Not that they’re rich. There are a lot of extremely poor blacks. But on the whole they’re better off… The thing that bothers me about the black community is their attack on the public school system.

You mean the vouchers and school choice?

You know the attack is really that a lot of these black leaders want to make money by… that’s their way of making an income by starting new schools. But the attack on the public schools is what bothers me. It was the public schools that gave them major advantages.

You mean historically the students who did well in the public schools? I agree with you there.

I don’t know what experience you had at Riverside, but you were going when it was partly integrated.

Yeah ,when I was there it was 55% black, and 10% Hispanic. I think it’s probably even less white now. Although I was in Advanced Placement courses, and a majority of students in my classrooms were white. Which was a big political issue at the time, especially with Howard Fuller, this kind of tracking. But I got a great education at Riverside. I’m not sure if I could have gotten a great education at most of the other high schools. [Zeidler laughs] I don’t know because I wasn’t there, but that was a concern, certainly.

Well, if you got any other things give me a call.

Can I ask one closing question?


I read about how you were young and unemployed in the Depression and you read books in the library and that led you to become a Socialist. Hypothetical: if you were young and unemployed today, with the industrial recession and so forth, would you still become a Socialist, or what would you become?

I’d probably be a Socialist. The basic thing about Socialism that I liked was the idea of human cooperation.

Even though today the climate has changed? Because you became a Socialist before McCarthy and before the Cold War.

I knew Joe McCarthy very well. I talked to him, and he never attacked me. I always thought how can anybody take him for real? [chuckles]

Yeah, that was one thing that I was shocked about when I was reading the history. Milwaukee elects you Mayor, a Socialist, at the same time that they’re voting for McCarthy in the Senate. You know, it seems like, how is that possible? Funny town, I guess.

Yeah, that was an anomaly. But he wasn’t all that great at that time, you know. He was a minor factor. It was only later that he became great, when he went after Communists.

How closely allied were you with labor when you were in office?

The labor movement always backed me. When the AFL and the CIO joined I made a major speech at their events. In the 30s we had a conflict inside the Socialist party between the socialists and the communists. That was a very sharp debate there. Communists oftentimes were in control of the CIO unions, but I never had any conflict with them. I had fairly strong support from AFL unions. From the machinists and others, not so much from the construction trades. The construction trades and the Teamsters were very conservative.

So they were more allied with the builders who were against you because of the public housing?


Even though somebody had to build the public housing too. It’s not like you’re going to import carpenters, right? You’re going to employ local people.

The trade union movement is different now. When I was there there were still heads of trade unions who were Socialists. Now they’re mostly business agent types. They’re Gomperites, which means they don’t want to own the operation, they just want more wages and better working conditions.

Were there any big strikes while you were mayor?

Well, there were city strikes. Garbage workers struck a couple of times. That’s all that I can think of.

What about the brewery workers strike of 1953?

I didn’t have much to do with that.

Well, I’ve taken a lot of your time.

You’ve gotten what you want?

Pretty much, yeah. There’s a lot of big issues. I could talk to you forever about it. But I’ve got a lot more reading I’m going to do. [he laughs] I’m hoping to write an article about this but I’m also thinking about something even bigger than an article. It’s really captivated me. There’s a lot of fundamental issues.

Well, I hope you have success in marketing whatever you’re doing.

Well, who knows? Right now I’m like you. I just go to the library during the day and read. [he laughs] We’ll see what happens to me politically.

Over the course of life you do a lot of different things. That you didn’t plan to do but somehow or other you get into doing something different.

How have you been able to support yourself since you were mayor?

Well, in recent times I’ve worked as an arbitrator. Occassionally I do case examining for the employee’s retirement system of the City of Milwaukee. After I left the Office of Mayor I worked for the Ford Foundation and then for awhile I worked for the Wisconsin Department of Resource Development, where I was director. Then I did some teaching.


At Alverno College, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin Center at Neenah were some of the places that I taught. Then I got into doing a lot of arbitration work. I don’t do it now anymore. I’m too old. They won’t call me in.

Last edited by TeganDowling. Based on work by Godsil.  Page last modified on July 20, 2006

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