This post is a response to several recent comments on the Faculty Blog concerning the importance of Milwaukee-area annexation battles in Wisconsin politics. These battles included a pronounced anti-urban bias, and that bias remains evident in present-day attacks on the City of Milwaukee and its residents in the context of gubernatorial recall election. However, the annexation battles themselves do not explain or clarify the attacks.
Historian John Gurda discusses the annexation battles on pages 336-45 in The Making of Milwaukee (1999). The battles were most pronounced from roughly 1948-62. While City of Milwaukee officials vigorously attempted to include newly developing, outlying areas in the City, leaders of these areas were often fiercely opposed. They sought to convert their rural towns into municipalities, to fight Milwaukee’s annexation efforts, and to annex unincorporated areas to their own suburbs. The suburbanites, according to Gurda, were anxious to disassociate themselves from Milwaukee’s poverty. Many of the new suburbanites “found it surprisingly easy to trade their ancestral loyalties for an attitude of outright hostility to the City.”
Today, these new suburbs are thriving.
Some are in Milwaukee County itself, and others are in adjacent Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee Counties. Yet since the annexation battles concluded at least 50 years ago, few remember them, and the battles play no significant role in the current attacks on Milwaukee. Those attacks spring from and play to a much deeper dislike of the City of Milwaukee and its residents.
Through the use of restrictive covenants, exclusionary zoning, and aggressive police patrols, these suburbs have over the years tried to keep the City of Milwaukee, as a real and symbolic embodiment of the “urban,” out of their self-styled sanctuaries. These policies, in turn, have had the effect of concentrating the poor, people of color, single moms, and unemployed young men in the City of Milwaukee itself. The new suburbs form what Gurda calls the “iron ring” around the City of Milwaukee, and there is no obvious way to break through the ring.
Interestingly enough, the new suburbs are the very communities in which support for Governor Walker is strongest. Some of his current political advertisements speak to and from the citizens of these communities. Furthermore, one would expect Governor Walker to respect and support his most eager supporters’ anti-urban sentiments should he prevail in the recall election. As sad as it is to contemplate, anti-urbanism might soon become a cornerstone of state public policy.