Milwaukee-Area Annexation Battles

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.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Terrence Berres

    “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.”

    I’m younger than Mr. Gurda and I remember them, particularly the battle over the Town of Granville, in northwestern Milwaukee County. If Milwaukee could do a better job developing open land, that was its chance to show it. Feel free to try to convince suburbanites of Milwaukee’s success in this regard.

    The term “iron ring” was used by, if not coined by, Mayor Henry Maier. Milwaukee continues to assert, one way or another, that if only it could increase its territory, it then could do a better job governing it.

  2. Nick Zales

    I would like to know which “new suburbs are thriving.” Indeed, with artificial barriers, suburbs often do well in excluding those dreaded “poor people” they find useful as servants but not as neighbors. Without knowing which ones are being referred to it is hard to comment. I will say that in general, suburbs only thrive because they are located next to cities. Often those who claim to despise cities find the cities useful places to make money, which they then take back to their suburbs.

  3. Terrence Berres

    “I will say that in general, suburbs only thrive because they are located next to cities.”

    Aren’t suburbs, thriving or not, next to (or near to) cities by definition?

  4. David Papke

    The City of Milwaukee’s “old” suburbs are for the most part immediately adjacent to the City, and some are more than a century old. Starting from the south and looping around to the west and north, Milwaukee’s “new” suburbs are Oak Creek, Franklin, Muskego, New Berlin, Brookfield, Menomonee Falls, Germantown, and Mequon. These new suburbs are almost exclusively white and middle/upper class, and they seem to me the suburbs in which anti-Milwaukee sentiments are the most pronounced. These sentiments, I fear, involve not so much a sense of how the City of Milwaukee is governed or its land-use policies but rather an uneasiness about the people of Milwaukee and those people’s lifestyles. The whole situation saddens me immensely.

  5. Terrence Berres

    At a presentation a few years ago by John Gurday and former mayor Frank Zeidler, Zeidler seemed bemused at recent efforts to build a streetcar line at $25 million a mile when the City long ago passed on buying the rapid transit system, with lines from Milwaukee to Waukesha and Hales Corners, for $600,000. Suburban opposition to contributing to the cost of the City’s non-buyer’s remorse also is sometimes converted to allegations of “uneasiness about the people of Milwaukee”.

    And the way some people talk about the suburbs, it’s as if it wasn’t the City that started building freeways locally, and Mayor Zeidler who pushed to use them as a means of slum clearance on the north side.

    Along the same lines, in a report on Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewarage District overflows by Steve Schultze and Marie Rohde in the Mey 22, 2004 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the head of Green Bay’s counterpart agency attributed the lack of overflows there to having long ago having embarked on a program of gradually separating storm and sanitary sewers. Milwaukee could have done likewise, but instead eventually opted for the deep tunnel system. Yet somehow suburban objection to paying for this gets attributed, by some, to animus toward the City or its people.

  6. Jessica Slavin

    At my four year old’s first t-ball game today, in Shorewood, the families were an odd mix of first-ring and third-ring suburbanites. The game was of course a ridiculous and delightful free-for-all, especially pleasant because of the beautiful blue sky, spring sunshine. And light breeze. It was about as close to an idyllic scene of Americana as you will find. For me, this scene was all the more idyllic because of the fact that among the kids and parents, some of those I knew from Shorewood, there was a range of skin colors.

    At the end of the game, the two teams did the traditional passing-rows of high-fives and “good games.” Then the adorable kindergartners broke into a bit of chaos, running around, as coaches tried to herd them for a team goodbye. For some reason, some of the kids running around with friends had put their caps on sideways and backwards, as part of the general post-game pre-schooler silliness.

    At that moment, a mom packing up beside me said with a nervous chuckle, “Hey, what’s with this gangster sideways-hat thing?” There were a couple awkward laughs. Her son was ambling towards her with his loose cap flopping to one side. I for one hadn’t even noticed the caps until she said this. Then she said, a little louder, “Seriously, can we put a stop to that?”

    There was an awkward pause. Then a dad beside me responded in a cheerful voice, “I like it!” As his son was walking up too.

    Everyone was quiet and went on with giving kids water and packing up. The woman who objected to the “gangster” hat threw her sack of kid stuff over her shoulders said loud enough for all of us who were standing there to hear, “Well! Okay! Is it time for us to get back to Germantown yet?!” And grabbed her son’s hand and started walking away. I didn’notice if she fixed his cap.

  7. Bret Hertzberg

    Mr. Berres: I am doing research on the formation of Germantown, which I am finding relates to the annexation policies of Milwaukee at the time of the founding of the modern day Village of Germantown. I would like to converse on the subject. Please e-mail me at I hope to hear from you and anyone else who has an opinion on the subject.

  8. jim welch

    John Gurda has a bias against suburbs, whites, right of center, and financial common sense. I would have picked someone else to quote. I and my wife live in Franklin and she grew up in Franklin. Very simply, her family and others in Franklin wanted their own community. The Oak Creek law in ’55-56 caused the newer suburbs to form. Peter-Cooper Company in Oak Creek had many Mexicans and blacks working there. In ’67 when she graduated the prom king was black and the top athlete in her class, as were many Latinos. Just like south, Oak Creek was diverse.

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