The reluctant city: Milwaukee's fragmented metropolis, 1920--1960

John McCarthy, Marquette University


This is a study of urbanization and suburbanization in twentieth century America, using Milwaukee as its focus. Originally, I intended to examine how Milwaukee's political leaders responded to urban decline in the post-World War Two years. However, during the course of my research, a broader story emerged. It became apparent that Milwaukee's policymakers did not "respond" to urban decline but rather proactively sought to reshape the urban landscape of the city by encouraging planned decentralization. They aggressively annexed land to enlarge the city's boundaries and reduce its population density. In the process, they brought so-called "urban issues" to rural and suburban communities that soon grew hostile to Milwaukee's growth. The region thus fragmented politically, as new suburban communities incorporated both to avoid annexation and consciously develop as entities separate from the city. Equally compelling, this process did not begin after World War Two, but after World War One instead. The idea of reshaping and redefining the form and function of cities came from socialists like Charles Whitnall, who was Milwaukee's most influential city planner during the 1920's, and Daniel Hoan, who served as mayor from 1916 to 1940. Milwaukee's annexation program began in the 1920's, and was a direct product of the deep-seated fears of reformers that urbanization was ruining the lives of city dwellers, mainly because cities had become too densely populated. Whitnall and Hoan's ideas and policies remained tremendously influential on the post-World War II generation of policymakers, especially mayor Frank Zeidler, who governed Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960. The chronology of this study, which runs from 1920 to 1960, hints at a reconceptualization of "post-1945" history. Much of what occurred in Milwaukee's city and suburban growth politics after World War Two was a culmination of earlier conflicts and not an open break from the past. Furthermore, Milwaukee is a useful city from which to study urbanization and suburbanization; it is at the same time unique in the scope and vision of its reformers, yet emblematic of much that ails metropolitan America today. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Recommended Citation

McCarthy, John, "The reluctant city: Milwaukee's fragmented metropolis, 1920--1960" (2005). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3201928.