Heritage Renewal: Deploying “Old World” Identities on the Streets of “New Milwaukee” in the 1960s and 1970s

Friday, January 4, 2019: 9:10 AM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
Joseph Walzer, University of WisconsinMilwaukee
As commerce and tourism became increasingly dominant facets of the American postwar economy over more traditional forms of manufacturing, Milwaukee, Wisconsin accompanied many other American cities in reorienting public resources towards restructuring its landscapes and updating its infrastructure to remain relevant and competitive—largely in partnership with major business interests. Yet, these renewal pursuits did not completely reject the city’s past. Rather, the city’s growth agents carefully selected and (re)interpreted certain physical and social remnants from Milwaukee’s history to deploy as features in their projects. Urban historians have recently illuminated how late twentieth century growth interests effectively applied nostalgia to new gentrified marketplaces in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Historians of whiteness have also recently revealed how European ethnic pride expressed through heritage projects and social groups reinforced white supremacist politics in the late twentieth century ethnic revival. In analyzing the redevelopment plans for one Milwaukee commercial district in the 1960s and 1970s, later called “Old World Third Street,” this paper will explore how the city’s growth interests combined nostalgia and German ethnic heritage to draw middle class, white ethnic consumers to new downtown marketplaces, and secure white ethnic hegemony in the city as their projects disrupted or destroyed traditional community relationships. While often deployed in terms of preservation and positive growth for a city on the brink of decline, such spatial claims were problematically made in the wake of the civil rights movement, an especially contentious open housing dispute, and urban unrest in the city in the late 1960s. Emphases on German ethnic identity in new downtown developments helped white ethnic residents, suburbanites, and visitors to think of Milwaukee as inherently “theirs”—understanding a greater legitimacy of their “belonging” downtown over that of the poor and working-class people of color that “inherited” older surrounding industrial neighborhoods.
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