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Looking Up At History

February 13, 2009
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Wisconsin Gas Light Building during construction (1930)

Wisconsin Gas Light Building during construction (1930)

As the economy continues to falter and economic uncertainty spreads beyond housing and finance into every aspect of our lives, the high tide Milwaukee experienced in the previous boom years appears to be washing out, revealing a mess of unrealized or incomplete projects that were planned during the best of times. Condos become apartments and apartments become hotel rooms in the remaining projects still hoping to remain competitive in a battered market that appears to have bested many projects before they’ve even opened their doors.

The projects that have been completed — University and Kilbourn Towers and the Big Box Breakwater, in particular — stand as the modern day equivalents of the Milwaukee landmarks planned and constructed during the heydays preceding The Great Depression or the Long Depression of the late 19th century.   I think of the Wisconsin Gas Light Building, it’s availability now crudely displayed via letters taped to the inside of its windows, and city hall as a small example of the reminders of what was accomplished during difficult times.

Where that earlier construction boom gave us many of these downtown landmarks we identify as a part of our city’s heritage, can anyone honestly say that the condominium units we’ll continue to drive by — and I do mean “drive,” for I do not believe we’ll see tangible intra-city light rail in Milwaukee, no matter how obvious and necessary an option it remains to be — will cultivate the same sense of civic pride once they become our city’s only standing reminder of this time of shameful greed?

University Tower during construction

University Tower during construction (2006)

It does not appear at this point that our recession is going to relent in 2009, no matter how much we compare our declining home sales and rising foreclosures to even more dour national statistics.  This optimism is understandable; at least we don’t have it as bad as those other cities.  Besides, who wants to hear nothing but bad news?  But, it masks the stagnancy that will, in some ways, continue to be felt in the Milwaukee area for many years to come and completely ignores the serious epidemic of foreclosure that is affecting scores of houses on the city’s north and south sides, where the luxury of reading the newspaper or clicking on one of its multiple twitter feeds is rarely possible because buying a newspaper or owning a computer are not realistic options when you’ve been laid off and your COBRA insurance payments are more than your family’s adjustable rate mortgage payment.

In the end, maybe that’s what makes this point in our city’s long history so confounding.   We’ve squandered our successes.  While we were not early adopters of a housing fad that sucked in speculators to such a degree that at one point homeowners outnumbered renters 70% to 30%, we nevertheless stoked the mortgage fires among those capable of affording a home and stood by as swaths of inner-city homes were pumped and dumped on people who saw owning a home as a way to escape the problem we’ve failed to collectively address: stability.

And in stability, we find a tangent to a different political football: education.

Education languishes while vouchers have done nothing to improve test scores, merely give different schools a crack at educating children who lack the familial, emotional and financial stability that sustainable jobs can provide.   When 77% of MPS students are living in poverty, you will never have a student body that is able to focus on learning.  This will be another failure we can reminisce upon when we look at the architectural time capsules we’ll have to remember from this sorry era.

Construction of City Hall (1930)

City Hall during construction (1895)

We’re in a truly amazing time: witnesses to a period in our nation’s history many thought would never occur again.   We’ve walked by these reminders of our past without nary a thought that we’d ever repeat those mistakes again, yet many of the missteps that may scar Milwaukee for years were undertaken in the neighboring headquarters of banks, mortgage companies, newspapers and insurance agencies who handsomely fed off the housing hysteria that slowly crept into Milwaukee during 2006 and 207.   And just as before, buildings were planned until the rug pulled out from under them, a reminder for us all of what so much of our money went into.

Where can we go from here?  Do we have leaders on either side of a very narrow political spectrum that recognize how serious this situation is?  When we need one department of county government to record a marriage and another to retrieve the marriage license, it is obvious that there are serious questions that can be asked about how useful county government really is.   When at least 90% of calls to our benefits assistance center go unanswered during a period of rampant unemployment,  it becomes painfully clear that we’re not being represented by serious people.  At a city level, we’re reminded of its failures every time we experience the flat thud of a pothole or the violent assault of a neighbor.

Re-prioritization is the answer to our individual and collective crises, but acknowledgment does not indicate acceptance of this fact and until we do what we need to do in order to make sure we’re stable at both the individual and community level, I will look up at the fruits of our latest Boom and Bust and wonder what my future children might think when they look at them.

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