Tag Archives: great depression

Explore Milwaukee — 75 years in the past

images - wigout - 050516 - MilwaukeeGuide“Numerous explanations have been advanced for Milwaukee’s low crime rate,” according to the city’s newest guidebook, although “there is quite a little downtown activity right up until midnight.”

If that sounds like a less-than-accurate set of facts, you’re technically wrong — since this guidebook describes a Milwaukee of yesteryear, almost a century in the past.

Seventy-five years late, this guide written by members of the Federal Writers’ Project has finally been published by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The manuscript tells the story of Milwaukee from its founding in the 19th century until 1940.

“You can look at how the city was laid out and how different, really, it was back then,” says the project’s editor, John Buenker. “People from that time coming downtown today would be amazed at the high-rise buildings. They had never seen anything over three or four stories.”

The Federal Writers’ Project was one of the many programs launched during the Great Depression by the national Works Progress Administration. The WPA hired millions of unemployed workers to build civic improvements such as roads, bridges, locks, dams, hospitals and schools, as well as to improve parkland.

It employed writers, too. “They generally hired teachers or journalists, people like that,” says Buenker, who taught history for 35 years at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He also taught at UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison.

The Federal Writers Project also hired mapmakers, photographers and archeologists — more than 6,500 employees in all. WPA workers compiled priceless oral histories and field recordings, notably of the last generations of African-Americans who had been held in slavery.

The Federal Writers Project also produced guidebooks for every state. Wisconsin’s, published in 1941, was a 651-page behemoth. The next task was to write guidebooks for major cities, including Milwaukee.

Then Pearl Harbor was attacked. The tragedy of World War II brought economic recovery, and suddenly writers had other things to write about.

Decades later, “there always was this rumor that there was a history of Milwaukee that was worked on, but nobody knew where it was,” says Buenker. The files were found in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has finally published it.

The book, richly illustrated with period photos and maps created expressly for the guide, is like Alice in Wonderland — if Wonderland were made up of colorful ethnic communities and landmarks now lost to Milwaukee.

The guide includes once-important industries, such as “the fishing fleet,” and the Pabst Brewery, 917 W. Juneau Ave., “where visitors may view talking pictures which tell the story of brewing.”

Readers were invited to visit the Milwaukee Public Museum, then housed inside the Milwaukee Public Library at 814 W. Wisconsin Ave. “In front of the building stands a totem pole carved by the Haida Indians.” Besides a model of Solomon Juneau’s trading post, inside you could see “birds’ nests and eggs,” postage stamps, and “boots and shoes of all the nations.”

Or you could have visited the “veal and poultry commission district.” There, the Central Municipal Market covered an entire square block at North Fifth and West Vliet Streets. “On weekday mornings, farmers within a radius of 150 miles bring farm produce to sell to housewives and independent merchants. … Here and there a farmer’s wife, more enterprising than her neighbor, hawks bouquets of freshly picked flowers.”

At night, you could visit the theater belonging to the Wisconsin Players, 535 N. Van Buren St. The former church housed “one of the oldest little theater groups in the United States.” Talk about drama! Once it was home to “spasmodic feuds.” In fact, a bomb was found there that killed nine police officers. Today it’s a parking facility.

Much of “the Negro district” — Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville, the African-American community centered northwest of downtown — had recently won its battle to simply exist; property owners refused to give way to what later was called “urban renewal.” The cruelest urban renewal of all had yet to be conceived: Tearing down blocks and displacing thousands to create the freeway cutting through Milwaukee.

“When they put I-94 and its subsidiaries in (during the 1950s and ‘60s), they destroyed whole neighborhoods,” says Buenker. “They actually gutted whole parts of the city, neighborhoods that had Polish or African-American or Italian or Greek people. There was a lot of controversy about that. Back in the 1930s, people used public transportation or they walked.”

"The Flagellants" (right) was once an iconic painting within the Milwaukee Theatre (left). It's now at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. Photos: Wikimedia Commons/MOWA.
“The Flagellants” (right) was once an iconic painting within the Milwaukee Theatre (left). It’s now at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. Photos: Wikimedia Commons/MOWA.

The guide describes what has been lost. Readers are challenged to learn what has survived. Whatever happened, for example, to the mammoth 14-by-23-foot painting of “The Flagellants”? It was a landmark all by itself inside the Milwaukee Auditorium (today the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave.). “The picture depicts a group of religious fanatics who believed that by flogging themselves they would appease God.” (The guide left out that they were semi-nude.) Painted by city native Carl von Marr in 1889, it was “awarded the gold medal of the Royal Academy of Berlin that year,” and four years later drew crowds at the Chicago World’s Fair.

We have to set the guide aside to learn that, today, “The Flagellants” is on permanent loan to the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. At least it still exists — as does much of what Milwaukee once was, trapped in amber by the Federal Writers’ Project’s delightful guide.

Oh — and the reason for Milwaukee’s low crime rate?

“Small town ‘nosiness.’”

“Milwaukee in the 1930s: A Federal Writers’ Project City Guide,” edited by John D. Buenker, is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $18.95; ISBN 978-0-87020-742-6.

Great-grandson of ‘Over the Rainbow’ writer launches United Performing Arts Fund’s 2016 campaign

Throughout history, music and storytelling have brought people together in difficult times — comforting them through hardships and inspiring them during wars. 

The French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” composed overnight during the revolution, heartened its dissident fighters. Members of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps marched into battle during World War I fortified by anthems such as “Over There.”

During the 20th century, music became the heart and soul of protest movements. Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” proclaimed the rightness of their cause for those marching for black civil rights. “Give Peace a Chance” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” are among the songs that served as a musical score for anti-war protesters during the conflicts in Vietnam.

Music was especially important to society during the Great Depression. Some songs unified the suffering masses in their crippling financial struggles; others sought to lift them out of their misery by offering hope.

At the forefront of socially conscious songwriters is a man you’ve probably never heard of: Yip Harburg (1896–1981). His songs are anthemic to generations of Americans. One of those songs — “Over the Rainbow” — is archetypal, continuing to move listeners as if written yesterday.

Lyricist Harburg and composer Harold Arlen wrote “Rainbow” for Judy Garland, whose superstardom was launched by her plaintive rendition of the song in the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz

Harburg is fondly remembered as “Broadway’s social conscience,” and so deserves the attention he will receive at the launch event of this year’s United Performing Arts Fund campaign, which focuses on performing arts that raise social consciousness. 

“My great-grandfather changed popular culture,” says Aaron Harburg, 29, who will represent his great-grandfather at the March 2 kick-off of UPAF’s 2016 campaign.

“I’m very proud to help keep my family culture alive,” Aaron says.

A digital media artist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Aaron enjoys traveling to represent his famous forebear at events like the UPAF launch. He relishes sharing his family history and watching people celebrate the songs he grew up singing and listening to at family events, he says.

His father, Yip’s grandson Ernie Harburg, heads The Yip Harburg Foundation — a nonprofit organization “whose purpose is to spread Yip Harburg’s artistic legacy, aimed at creating a world of ‘free and equal people,’” according to its mission statement. (For more information, go to yipharburg.com.)

“Yip’s lyrics are like fine poetry and are rich in aspirational meaning,” says Deanna Tillisch, UPAF’s president and CEO. “By bringing in his great-grandson Aaron Harburg, we have a direct link and a storyteller who will inform and educate people on the work of his great-grandfather.”

During the event, Aaron will introduce four of Yip’s songs with personal anecdotes surrounding the creation of each. Artists affiliated with stage companies supported by UPAF will perform the music.

Social justice through song

Yip Harburg wrote the lyrics to more than 600 songs, many of them considered part of the Great American Songbook. His musical collaborators included, in addition to Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Jule Styne and Billy Rose. His songs ranged in style from the wistful “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” (from the show and movie Cabin in the Sky, starring Ethel Waters) to the raucous “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (for Groucho Marx in the 1939 film At the Circus).

Still, no matter what the style, a common thread runs through most of Harburg’s music: a cry for social justice. Sometimes that theme is hidden and other times it’s overt, as in his Depression-era anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” That song captured the sorrow and social injustice of the Depression years with such gut-wrenching effect that attempts were made to ban it, Aaron says.

“It was one of the few songs at the time that told the truth about what was going on,” he explains.

Harburg’s song “Paper Moon,” which he co-wrote with Billy Rose to music by Arlen, came from the Broadway play The Great Magoo. A seemingly feel-good song to lift people out of the Depression doldrums, it’s full of cute metaphors about the transcendent benefits of love, which has the spiritual alchemy to turn a paper moon into a real one, “if you believe in me.”

But a deeper message lies just beneath the surface of “Paper Moon,” one that seems to question the value of the material world.

Harburg was particularly outraged over racism. The song “Free and Equal Blues” created a stir with its then-revolutionary message that human blood is the same, regardless of race. “A molecule is a molecule, son, and the damn thing don’t have no race,” the lyrics say. 

Harburg wrote the book and lyrics for Finian’s Rainbow, the first play that featured a black and a white performer on stage together. The 1947 hit musical skewered racism and put forth a scathing critique of capitalism, according to Aaron. A song titled, “When the Idle Rich Become the Idle Poor,” demonstrates the hypocrisy of the legal system, which has one set of laws for the rich and another for the rest. That theme, of course, continues to sound in today’s headlines. 

The show had several subsequent revivals and a movie version was released in 1968. A production during the 2009 season of New York City Center’s Encores! series  was particularly timely, coinciding with the economic collapse that caused the Great Recession.

Harburg’s song titled “Leave the Atom Alone,” from his 1957 musical Jamaica, was a clear diatribe against war. The song was sung by Lena Horne, in her first Broadway performance. 


Inevitably, the themes of Harburg’s work caught the attention of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which conducted a witch-hunt during the 1940s and ’50s to root out communist sympathizers, particularly in show business. Its hearings resulted in several contempt-of-Congress convictions — screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was one of them — and the blacklisting of many who refused to answer its questions. Harburg, who was an avowed socialist, was high on the committee’s radar.

Apparently McCarthy didn’t draw distinctions between socialism and communism, since when Harburg was dragged before the committee, he was battered to reveal the names of other “communists” working in Hollywood.

“His response to them was, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything,’” Aaron says.

Harburg was blacklisted for 10 years, meaning that no one in Hollywood would hire him. 

“He did a fair amount of work during those years, it just wasn’t very successful and it was much more difficult to get anything of his produced,” Aaron says. “His career was absolutely ruined by McCarthy.”

The rainbow

Of all the many plays, movies and songs that Harburg wrote, it was possibly “Over the Rainbow” that secured his — and Garland’s — immortality. As a symbol of the gay rights movement, rainbows also have special meaning for Aaron, who is both an out gay man and a practicing Roman Catholic. Although Yip Harburg’s parents were Jewish, he was an agnostic, and subsequent generations of his family adopted Catholicism as their faith. 

For now, Aaron overlooks the church’s teachings on homosexuality.

“I could see in the future pursuing changing the church, but I’d rather preserve my relationship with God for the time being,” he says.

What would his famous great-grandfather have thought of his sexual orientation?

“Yip was very progressive and probably would have been vocal in support of gay rights, or at least preventing discrimination against gays. Equality was very important to him across the board.”

The power of Harburg’s words are captured in a tale that Aaron heard about “Over the Rainbow.” According to someone who was there, Garland was performing one of her last concerts, and her voice was giving out. She typically closed her act with “Rainbow,” but she was unable to sing it. So she sat on the edge of the stage and spoke the lyrics, “which in many ways were a reflection of her own life,” Aaron says.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house and Aaron says he gets emotional envisioning the scene.

Harburg and Arlen won an Oscar for the song, which was named by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the best recording of the 20th century.

Performing arts create jobs, lift economy 

In Milwaukee, the performing arts generate nearly $80 million in spending on restaurants, hotel rooms and other amenities used by event-goers, according to statistics compiled by the United Performing Arts Fund. The performing arts also play a critical role in Milwaukee employment, creating jobs for almost 6,000 individuals, who generate nearly $100 million in annual wages, according to UPAF president and CEO Deanna Tillisch. Having a vibrant, engaging cultural scene also attracts new employees — and new corporate headquarters, she adds.

— Louis Weisberg

Reach Louis Weisberg at lweisberg@www.wisconsingazette.com.

Film highlights art from Works Progress Administration

Eighty years after the federal Works Progress Administration put unemployed artists to work creating sculptures and murals for post offices and courthouses comes this reminder from film maker Michael Maglaras: Look around.

Much of the art is still there and has as much meaning now as it did during the Great Depression, says Maglaras, whose documentary “Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA” will be released May 15.

The 90-minute production by his Connecticut-based 217 Films revisits the inclusion of artists in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA program, better known for the bridges and buildings that it paid workers to build.

The arts piece offered creative types like Sinclair Lewis, Orson Welles and Jackson Pollock $42 a week.

“The goal was that you would walk into a public space — a post office, federal office building, courthouse — and you would be transacting your business, standing in line, passing through a hallway … and look at what was on the wall,” Maglaras said, “and what was on there would spiritually enlighten you and lift you up and take you away from the terrible burdens that all Americans were suffering during the Depression, and give you confidence and hope for the future.”

“Our film,” Maglaras said in a telephone interview, “is about recapturing, 80 years later, what it was like during the Depression to put people back to work, and not just folks that could use a pick and shovel, but folks that wrote books and painted paintings and wrote plays.”

Among 100 featured works is a 1936 Orson Welles production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth featuring an all-black cast and set in Haiti, instead of Scotland.

“This is a 21-year-old Orson Welles and we have found archival footage that no one believed existed of rehearsals for this play,” Maglaras said.

Also featured are two murals, each 22 feet high, painted over eight months in 1937 by artist Carl Peters inside a school in Rochester, New York. Peters drew on the passing faces of students and teachers at the former Madison High School for “Life of Action,” a softly colored depiction of construction workers in the shadow of a skyscraper. The companion “Life of Contemplation” is meant to show the need to balance action with education and thoughtfulness.

Madison High was torn down in the 1980s but the murals were saved and moved to another school, the Wilson Foundation Academy, where both are now preserved behind glass.

Other works have been lost or scattered through the years.  The U.S. General Services Administration is in the process of tracking down the tens of thousands of pieces created through 1943.  At last count, more than 20,000 works had been inventoried.

The agency said the artwork is most commonly found when it’s offered for sale.

“GSA has been contacted by museums staff, appraisers, lawyers, state and local government officials, conservators, scholars, and citizens with information regarding New Deal artwork,” the GSA said in a statement. “In some instances, special agents and GSA staff have found New Deal artwork by searching online auction houses.”

Maglaras said enough still exists in their original locations to make a state-by-state tour.

“Walk into a post office and buy a stamp in very small towns in Missouri, Montana, Illinois, Maine and see up on the wall something that was created by an artist that Franklin Roosevelt essentially hired to help lift America out of the Depression,” he said. “We still have a ton of WPA art within our grasp.”

The documentary will premiere at the New Britain, Connecticut, Museum of Art and then tour the country through December.

Thomas Piketty and ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ set the economics field ablaze

If you’d like to live in Downton Abbey, the good news is that our economy has entered a second Gilded Age of opulence and elegance. The bad news is that you’ll likely end up among the vast majority stuck sweating in the kitchen.

In a new book, Thomas Piketty, the French economist who helped popularize the notion of a privileged 1 percent, sounds a grim warning: The U.S. economy has begun to decay into the aristocratic Europe of the 19th century. Hard work will matter less, inherited wealth more. The fortunes of the few will unsettle the foundations of democracy.

The research Piketty showcases in his book, “Capital in the 21st Century,” has set the economics field ablaze. Supporters cite his work as proof that the wealth gap must be narrowed. Critics dismiss him as a left-wing ideologue.

Digging through 300 years of economic data, tax records, 19th century novels and modern TV shows, Piketty challenges the assumption that free markets automatically deliver widespread prosperity. Instead, he writes, the rich will get richer, and everyone else will find it nearly impossible to catch up.

Investments in stocks, bonds, land and buildings – the “capital” in his title – almost always grow faster than people’s wages. By its nature, capitalism fuels inequality and can destabilize democracies, Piketty argues.

Economists once viewed the three decades after World War II as proof of capitalism’s ability to build and share wealth. Piketty counters that the period was a historical outlier, a result of two world wars and the Great Depression leveling the fortunes of the old establishment.

In 2012, the top 1 percent of U.S. households received 22.5 percent of the nation’s income, the most since 1928. Piketty thinks higher taxes on wealth can curb inequality’s spread. He also thinks that sending more people to college and sharpening their skills through training could help slow the “inegalitarian spiral.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Piketty, 42, held forth on the “dangerous illusion” of the meritocracy, why China is unfairly blamed for flat U.S. wages and his fix for limiting inequality.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

Q: What is the impact of a growing wealth gap?

A: The main problem to me is really the proper working of our democratic institutions. It’s just not compatible with an extreme sort of oligarchy where 90 percent of the wealth belongs to a very tiny group. The democratic ideal has always been related to a moderate level of inequality. I think one big reason why electoral democracy flourished in 19th century America better than 19th century Europe is because you had more equal distribution of wealth in America.

Q: Your research shows that profits on investments – capital – increase faster than wages and economic growth. But a lot of people think greater inequality can help fuel stronger growth.

A: When inequality gets to an extreme, it is completely useless for growth. You had extreme inequality in the 19th century, and growth was not particularly large.

Because the growth rate of productivity was 1 to 1.5 percent per year (in 19th century Europe), and it was much less than the rate of return to wealth, which on average was 4 to 5 percent, the consequence was huge inequality of wealth. It’s important to realize that innovation and growth in itself are not sufficient to moderate inequality of wealth.

Q: Are we automatically on a course that leads us back to the Gilded Age?

A: Nobody knows. The main message of the book is that there is no pilot in the plane. There is no natural process that guarantees that this is going to stop at an acceptable level.

Q: Would inequality matter if wages were still growing for the middle class?

A: There are two big forces that are squeezing the middle class. One is the rise of the very top executive compensation, which implies that the share of labor income going to the middle and lower class is shrinking. That has been quite spectacular in the U.S. The other force we see is that the share of a country’s income going to labor tends to decline when the share that goes to capital is rising.

Q: You call meritocracy a “dangerous illusion.” That goes against how a lot people think the U.S. economy works.

A: Our modern democratic ideal is based on the hope that inequalities will be based on merit more than inheritance or luck. Sometimes, meritocratic arguments are used by the winners of the game to justify the role of unlimited inequality. I don’t think there is any serious evidence that we need to be paying people more than 100 times the average wage in order to get high-performing managers.

Q: People in Europe and the United States have a nostalgic view of the post-World War II period. We saw growing national prosperity that benefited everyone. Is it possible to get back to that?

A: It was really a transitory period due to very exceptional circumstances. Growth was extremely high, partly because of post-war reconstruction. Also, growth was exceptionally high because population growth as a rule had been extremely large in the 20th century. This isn’t really an option for policymakers. The other reason I think we should not be nostalgic is that part of the reason the inequalities were lower in the `50s and `60s is that the wars destroyed some of the inherited capital that were the sources of earlier inequality.

Q: Why do you think a wealth tax would address the destabilizing force of rising inequality?

A: Instead of having a flat tax on real estate property, you would have a progressive tax on individual net worth. You would reduce the property tax for the people who are trying to start accumulating wealth.

Q: Every American politician says education is the answer to inequality and immobility. Is more education the answer?

A: This is the most powerful equalizing force in the long run. But it’s not enough. You need both education and taxation.

Q: How did watching U.S. TV shows like “House,” “Bones,” “West Wing” and “Damages” help you with this book?

A: They tell us stories about how you can get rich, get poor, etc. The people who are heroes of the series, many of them have Ph.Ds. They represent the model of skill-based inequality. … (The shows are) like novels in the 19th century. They’re able to show in an extreme way a kind of deep justification or deep criticism of the inequality structure.

Q: Your critics see you as pushing a political agenda about class divide.

A: This is a book about historical facts. People can do what they want to do with it. The book has four parts, and Part No. 4 is about policy implications. … To me, this isn’t the most important part. If you disagree with these 100 pages, that’s fine. The whole purpose of the first 500 pages is to help people to make their own conclusions.