All About Modern Milwaukee

What it was like in Milwaukee between 1950 and 2021.

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The post-war burst of optimism in Milwaukee was quickly doused by the cold waters of reality. The city was working at full capacity, but lacked housing and infrastructure for growing families who wanted the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle. A backlash against annexation resulted in a spree of newly incorporated suburbs in the 1950s, their spaces quickly populated with single-family homes and former Milwaukeeans. Milwaukee’s population peaked in 1960, presaging a long decline similar to that of other fading capitals of American industry. The rapid growth of Milwaukee’s African American population following the war led both to a vibrant new community and an ugly and hateful backlash which, tragically, the city has yet to fully remedy. Meanwhile, the city’s industrial job base slowly but steadily bled out from the 1960s onward, putting tens of thousands of men and women out of work. But from this, modern Milwaukee has emerged – reinventing formerly forgotten areas like the Third Ward and sustaining a new wave of opportunities for laborers and makers alike and, as always, giving natives, transplants and visitors a place to feel at home. 

Madam Alderwoman: Among the first of Vel Phillips’ many, many firsts in her career as legal scholar, advocate and politician was her election to the Common Council in 1956. There had never been a woman, let alone an African American one, on the council before, leaving the awkward matter of the title: alderman, not alderwoman. Phillips was known as “Madam Alderman” during her 15 years on the council.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

The Rise of ‘Microbrews’: Randy Sprecher finished his last shift at Milwaukee’s Pabst brewery in 1984, about 12 years before its closure ended a 152-year chapter in the city’s brewing history. A year later, Sprecher Brewing opened in Walker’s Point, the first of what would become a trickle and then a flood of small, independent breweries that picked up the mantle of “Brew City.”


Para la Causa: Milwaukee’s Latinx community, which had been growing since the immigration of “Los Primeros” from Mexico in 1920, found a key voice in 1969 with the first publication of La Guardia by the Latin American Union for Civil Rights in Milwaukee. At its peak in the 1970s, the newspaper was published weekly in Spanish and English. Its last issue hit racks in 1982.

Working on the layout of La Guardia newspaper, 1969. Photo courtesy of WHI-91127

The Selma of the North: On March 15, 1968, activists demanding open housing policies and led by the Rev. James Groppi concluded their 201st consecutive day of marching into the largely white South Side. (Some marchers didn’t get the message that the protests were called off on the round number.) Forty-six days later, the Common Council, which had resisted such measures for years, approved an ordinance even stronger than the new federal Fair Housing Act.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Notorious: In a 1999 poll, Newsweek asked readers to name the greatest villain of the 20th century. The four candidates included three men collectively responsible for tens of millions of deaths (Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot) – and Jeffrey Dahmer. Absurd as it is to put Dahmer in such company, he holds a grisly place in national history, and his crimes still haunt the city.


Defend the Heartland: Between 1958 and 1969, Milwaukee was critical enough to be defended by a battery of lakefront antiaircraft missiles designed to pick off Soviet bombers. Never mind that bombers were already being abandoned by the USSR by the time the missiles went online. The site at the former Maitland Field functioned in obsolescence for a decade before being decommissioned and converted to the festival grounds.


It’s the Place: This is It! wasn’t Milwaukee’s first gay bar, but it has been the most enduring. Supper club operator June Brehm was seeking to offer the gay community a safe, welcoming space when she opened “Tits” in 1968 on East Wells Street – a year before the Stonewall Riots brought nationwide attention to LGBT issues.

Photo courtesy of This Is It

Notable name: Jerome Silberman, aka actor and screenwriter Gene Wilder, graduates from Washington High School, 1951.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Born in Milwaukee: NFL referee Ed Hochuli, 1950 | Mayor Tom Barrett, 1953 | Oprah Winfrey, 1954 | R&B singer Eric Benét, 1966 “American Idol” singer Danny Gokey, 1980 | NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, 1987 | Drag queen Trixie Mattel, 1989


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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