This Encyclopedia of Milwaukee Entry May Have Taken Things Too Far

This Encyclopedia of Milwaukee Entry May Have Taken Things Too Far

After questions about its objectivity, an encyclopedia entry on Milwaukee’s freeways is flagged for review.

It sounds like a Wikipedia move: Trying to win an argument by writing the encyclopedia entry on the topic. But a local historian and a former mayor believe that’s what freeway advocate James Casey Jr. attempted in a more scholarly endeavor, the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee.

The encyclopedia is a UW-Milwaukee project to present the history of this area’s people, places and institutions. By early September, 400 of a planned 700-plus entries had been posted online. The website is expected to be fully functional in 2019, with a print version later, says co-editor Margo Anderson.

Most entries take a just-the-facts approach. However, Casey’s “Freeways” item, posted in January 2016, was essentially an essay, arguing that a few deceitful politicians thwarted the majority’s will by blocking completion of a regional freeway system voters backed in referendums. He mourned the unfinished Park Freeway from the West Side to the lakefront (partly built, later razed), Stadium Freeway from the North Side to I-894 (partly built, partly replaced by Miller Park Way), and Lake Freeway from the East Side to Cudahy (partly built as the Hoan Bridge, partly replaced by the Lake Parkway).

John Gurda

By contrast, sources such as John Gurda’s The Making of Milwaukee portray resistance by folks who didn’t want their neighborhoods bulldozed. Casey didn’t mention them and barely noted the freeways’ negative impact, omitting the razing of the Bronzeville district and Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church in the Third Ward.

Gurda, who helped pick encyclopedia entry topics, says Casey “crossed the line from scholarship into advocacy.” Former Mayor John Norquist, who battled freeway growth in the Legislature and City Hall, calls Casey’s entry “biased and insulting to those who opposed freeway expansion.”

John Norquist. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Casey, a lawyer now living in the Washington, D.C., area, says, “It’s not like I wanted to slant the facts of what went on,” but adds, “I felt the facts were not being accurately reported” in history books and newspapers.

Retired regional planner Kurt Bauer, who helped plan the freeways, says Casey’s entry is accurate, but “I don’t see any facts on the opposite side.”

That side may still have its day. After Milwaukee Magazine raised questions, the entry vanished. Co-editor Amanda Seligman says editors are asking Casey to “include more information about the effects of freeway construction on residential neighborhoods and opposition to freeways,” because those facts “would be helpful to our readers.”

“It’s his way for the highway” appears in the November 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.