Milwaukee’s new streetcars won’t have the same magic!

Exactly sixty years ago this past March, I boarded the ancient No. 10 (Wells Street) streetcar for one of the final runs of a streetcar on Milwaukee streets.

It was a nostalgic run for me that day – then a 28-year-old reporter for the former Milwaukee Sentinel – sent to do a feature story on Milwaukee’s last streetcar; the final run would come later that night, but for morning newspaper deadlines my feature story had to be based upon an earlier trip.

Now sometime later this year, streetcars will again run down Milwaukee streets, an initiative spurred on by generous Federal grants and a belief that modern streetcars will lead to a revitalization of the city – a belief certainly not shared by all Milwaukeeans.  Its success remains to be seen.

I will certainly make an effort to board one of the first runs of the new streetcar, even though it will hardly be much of a service for me, due to its limited scope.  Of course, I’ll be riding the modern, new streetcars, definitely more comfortable than the streetcrs of more than sixty years earlier. Strictly for nostalgia!



1938 Map of Milwaukee transit lines.  Streetcar routes shown in orange. Photo courtesy of Dan Steininge

Streetcars once were key to Milwaukee’s early development as a city.  For the first 20 years of my life, they were the means by which mom took us kids to the doctors and dentists; they took me and my classmates and neighborhood buddies to movies and trips downtown; they took mom and us three boys to Schusters on Third and Garfield for school clothes, and they took me on dates through much of high school. Early in his years as Milwaukee mayor (1948-1960), Frank Zeidler rode the No. 19 car from his home near N. 2ndand W. Locust Streets to City Hall. 

But it was the No. 10 streetcar that remains most vividly in my memory.  Throughout my childhood, the No. 10 took us from its westernmost terminal, a narrow station in the Wauwatosa village (Harwood Ave. and W. State St), along a right-of-way adjacent to the Milwaukee Road tracks, turning S. on N. 68thSt., and then east on Wells, where it continued into downtown, usually to a doctor’s, dentist’s or optometrist’s office, all of which were downtown.

In my early years, I turned into a pathetic scaredy-cat as the car approached the rickety Wells Street trestle that ran from approximately N. 41ststreet, over the Menomonee River industrial valley (including Piggsville) to N. 37thSt.  The ancient structure, composed of spindly struts, swayed in the wind and I was certain the streetcar would topple off, plunging mom, my two brothers and me into oblivion. Of course, it never happened and in later, more mischievous years I remember going with a bunch of kids and trying to


No. 10 eastbound on Wells Street

challenge gravity by swaying in unison as the streetcar crossed the creaking, precarious trestle.

The streetcars were hardly carriers of luxury.  To enter, one had to climb up steep portable stairs that dropped down when the motorman (there were no women driving the units then) stopped and opened the doors. I have no recollection of what disabled or older folks did to enter the car.

Cold and drafty in winter, there were heating units placed under several seats, which meant a passenger faced two choices, getting a hot seat or shivering.  The seats were of a lacquered wicker.  Summertime was no better; there was no air conditioning, of course, and thus windows were usually open, letting all sorts of bugs to enter, along with the stink of then-industrial Milwaukee from the tanneries, packinghouses, foundries and Red Star Yeast.


Wells Street Viaduct made for scary ride.


What was most fun for mischievous kids, the streetcars had fronts on both ends.  When a streetcar hit the end of its line, there was no way to turn the car around, so the motorman merely unattached the control handles from what had been the front end of the car and carried them back to the other end, latching them in, making the rear now the front.  Then he’d walk back, switching the seat backs so they reversed direction.

The more daring of us kids would often hightail it to the rear of the car, sitting on the motorman’s seat (now at the rear).  There, a kid could ring the dinger, hitting a button on the floor, angering the motorman. (Streetcars had no horn, but the motorman would use the dinger to warn autos or pedestrians of its presence, though such warning was hardly necessary due to the noisy nature of a streetcar’s run.)

Both ends of the car were equipped with a “cow-catcher,” a devise that could be dropped to clear the tracks of any debris.  I was told some kids, playing the rear of the car, might drop it, forcing the motorman to stop and raise the unit in order to continue.  I never did that!  That was really being naughty.

From what we’ve seen of the new streetcars, they’ll afford a comfortable ride, most likely smooth and quiet.  I’ll make sure to be one of its first riders.

I may enjoy it, I suppose, but it won’t be the same. — Ken Germanson, March 31, 2018



Sheriff Clarke’s resignation doesn’t mean struggle is over!

Many of us have looked for removal of Sheriff David Clarke from office, not only for his outlandish views on matters like gun violence (arm yourself citizens, he once urged), immigration abuses (round ‘em up and ship them back) and policing (I’ll clean up city neighborhoods better than Milwaukee police), but also because of his failed administration of the Sheriff’s Department.

Rally protesting Sheriff Clarke

A recent demonstration urging resignation of former Sheriff Clarke

How indeed could he be expected to oversee this important County department while traipsing all over the country as the darling of the NRA, Donald Trump and every anti-immigrant group in the nation?  The six deaths at the County Jail since 2016 and the fact that 70 mile an hour traffic is constant on our 55-mph freeways both point to failed management.  And yes, “the buck stops at the top” – with Sheriff Clarke.  (It’s important not to taint the hard-working and dedicated deputies for the failures at the top.)

We’re glad David Clarke is gone, perhaps to greener more lucrative pastures for him.  He’ll be the show cow of rightwing groups that want to find a token black law enforcement officer to strengthen their creds.  They’ll pay him handsomely.  Oh well!

Now, will the sheriff’s department become better run?  Will inmates of our overcrowded County Jail find themselves in safer, more suitable surroundings?  Will our many immigrants feel more at ease in their homes?

Right now, the fate of the Sheriff’s Department rests in the hands of Gov. Scott Walker, who by law gets to appoint an interim sheriff who will hold office until the Spring 2018 elections.

This is a critical appointment.

Walker, who had turned a deaf ear to any complaints about Sheriff Clarke, is likely to appoint someone who sympathizes with the departed cowboy.  According to Milwaukee Neighborhood News, Walker had not responded before to groups like the Coalition for a People’s Sheriff, a group of organizations convened to defeat Clarke because of his “incompetent,” “unethical” and “inhumane” actions.

It’s doubtful Walker will be open to involving community groups in making his decision, unless it’s the Milwaukee Association of Commerce or Republican Party.  All signs point to a political appointment.

It’s true as well that the person he appoints will have an advantage when it comes to the spring election; officeholders, even when they were appointed, usually get elected.

Nonetheless, Milwaukee County residents must continue to make noise to urge community involvement in the appointment process.  It sometimes works.  Christine Neumann-Ortiz, of Voces de la Frontera, points out that mounting pressure — including two statewide boycotts and demonstrations that attracted tens of thousands as well as the threat of lawsuits and possible criminal charges related to the jail deaths — contributed to Clarke’s departure.

If Walker ignores such citizen pressure, there’s always the election.  Sadly, the spring municipal elections are hardly noticed by too many citizens.  Voter turnout is historically low.

The time is now – seven months ahead of those elections – to organize in a real grassroots endeavor to assure that Milwaukee County elects an effective, fair-minded and humane County Sheriff who will quickly erase of the shame on a department that had been tainted by the 15-year-tenure of David Clarke.   Ken Germanson, Sept. 2, 2017.

50 years later: Any progress on ending racism in Milwaukee?

Is Milwaukee less racist than it was 50 years ago when the disturbances in the summer of 1967 ended up with three deaths, many injuries, looted storefronts and put the city in a weeklong curfew?

As one who has lived in Milwaukee for nearly all his 88 years and has seen change occur, you’d hope I could say it has. Unfortunately, the answer is neither a yes or a no.

In a few ways, of course, racism is less apparent. Our neighborhoods, including those all-white enclaves of the 1960s that flushed up nasty demonstrators to taunt the open housing marchers, are now racially mixed, though some to a far lesser extent than others. Every previously white neighborhood has at least a smattering of families of color. In every area the presence of African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian peoples is common.

Some of the north side neighborhoods, however, have become nearly 100% African-American with the appearance of a white citizen almost as rare as albino animals in a deer herd.


Racism took a graphic form in months leading up to August 1967 riots in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee metropolitan area is still perhaps the most segregated in the United States. Nearly all of our suburbs are solidly white, the exceptions being Shorewood, Glendale and to a lesser extent Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay.

In the 1960s — and continuing through the 1980s — many of my black friends would be fearful of crossing Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon line (the Menomonee River valley) to enter the South Side. Now that has changed with African-Americans freely coming south. On the other hand, many whites are afraid to enter many of our North Side wards, while many of our suburban friends are even afraid to come downtown.

In 1967, Milwaukee a child’s school was determined largely by his or her neighborhood, resulting in many all-white and all-black schools and others with severe imbalances in the races. Now, even with school-busing, little has changed, thanks to the flight of many whites to the suburbs (less than 30% of residents in the city of Milwaukee are Caucasian today) and the creation of voucher and charter schools in which parents have chosen to send their kids to schools that best match their own racial identity. (Of the 76,856 students in MPS schools in 2016, some 88% were students of color and 80% of all students were economically disadvantaged, according to district statistics.)

And there’s no evidence that children are generally better educated in voucher or charter schools than in the highly unbalanced MPS schools.

We repeatedly hear evidence that there’s little progress in making Milwaukee less racist. It’s been well-reported that Milwaukee’s incarceration rate for black males is the highest in the nation with more than half in their 30s and 40s having served time. Zip Code 53206 on the near North Side has been shown to have the highest rate of homicides of any zip code in the U.S.

Nationally, the income gap between whites and blacks remains largely what it was in 1967, according to a national survey conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 2015 — the most recent year for which data are available — black households in the middle income levels earned an average of 55 percent as much as white households at those same percentiles. This is exactly the same figure as in 1967. With the loss of so many manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area, it’s likely the gap may even be greater.

Also, note that Milwaukee has had a number of police shootings, with the one in Sherman Park in August 2016 setting off disturbances reminiscent to those in 1967, though with few deaths and injuries.

Despite that, in many ways Milwaukee is working to becoming less racist. Though the mayor and county executive are both white, minorities are well-represented on the Common Council and County Board; both executives are sympathetic toward programs to end racism (some would argue they may be too timid, however). There are numerous public and private efforts aimed at reducing the disparities in the community, as well as public-private strategies. The church community, most major businesses and the media tend to be supportive.

There is a spirit of hope in the air, but regrettably, there’s a lot of inertia and apathy to overcome. There’s some downright opposition, mainly from suburban and out-state sources. The state government shows little inclination to help the city; in fact it is working to undercut many of the efforts through its starvation of funds.

Meanwhile, within the community there must be continued and even greater involvement in ending the racism that still rests within too many of us. — Ken Germanson, August 1, 2017


Lament about chocolate sodas

A recent New York Times obituary of a prominent member of the arts community brought forth a weird recollection.

During my high school years (1943-47), I worked at the corner drug store*, employed as a soda jerk, clerk and stockboy.  If you’re under 40 you may not know what a soda jerk was, but he was the equivalent of the neighborhood bartender, only for high school kids; we dispensed soda and ice cream from drug store counters, complete with barstools.

Anyway, every night we closed the fountain at 10 p.m.  As anyone who has worked restaurant jobs knows, when you get near closing time, you begin cleaning up so that you can leave work on time.

It just so happened that this family (a dad, mom and boy about 12) came in about twice a week just about ten minutes before ten, at a time when I’d have the fountain nearly totally cleaned.  Right on cue, they’d order three chocolate sodas.  How I grew to hate the sight of that family and their son that would force me to clean up a second time.

The memory of that family popped into my head when I opened the New York Times on Feb. 21st to see a large obituary (a full half-page with picture) for Richard Schickel, longtime movie critic for Time Magazine and one of the nation’s most respected, who died at age 84.

Schickel not only reviewed movies; he wrote and directed them.  He also authored 37 books mainly about the movies.  This esteemed person was indeed the little boy who frustrated me many nights in my youth when his family arrived just before closing time for their chocolate sodas. Ken Germanson, Feb. 23, 2017.

  • For those familiar with Milwaukee, the drug store, Whipp’s, was located at N. 72nd St. and W. North Ave.  For years the building has housed the Chinese Pagoda restaurant.

Can Progressivism Survive in Wisconsin?

For the first time since Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale in Wisconsin in the 1984 Presidential election, the state went red.

How could that happen?  It’s simple arithmetic: lack of voter turnout.

Hillary Clinton could have easily won the Badger State if those voters who could be expected to favor her had turned out.  She lost by only 27,000 votes out of the 2.94 million cast, less than a percentage point.

Now here is the shocking story:  Voter participation in Wisconsin was down by almost 124,000 in the state, compared with 2012.  Turnout was 66.2%, the lowest since 1996.

election-photoHillary Clinton suffered severely from the low turnout.  She received 239,000 fewer votes than President Obama did in 2012, while Trump garnered only 1,500 more than Mitt Romney did.  (There were 150,000 votes for third party candidates; likely most of those voters went for President Obama four years ago.)  Read more.


Why did potential Hillary voters not show up at the polls?  Here are some theories:

Restrictive voter laws.  The Republican-passed voter ID laws were specifically designed to discourage low-income voters, mainly minorities.  The voter suppression strategy may have worked; there were 62,000 fewer voters in minority-rich Milwaukee County, with Hillary’s totals about 40,000 short of Obama’s in 2012.

Over-confidence toward a Hillary win.  Polls leading up to the election showed her winning Wisconsin by four to six percentage points; thus voters who faced inconvenient work schedules, child care issues or other conflicts may not have taken time to vote.  The cutback of early voting hours – by GOP-supported state laws – may have added to the problem.

Lack of enthusiasm for Secretary Clinton.  No doubt the thirty years of constant attacks on Clinton’s trustfulness, whether warranted or not, helped to build voter doubts.  Trump repeatedly called her “liar” and encouraged his crowds to yell “lock her up;” that helped to reinforce in many voters’ minds a most repulsive (though grossly  wrong) image of her.

The Bernie effect.  Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton in the April Wisconsin primary.  Most of his supporters, we’re sure, heeded Sanders’ call to support Hillary in the general election, but enough found their bright illusions so dimmed that when Bernie failed to get the nomination they either stayed away from voting, cast a third party ballot or failed to get involved.

Secretary Clinton failed to campaign in Wisconsin.  Though several Clinton surrogates showed up, especially Chelsea and VP Candidate Tim Kaine, they could never garner the attention that the candidate herself could have.  A reprise of the Clinton campaign strategy tells us that Bill Clinton strongly urged greater concentration on the white working class voter, but was overruled by Hillary’s campaign bosses.

A weakened Democratic Party effort.  There’s no question that Wisconsin Democrats have become impoverished since 2010.  With the redistricting forced upon the state by the Republican-controlled legislature, most legislative districts have become gerrymandered so severely that Democratic candidates stand no chance; thus the party withers in those sixty or so largely rural counties and never seek to get Democrats on the ballot.  Lack of down-ballot candidates, even in GOP-trending areas, will cut into Democratic votes at the top of the ticket.

A smaller labor movement.  The impact of the 2011 passage of Act 10 ending collective bargaining rights for public employee unions and the 2015 enactment of so-called right-to-work laws was truly felt in this election.  The labor movement (traditional Democratic party allies) has lost so much membership that the state’s level of unionization has fallen below that of Alabama’s.  The result: there were fewer members to encourage to vote for progressive candidates and fewer numbers available to make phone calls, talk it up at the workplace and do door-to-door canvassing.

The impact of these seven factors, plus others not listed here, combined to make a perfect storm to bring about Secretary Clinton’s defeat.  Some of them also affected Russ Feingold’s effort to unseat Republican Senator Ron Johnson.


No one is quite certain just what President-elect Trump will do, or how much he will be able to accomplish.  To progressives everywhere, the prospects are scary.

In Wisconsin, however, it is certain what will happen; it can only be worse for working people, the poor and minorities.  There will be attempts to weaken labor even more, there will be no increase in the minimum wage, there will be cutbacks in life-supporting assistance such as food share and Title 19, and weakening of the health care system.  All that was promised on the day after the election by Republican leaders of the state.  Read more

The 2016 election is behind us and the question is: what do we do now?

First, what we don’t do is to sit on the sidelines in despair, fretting as we watch the Packers blunder through another season, perhaps awaiting a Aaron Rodgers “Hail Mary” to miraculously bring joy to us cheeseheads.

Secondly, what we must do is to stay alert to every action being planned by the legislature, continuing to question issues with whatever strategy that seems to work, whether it is to storm the Capitol with masses of protesters, to write letters to the editor (or to tweet) or to plan for next election.

Thirdly, we must figure out how to rebuild a progressive movement in Wisconsin.  The possibilities include revitalizing the Democratic Party, working through such groups as Citizen Action, Move On, and Wisconsin Now or by building a whole new movement.

To regain Wisconsin, progressives have to figure out how to win in the rural counties; it means reaching out to a heavily white population, while not losing touch with the minorities that are part of the heart and soul of the progressive movement.  Trump won 59 of the 71 counties, and that ratio needs to be reduced somehow.  The state built its now-fading progressive nature on the old La Follette coalition of organized labor, big-city Socialists and rural Progressive Republicans.

This won’t be easy, but it’s necessary to save the state from being destroyed by a single party dictatorship that threatens to make its citizens among the poorest in the nation.  Ken Germanson, Nov. 10, 2016

Expressions of Gratitude on Zeidler Award

It is difficult for me to fully express the depth of my gratitude to those who congratulated me for receiving the 2014 Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award from the City of Milwaukee’s Common Council.  The occasion was marked by a 30-minute ceremony in the council’s elegant anteroom, with 50 friends and colleagues showing up to cheer on the presentation; the following evening even more folks filled the Puddlers’ Hall in Bay View at a reception to acknowledge the honor.

I was pleasantly surprised by the many friends, colleagues and former colleagues who took time to show up at the two events.  Also, I need to thank those who could not attend for expressing their kind words in many emails, with written cards and letters and on Facebook. 

In my acceptance remarks at City Hall on Sept. 3, I admitted to “feeling very humble to receive an award in the name of Frank P. Zeidler.  I got to know him as a reporter for the old Sentinel while he was

Frank Zeidler and the blogger at the Bay View Tragedy event, May 1997

Frank Zeidler and the blogger at the Bay View Tragedy event, May 1997

mayor.  Even though that newspaper editorialized against him almost daily, he still treated me with respect and openness.  Later on, we co-chaired a Labor and Religious Coalition and he was a continuing inspiration to our annual commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy.  He cared about this city . . . and I might say, all of humanity.”


I have long admired Frank Zeidler for his commitment and dedication to building a better community for all citizens.  I admire the fact that he not only “talked a good game,” but that he was able to get things done.  While he was truly a pragmatic and practical politician he never sacrificed his principles. 

Perhaps that was why I was most moved by what Frank’s daughter, Anita, said in comparing me to her father.  If I remember the words accurately, she said that I reminded her of her father in my dedication, hard work and commitment to justice.  I could have received no better praise than that.

Nonetheless I was further humbled by many others who commented upon my service to the community; so effusive were the comments that I often wondered who this individual was.  I thank all of those who took time to make such statements.

Ald. Bob Bauman presents the Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award to Ken Germanson Sept. 3, 2014 at Milwaukee City Hall

Ald. Bob Bauman presents the Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award to Ken Germanson Sept. 3, 2014 at Milwaukee City Hall

In particular, I need to thank State Rep. Christine Sinicki for nominating me as well as State AFL-CIO President Emeritus David Newby, Wisconsin Labor History Society President Steve Cupery, Milwaukee’s premier historian John Gurda and Anita Zeidler for letters of support to the committee.  My gratitude also goes to Zeidler Memorial Committee, particularly Art Heitzer, himself a tireless advocate for social justice. 

It was most pleasing to have several aldermen at the presentation event, including Ald. Bob Bauman (who made the presentation), Council President Michael Murphy and my own alderman, Terry Witkowski.  Mayor Tom Barrett was unable to attend but issued a proclamation declaring Wednesday, Sept 3, as “Kenneth A. Germanson Day.”  How about that!

Three State Legislators attended the Thursday night reception, including Rep. Sinicki, Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson and Dan Riemer, and presented me with a resolution of commendation from the State Legislature.  Sen. Larson commented that Gov. Scott Walker was not asked to sign on to the action.


All of the accomplishments that were mentioned in the comments would not have been possible without the support of so many committed and dedicated friends and colleagues, whether in my  work or in my volunteer efforts.  Their presence was always reassuring as I pursued all of these quests (many of them likely quixotic) knowing that these marvelous folks were right along at my side.

Last, but most importantly, I must acknowledge the support of my wife of sixty years, Ann, who suffered through many nights and weekends of my absence while bearing the major burden of raising our five children.  Thankfully, she shared my goals of social justice and often participated in the work at my side.

If nothing else the receipt of this award reminded me of the fact that the work of creating a just society never ends and that – regardless of present-day despair – the arc of history bends toward justice as long as we continue in our work.   It seems we all have lots of work to do. Ken Germanson, Sept. 7, 2014