Public Housing, Urban Politics, and Reform in Postwar Chicago, Milwaukee

Contesting the Postwar City cover
Contesting the Postwar City
A Meet the Authors Event
Thursday, January 30, 2014

4 pm

Ruggles Hall

Speakers: D. Bradford Hunt and Eric Fure-Slocum; Moderator: Leon Fink

Historians D. Bradford Hunt, Eric Fure-Slocum, and Leon Fink will discuss post-war urban change and conflict in Chicago and Milwaukee.

Fure-Slocum’s recently-published Contesting the Postwar City: Working-Class and Growth Politics in 1940s Milwaukee, and D. Bradford Hunt’s award-winning Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago’s Public Housing, will be the starting points for a conversation about race, urban politics, urban policy, public housing, and working class identities in mid-twentieth century America.

In Blueprint for Disaster, Hunt addresses the complicated question: what went wrong with Chicago’s public housing? The city’s public housing developments once had long waiting lists of would-be residents hoping to leave the slums behind. Hunt traces public housing’s history in Chicago from its New Deal roots through former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Plan for Transformation. In the process, he chronicles the Chicago Housing Authority’s own transformation from the city’s most progressive government agency to its largest slumlord. Challenging explanations that attribute the decline of public housing primarily to racial discrimination and real estate interests, Hunt argues that well-intentioned but misguided policy decisions also paved the road to failure. Moreover, administrators who fully understood the potential drawbacks did not try to halt deeply flawed projects. Massive high-rise complexes housed unprecedented numbers of children but relatively few adults, engendering disorder that pushed out the working class and, consequently, the rents needed to maintain the buildings. The resulting combination of fiscal crisis, managerial incompetence, and social unrest plunged the CHA into a quagmire from which it is still struggling to emerge.

In his book, Fure-Slocum concludes that two contending visions of 1940s Milwaukee—working-class politics and growth politics—fit together uneasily and were transformed amid a series of social and policy clashes. Contests that pitted the principles of democratic access and distribution against efficiency and productivity included the hard-fought politics of housing and redevelopment, controversies over petty gambling, questions about the role of organized labor in urban life, and battles over municipal fiscal policy and autonomy. These episodes occurred during a time of rapid change in the city’s working class, as African-American workers arrived to seek jobs, women temporarily advanced in workplaces, and labor unions grew. At the same time, businesses and property owners sought to reestablish legitimacy in the changing landscape. This study examines these local conflicts, showing how they forged the postwar city and laid a foundation for the neoliberal metropolis.

D. Bradford Hunt is Dean of the Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies, Vice Provost for Adult and Experiential Learning, and Professor of Social Science and History at Roosevelt University. His research focuses on urban planning and public housing history in Chicago and the United States.

Eric Fure-Slocum teaches History and American Studies at St. Olaf College. His research and writing focuses on twentieth-century US urban and working-class history, with an interest in the shaping of American political culture and the political economy.

Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He specializes in American labor, immigration history, and the Gilded Age/Progressive Era; directs the PhD concentration in the History of Work, Race, and Gender in the Urban World (WRGUW); and edits the journal, Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas.

Cost and registration information: 

This program is free and no registration is required.

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