Wisconsin’s Anti-Urban Policies Fed Milwaukee’s Notorious Racial Segregation

Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country -- and that is no accident. Image: Cooper Center Dot Map
Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country — and that is no accident. Image: Cooper Center Dot Map

After Milwaukee police shot and killed 23-year-old Sylville Smith, setting off a violent confrontation between protesters and police in the predominantly black neighborhood of Sherman Park last weekend, news outlets looked at how the region’s history of discrimination set the stage for an uprising.

Milwaukee is one of the most segregated and unequal cities in the country, saddling its black residents with poor educational and employment opportunities. James Rowen at Network blog The Political Environment points out how state and regional policies helped make it that way:

The state put a permanent limitation on Milwaukee’s growth, tax base, job market and citizen opportunities when it froze the city’s borders in 1955 through the so-called anti-annexation “Oak Creek Law.”

As a result, suburbanization around Milwaukee boomed, and with it also a proliferation of discriminatory housing local ordinances which, though ruled illegal years later, remain camouflaged through legal substitutes mandating expensive home construction site and interior dimensions (in Chenequa, in Waukesha County, for example) or Mequon’s decades-long five-acre lot minimum, now eased, that effectively kept residency upper-income and predominately white in that Ozaukee County community.

No other Wisconsin municipality has had its borders — and its future — politicized, influenced and fixed by a special state law.

Many regional planning agencies have anti-urban structures that underrepresent African Americans, and Milwaukee’s is among the worst, Rowen writes:

The state created a seven-county Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission in 1960 made up of Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Walworth, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha Counties.

SEWRPC, with staff and headquarters in Western Waukesha County that is far from Milwaukee, literally and philosophically — and not even on a transit line — prepares influential studies, provides technical assistance to governmental agencies in matters such as housing, water and transportation, and has the power to approve certain highway projects paid for with federal funds.

All affect job creation, access, distribution, and economic opportunity.

The commission’s makeup, focus and output is heavily suburban and exurban.

Each of the counties has three commission seats. For most of its existence, the commission had no African-American members.

Under Governor Scott Walker, state transportation investments have undermined urban communities and further entrenched their isolation from growing job centers in suburban areas — exemplified by the $1.7 billion “Zoo Interchange” project for suburban car commuters. In 2012, Milwaukee advocates successfully lodged a federal civil rights complaint, compelling the state DOT to provide new bus lines between the city and suburban employment centers. But those victories can only do much if state leaders remain fundamentally hostile to supporting the transportation needs of Milwaukee’s black residents.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports on a new bike and pedestrian bridge that will help unify the region’s impressive trail system. And Transportation for America reminds us that there are just two days left to weigh in on an important federal rule change that with major implications for transit, walking, and biking in U.S. cities.


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