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These iconic Milwaukee neighborhood posters endure nearly 40 years later

Let’s travel back in time. 1982 was the year of big hair, mullets, neon colors and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” On a local level, 1982 was when Jan Kotowicz and Milwaukee historian John Gurda were preparing the Milwaukee Neighborhood poster series, with historical essays on the back of each poster. The project was meant to connect folks to neighborhoods and foster city pride. 

I interviewed Gurda and Stacy Swadish from Historic Milwaukee to learn more about the posters and the process of creating them.

Why was Bay View selected as the first poster to make?

John Gurda: Because I lived there and Jan lived there.

Oh! So it was personal. I like the idea of starting with what you know.

Gurda: It was pretty circumstantial.

What did that look like for you to capture the charm of each neighborhood? What was important to you?

Gurda: First of all, it was written on a very tight deadline. I had about three weeks per neighborhood. It was something where you didn’t have a great deal of leisure to poke around. I would either in good weather bike or drive or walk every single street in every single neighborhood. Some are pretty good-sized neighborhoods so I got to know them pretty well on the ground. During that process, I would talk to some of the people. The obvious ones, the politicians, the pastors, people who had some kind of responsibility for the larger area. A lot of it was falling into a conversation. One thing I would do near the end of the process, I’d bar hop. Wherever I was, I’d stop by a variety of bars and it was kind of an application of mine. That was a lot of fun seeing the unvarnished, spontaneous.

How were the landmarks chosen for each poster? 

Gurda: I would go on the ground, look at what’s in the neighborhood and then pick something that was relatively representative of what each neighborhood was. I would make suggestions but it was always Jan’s choice. She would look at the list or she would pick something entirely independent.

I feel like I’m growing up with the city and even though I am from here, I still feel like a newbie. Do you see the city changing and what does that look like for you both?

Gurda:  The reality is that cities are always changing. It is what it is. They say you cannot step into the same river twice and you can’t step into the same city twice. I remember doing a tour for the Shorewood High School 55th class reunion and I took them all around town and the reaction was that they were in a different city from what they had been when they were in adolescence.

Stacy Swadish: It is a different city. My children are adults and tell them stories as I worked at the Milwaukee Sentinel as a reporter and they were building the Bradley Center which is now gone. I would park under the park east freeway which is now gone. The only bar on Water Street was the Harp Irish. I think these posters capture a little point in time.

Gurda: That’s just the nature of things. I have no regrets or sour about that. In the introduction of the book back in the depression times, WPA hired writers, people like me who would do this sort of thing and those became in some ways a sealed record of what life was like back then. That’s the nature of being human.

I have to ask, do either of you have a favorite poster?

Swadish: It’s like picking your favorite kid. I think there are so many ways to look at it. Geography, where you grew up and where you’re living now. There are just colors and the design and that’s one thing I think about is Jan's incredible artistic ability has made these posters stand the test of time. And there are other things you joke at and you look like at a rummage sale or a thrift store, and you're like that's so ’80s.

Gurda: One word for it is bold. She’s not doing watercolors. So these had to be kind of dimensional and very sharp-edged.

Swadish: Sherman park is one of my favorites just because it's the classic bungalow and the planter. That one always speaks to me. It’s very Milwaukee.

The monumental thing is that these posters are that they still hold their charm. They are everywhere, maybe at your dentist's office, local cafe or even your own home. Art that was created 39 years ago still represents our city. I guess that shows that Milwaukee's pride runs for generations. 

Audio Storyteller / 88Nine On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee