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The recent headline, “Milwaukee Recreation earns national accreditation,” brought back memories of Milwaukee’s history that have been – but should not be – lost.
Ask someone, “Did you have a normal childhood?” and you get some funny answers. The reality is that we only have one childhood, and as a result, it is automatically “normal.”
For me, it was only later, when no longer living in Milwaukee, that I realized that childhood for working-class kids growing up in Milwaukee in the 1940s and into the 1960s was not “normal.” Without reservation, I believe that in those years, there could not have been a better city in this country for those working-class kids to grow up in.
In 1964, at age 22, I left small, conservative Milwaukee for big, liberal New York City. Many decades later, I’m still there but have maintained my ties to my hometown. As an anti-poverty and civil rights worker in the 1960s, mostly in the Bronx, I would regularly be told by colleagues of some great liberal reform that was being planned in New York. When I would inform them that Milwaukee had this or that program 30 years ago, disbelief and contempt were the standard responses. But it was all true.
Here is the best example. In the late 1960s, the New York City Board of Education announced one of its great reforms. It would create something called Beacon Schools. These were schools that would have after-school programs, a revolutionary innovation. There would be one Beacon School in each of the city’s 32 school districts several nights a week.
I informed my colleagues that in Milwaukee, every school was a “beacon school,” that they were open until 9 p.m. every night of the week and on Saturday afternoons. And, furthermore, that in summer, every school playground in the city was staffed with a range of educational, cultural and athletic programs from 9 a.m. in the morning until 8 p.m. at night. Needless to say, they were shocked. So, they would ask, where exactly was this Minneapolis, or Milwaukee, or whatever?
It was all true, and it should not be forgotten. Nor should it be lost as the basis for a vision of a better future for the city, the recognition of Milwaukee Recreation being a very positive sign. For kids whose families couldn’t afford summer vacations or “summer camp,” MPS summer playgrounds were a godsend. One that everyone took for granted, living in a city run by the now-scorned “socialists.” Sports, arts and crafts and cultural events were central to these programs, as were sportsmanship and teamwork. For example, there is a large – now aging – group of Milwaukeeans who all learned how to play chess on these playgrounds.
Then, there was the fact that, unlike a lot of places, Milwaukee did not have Little League, with its smaller diamonds, nice uniforms, coaches and lurking and annoying parents. Instead, under the leadership of Harold “Zip” Morgan, a true genius, the Recreation Division launched the Stars of Yesterday League, something also being lost to the mists of history. “Stars” teams were named after former Milwaukee baseball players, some famous others not. Games were played on regular-sized diamonds. For George McBride, our team’s home field was Merrill Park. There were no uniforms. The League supplied basic, mostly outdated equipment, and (sometimes) a shiny new baseball. The umpires were City Conference baseball players, paid $2.50 for a first game, $1.50 for a second. The long-time Major League umpire Bruce Froemming started out in Stars of Yesterday.
But here was the real – and most important – difference between Little League and Stars of Yesterday. Its most basic rule: There could be no adult involvement. Except for a two-day baseball camp before the season started, 12-14 year-olds were responsible for organizing a team and getting nine kids to games twice a week. Across the city, there were 15 eight-team leagues, and forfeits were rare. Most games were played with no fans present. Fathers were at work or asleep if they worked second or third shift, and moms coming to these games was not seen as being a cool thing. In the process, kids learned to organize and to solve their own problems. Lifelong lessons were learned in ways that are hard to find today.
In numerous areas, historic preservation of great architecture and, as NNS has reported, community gardens, people in Milwaukee tend to underestimate their city and their achievements. And, despite John Gurda’s great work, they have also lost sight of past achievements, which can, if not exactly replicated, serve as a source of pride and models for what is possible in building peaceful and healthy communities across the city.
Think of those now often-empty playgrounds as potential gardens, and even though raising humans is harder than rutabagas, the model works for both.
Frank Schneiger is the founder and president of Frank Schneiger and Associates, a planning and change management company serving the nonprofit and public service sectors.