John Gurda on his 50-year writing career and “conversation with Milwaukee”

by Mason Braasch 

This year, Milwaukee-born author John Gurda, 75, published his 23rd book. After 50 years of research and writing, Gurda has established himself as a storyteller for the history of Milwaukee. With books such as “The Making of Milwaukee” and “One People, Many Paths: A History of Jewish Milwaukee,” Gurda has filled thousands of pages with the diverse stories of Milwaukee’s past. Continuing his love for his city and its history, Gurda is also a lecturer, tour guide and history columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

Did you always want to be a writer?

No. I wanted to be president. That was my first goal. I was a congressional page in high school. I was just fascinated with politics, so I went to Boston College for undergrad, and I began political science because that was a logical thing for a future politician to be involved in. The story I told my kids is we were playing intramural football my freshman year and I went up for a pass and some guy came down on my head. I was concussed and spent two days in the infirmary, and when I came out I was an English major.

How did you come to be a writer?

I always liked writing and reading and luckily [Boston College] had a good English department. I came back to Milwaukee… after graduation in 1969 and began to work. The 1960s mantra was if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem, so that was kind of my operative value. A friend of mine was working at a youth center in the South Side called Journey House, and I went down as a volunteer; we were a shoestring operation. Another volunteer and I published a little pamphlet called “The Near South Side; A Delicate Balance.” The 1960s were kind of an anti-historical period, but for some lucky reason, I drew the historical side of the research for the pamphlet and began to meet people who knew my grandparent’s hardware store, and people who knew my dad. All of a sudden, I awoke to the idea of a story. All of these things that had been kind of devalued by counterculture…recovering all that stuff was just fascinating. So I worked… doing neighborhood research in the South Side and writing a pamphlet called “A Separate Settlement” about discovering ethnicity and discovering local history. I went back to school for a master’s in geography because I didn’t know what I was doing.

How has your relationship with your hometown of Milwaukee influenced your writing?

It’s formative. It is absolutely the identity. Milwaukee has a really interesting story: the determinism, the socialism, the beer. It’s a rather unusual American city and one that has big city problems. The thing I like about Milwaukee and Wisconsin is nothing is too big and nothing is too small — it’s kind of a sweet spot.

What do you hope that readers take away from your books?

Really what I’m after is the same sort of thing that I was pursuing back in the late 1960s at Journey House. A sense of identification, a sense of groundedness, belonging to this community. That was important to me back then, and I’ve come to think over the last 50 years that it’s important for everyone. The cliche is “grow where you’re planted” or “love where you live.” Regardless of where you are, it’s your home. And the more you know about it, the more you’re invested in it, the richer your life will be and the richer the life of the entire community will be. What I think of often is Aldo Leopold talked about land ethic; and what he said was that “when we come to think of land as something to which we belong, not something that belongs to us, then we can learn to treat it with love and respect.” And that’s really what my work is all about; trying to encourage not a sense of ownership, but a sense of belonging.  Our individual stories are part of a larger story.

John Gurda, 75, has been writing the diverse histories of his home town for 50 years. Photography by Max Thomsen.

What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?

“The Making of Milwaukee.” No question. That was kind of the big one, and that’s the one that has sold about 20,000 copies and is in its fourth edition. We built a curriculum around it, and it got turned into a five-and-a-half-hour PBS documentary that won a Midwest Emmy. If there is one piece that I think I identify with, it is “The Making of Milwaukee.”

What was your inspiration for writing “The Making of Milwaukee”?

The inspiration started in the 1970s. By that time I’d been [researching Milwaukee’s history] for 20 years and I began to realize that what I had was pieces of the puzzle. I had some pretty big chunks of what Milwaukee’s story was, so I almost felt like I had an obligation to bring those pieces inside the frame and fill it with the whole story. As it turned out, I knew a lot less than I thought I did! There had not been a good history written since 1948; there was nothing there for people that wanted to know the story of their city. There was a need. 

You wrote in one article for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that you “had a long-running conversation with Milwaukee.” How does that statement encompass your work?

I change, the city changes, the world changes, life changes. The kind of take that I have on Milwaukee in 2022 is different from the kind of take I had in 1972. It has changed in line with the changes in society and the changes in me as I’ve aged. So it really has been a conversation, and to be dead honest, I feel privileged to have been able to have kept up that conversation for 50 years — not many people get to do that. And that conversation will continue. I’m not sure in what form, but by no means is it a static relationship because life is not static. 

Featured photo by Max Thomsen.