Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Interview on WUWM's "Lake Effect"

 How deindustrialization changed the economy & spirit of Milwaukee

Lake Effect, WUWM — Milwaukee's NPR

Following is the transcript of the interview on May 16, 2023.

Milwaukee was once known as the “Machine Shop of the World,” and for writer and artist Barbara Miner, that was very much true for her growing up here at the height of the Civil Rights movement when we were a manufacturing powerhouse.

Miner left Milwaukee for 20 years before returning in the 80s to raise her family, but she noticed a significant change not only in the physical landscape but in the spirit of the city after deindustrialization.

Factories closed and turned into strip malls, office buildings or apartments, and union jobs that supported many families were gone — setting off major changes to Milwaukee and its economy.

Miner examines the impact of this shift in her new multimedia project, Shadows of Industrialization. Through photographs and audio interviews, the project looks at contemporary Milwaukee through its former factories and the people who worked there.

Milwaukee's industrial strength and prominence in 1970 were demonstrated through the top ten employers in the city that year, being either factories or breweries according to Miner. During this time, Milwaukee was one of the best places for middle-class and Black families. Earl Ingram Jr., one of the subjects from the project, recounts his experience living and working in Milwaukee and the transition that has since occurred:

"Milwaukee had the highest standard of living for Black people in this nation in the mid to late 1970s and the early 1980s. The highest standard of living ... includes Atlanta, that includes Houston ... In a 40-year period [Milwaukee went] from the best place in the nation to live to now, arguably, one of the worst," says Ingram.

Listen to Early Ingram Jr.'s interview from Barbara Miner's project, "Shadows of Industrialization."

In addition to the multiple interviews and first-hand accounts that Miner pursued and collected for this project, she also thought it was important to incorporate photographs of the areas discussed in the project. 

"I knew I wanted to photograph the people who worked in the industry, but because it was also the story of Milwaukee, I wanted to photograph them in the locations where they had worked," notes Miner.

Many areas that once housed these prominent pillars of employment and economic stability are either abandoned or have been demolished and replaced. "To me it just symbolized the emptiness of what happened when those jobs left," she adds.

Miner notes that unionization helped make this economic style stronger while it was still in the prime of its power. Industrial and mechanical work was often tough on the body and required organized support to perform at high levels, and many of the subjects she spoke with specifically worked at companies with unions. But eventually, the incorporation of public transportation limitations significantly altered the employment opportunities for many Milwaukee residents. As many companies moved to suburbs where Black Milwaukeeans in particular could not follow, it helped contribute to what is now described as "hyper-segregation" in the city's workplace and makeup.

Listen to Sue Silverstein's interview from Barbara Miner's project, "Shadows of Industrialization."

"One of the big lessons I believe is that no matter your job, whether you're a barista, whether you're a healthcare worker, whether you're in manufacturing, everyone deserves a decent day's pay for a decent day's job, and that is not the case."
           — Barbara Miner

Friday, April 28, 2023

Shadows of Industrialization

Shadows of Industrialization is a multi-media project grounded in photographs and interviews with industrial workers in Milwaukee from the 1960s to the 1980s, when the city was a manufacturing powerhouse. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, major industries shipped jobs to non-union plants in the south and, subsequently, outside the United States. Factories were replaced with strip malls, office buildings or apartments. Family-supporting union jobs were replaced with low-wage and/or part-time jobs. 


The 12 portraits that follow focus on industrial workers but also include portraits of current workers, in particular those organizing for improved wages and benefits in service industries. Because Shadows of Industrialization focuses on Milwaukee, the portraits were taken in locations that speak to the region’s history — from Allis-Chalmers in West Allis, now primarily a shopping mall, to the rubble-strewn, empty parking lots of A.O. Smith in the central city.


Accompanying the portraits are audio clips of roughly 90 seconds each. In their own words, and with the power of their individual voice, the workers share their experiences and tell not just their story, but the broader story of Milwaukee.

Shadows of Industrialization stems from my long-standing attempt to understand the complexities of Milwaukee, a metropolis too often reduced to slogans such as "a great place on a great lake." I grew up in Milwaukee in the 1950s and 1960s, was gone for about 20 years, and returned to be with family and to raise my children. But it was not the city of my youth. Deindustrialization, the most significant change, had forever changed the city. 


We live in an era of uncertainty and the way forward is not clear. I think back to my interview with Anthony Rainey, who worked at Master Lock for 23 years and recently retired as a union rep for the United Automobile Workers. “We can’t make any advances alone,” he said. “But we can help each other make advances together. It takes time and it takes effort. Nothing worthwhile is easy.”