Winner of the Norbert Blei/August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award for 2015 is John Gurda for his Milwaukee: A City of Neighborhoods.
Gurda, whose many books, columns, essays and presentations that focus on Milwaukee and its history, have resulted in him being known as Milwaukee’s Historian and winner of the Wisconsin Historical Society Award of Merit eight times.
Here is the Norbert Blei/August Derleth Nonfiction Book judge’s comments about the selection:
“Gurda’s Milwaukee: A City of Neighborhoods feels like a monument and is a celebration of the city unlike any I’ve ever seen. At the heart of Gurda’s focus on “neighborhoods,” of course, are neighbors, and this framing suggests that the vitality of the city resides in its people, who are diverse in all ways people can be, and beautiful. This book is optimistic, a tone captured in everything from the sentences to the photographs (many by Gurda himself) to the gorgeous illustrations that head many of the neighborhood sections. And yet the book is also aware of the ways a city grows and changes over time—not always easily—and the roles that neighbors (and neighborhood organization) play in preserving cultural distinctiveness within a living city. Milwaukee comes to life in Gurda’s book; it’s a manufacturing city, a civil rights city, a sports city, an arts city, a city of great schools and hospitals. Milwaukee is filled with great and proud people. And Gurda captures this through the details of a city he clearly loves. Here are just a couple of wonderful lines, highlighting the way home ownership “goes hand in hand with pride” in the Rufus King neighborhood: “The weeping mulberries and juniper trees planted by an earlier generation have long matured into striking specimens. At least one mail carrier has been gently reminded not to walk across lawns on his rounds of the neighborhood.” As I reflect on the past several years and the great tumult that has regularly arisen from our nation’s cities, I find this book an important and complex reminder of the ties that bind both within and across communities. Gurda’s optimism feels hard won.”
Following are Gurda’s thoughts about receiving the award:
“I’ve been describing myself as a Milwaukee writer and historian for more than forty years now. Most people identify me with my content—stories of Milwaukee’s past, told in various formats—and it’s a delight to be recognized for the writer side of the equation.
“I suspect that Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods had an unfair advantage in this year’s contest. It weighs in at a whopping six-and-a-half pounds (most of my other babies were closer to eight), and the judge might have been overwhelmed by its sheer size. The book features historical profiles and contemporary portraits of thirty-seven Milwaukee neighborhoods, all of them developed before World War II. The book contains 480 pages and more than 1,300 illustrations, making it, if only by default, the most complete chronicle of grassroots Milwaukee ever published.
“I’m deeply grateful to the Council for Wisconsin Writers for this award. It affirms the importance of local themes in our state’s literary canon, and I’ll take it as encouragement to keep on writing.”
Since the excerpt Gurda read at the banquet was specific to the area encompassing the Wisconsin Club, site of the banquet, he provided the following excerpt for this blog post:
“Anyone who spends even a day or two in Milwaukee becomes aware of the city’s “sidedness.” The South Side is a different world from the East Side, the North and West Sides have disparate characters, and the Northwest Side is another territory entirely. Within these and several other composite districts, dozens of smaller communities are embedded —neighborhoods like Bay View, Layton Park, Pigsville, Washington Heights, Rufus King, Riverwest, and North Point, each of them serving as home base for its residents. Viewed from the grassroots perspective, Milwaukee is most definitely a city of neighborhoods, and it is neighborhoods that render the city both intelligible and approachable. They come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and strengths, but together they constitute the fundamental building blocks of the entire community.
“Anyone writing about these small-scale hometowns should be comfortable with rapid obsolescence. Neighborhoods are quicksilver creations, constantly changing residents, borders, and even names. One generation’s Sixth Ward is another’s Brewer’s Hill. A German enclave in one century becomes an African-American stronghold in the next. All neighborhoods are changing neighborhoods, and always have been.
“Change is a natural condition of communities that exist not by force of law but by virtue of perception. We codify some lines to identify census tracts or legislative districts or municipalities, but neighborhood borders simply float in our shared awareness, perennially subject to both dispute and revision. This book represents an informed and reasonable but patently imperfect interpretation of where one neighborhood ends and another begins.
“City of Neighborhoods also reflects the obvious reality that not every community is created equal. Milwaukee, as much as any large city in America and more than most, is marked by painful inequities in both income and opportunity. But whether a specific neighborhood narrative has led to vibrancy or pathology is not really the issue. Every story has intrinsic human value, Harambee’s no less than North Point’s, Metcalfe Park’s as much as Bay View’s. No understanding of the city—or of America—is truly complete without an understanding of the contrasts that define our society, and no vision of a more hopeful future can emerge without a sure grasp of the past.
“For me, it was an undiluted pleasure to make the acquaintance of my hometown at the neighborhood level once again: to bike, to chat, to question, to photograph, and simply to witness Milwaukeeans in the act of being Milwaukeeans. Yes, there’s been change and, yes, there are problems, but there is also an undeniable richness to life in Milwaukee. Chris Winters, our lead photographer, may have said it best: “The deeper you go in the neighborhoods, the deeper they are.” It is my hope that City of Neighborhoods will help readers discover some of that depth for themselves. There may be no more dynamic human creation than the city, no more compelling expression of energy, aspiration, pain, and potential on the planet. Neighborhoods are the parts that make up the larger organism; it is in seeing our neighborhoods that we see our city whole.”