As OnMilwaukee prepares to toss its hat into the ring – that is, into the Greater Together Coalition contest to redesign the City of Milwaukee flag – we asked John Gurda, the guru of Brew City history, and a judge in the contest, and the contest organizer Steve Kodis about the history of the current flag, what came before it and what ought to come next.
OnMilwaukee: What's the history of the current flag? Who designed it, when, etc.?
John Gurda: The flag dates from 1955 – could you tell? – and it was designed by an alderman (Fred Steffan).
Did the city have a flag before that? What was it like and why was it scrapped?
JG: I don't believe Milwaukee had one before 1955, but I'm not at all sure. (NOTE: In fact, a flag was designed in the 1890s but was never adopted. The 1950s flag was adopted when city leaders realized the city was one of only four big U.S. cities with no banner.)
What's fueling the idea of replacing the current flag?
JG: I think the current campaign began as a bee in Steve Kodis' bonnet and has buzzed outward from there.
Steve Kodis: In trying to saying EVERYTHING about Milwaukee, it really says nothing and in turn doesn't have the ability to live on as a symbol of the city.
OnMilwaukee: What has the community buy-in been like for the new flag designs?
SK: Community buy-in seems strong. We've garnered just shy of 600 designs plus we've lead almost a dozen flag design workshops at local high schools and colleges. The final workshop is Tuesday at Bay View High. Submissions have been coming from all over the Greater Milwaukee area. We've even received submissions from overseas; Australia and Scandinavia.
People are ready and waiting for the next phase and we've been aligning with local businesses who are ready to buy and fly the flag once the winner is announced.
There have been previous pushes to redesign the flag but they didn't lead to a new design. Any idea why?
JG: Getting consensus on something that attempts to stand for all of us is notoriously difficult. I hope this effort succeeds where others have failed.
SK: I'd like to reaffirm that this project wouldn't be where it is without the help of Greater Together. It's no longer just me working on this. There's a team of roughly 12 folks actively volunteering to set up these events, the design workshops, and partnerships. They definitely deserve credit.
Do you think the people at the city level are interested in this possibility?
SK: We've had meetings with a few alderman, most recently Nik Kovac. They've acknowledged that we're taking submissions from the community and City Hall also helped us set up our exhibition, on May 14, showcasing the top 50 designs. Within that top 50 will be 5 finalists that will go up for a public vote.
According to you, what makes a great flag?
JG: It should be something simple, original, and genuine. I think of New Mexico's state flag (below) as pretty successful.
SK: People have been quick to respond that they "like the current flag" and when our flag is seen on a computer and through all of this media coverage, it's stationary and can be viewed closely making it easier to understand and in turn appreciate or "like" it. However, it's another thing to say we like our flag because it's actually flying around town and impacting the areas in which it flies.
If our flag was so good, then why doesn't it fly on top of City Hall? Why don't our city leaders actually use it and identify with it? The answer is that at that distance, which flags are supposed to be distinguishable and recognizable, it isn't.
It has no impact from a distance. The iconography cannot be seen nor can it be understood. The design of our flag is great as a fixed design; on a tshirt, or a mural, or some other fixed medium. As we know however, flags aren't fixed. They drape, they flap, and they're meant to be seen from all sides.
The design on our flag as a flag design, is too complex. Period. It does the exact opposite what a flag is intended to do, which is to show what we believe about our city that makes us unique to the world we live. To provide a sense of identity to what we aspire to be.
Updated 04/10 at 11:02: to include responses from Steve Kodis.
Updated 04/11 at 12:13: to include further clarification on the design of the current flag from Steve Kodis.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.