On Wednesday, Marquette Law School hosted an On The Issues event with Mike Gousha and former Milwaukee mayor and active urbanist John O. Norquist that made for fun and informative lunchtime entertainment.
Norquist, who served as mayor from 1988 until 2003, after having served terms in both the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate, is currently president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago, where he now lives.
He is a booster for the removal of urban highways, for mixed-use development and walkable neighborhoods.
While Norquist was mayor of Milwaukee, he sparked a Downtown housing boom, got the RiverWalk built and tore down the Park East freeway.
What made his session with Gousha so fun was that Norquist has officially turned off the filter and he often addressed advice and comments – sometimes witty, sometimes cutting and sometimes both – to the current and former politicians that were in the packed room.
"I see a lot of familiar faces here," he quipped at the start, setting the tone. "And they all look older," he added, drawing laughs.
I also learned a few things, like the fact that the RiverWalk was designed with an eye on the plan that Alfred Clas had drawn up for a riverwalk in 1904.
Here are some highlights from Norquist's comment, sometimes paraphrased:
On the value of cities:
- "People have a more positive view of cities. From both sides of the political spectrum you had this negative attitude about cities. The crescendo was after the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles."
- "Look around the world now – Paris, London, Hong Kong, wherever – the cities are where the value is. The 12 acres of Downtown Detroit are the 12 most valuable acres in the entire state of Michigan."
On density, mixed-use development and urban highways:
- "You have retail over here, one-family homes over here, apartments over there – these separations happened because of government interference, not because of consumer preference."
- "Congestion is like cholesterol. You have good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. If you have no cholesterol, you’re dead."
- "Detroit built every freeway anyone ever had an idea to build and Detroit has solved its congestion problem."
- "Milwaukee built the Stadium North freeway in 1949 and never would have built another if not for the 90 percent funding from the federal government and 10 percent from the state. They built that freeway and it devastated the neighborhoods, it concentrated traffic. It didn’t work.
- "Lack of development in the Park East corridor (west of the river) is because of encumbrances on County-owned land. Development on the land around it has been gangbusters (cites Beerline, The Moderne and other developments)."
- "When I see that main street in Port Washington with the beautiful St. Mary’s Church at the end, I think that should be legal. That (kind of development) should be allowed."
- "Gentrification is not a problem. It’s an issue in the Mission District in San Francisco. It’s an issue in Harlem in New York. In Boston, maybe it’s an issue. It’s not a problem in Cleveland, in St. Louis. It’s not a problem in Milwaukee."
On tearing down vacant houses and buildings:
- "You can devote so much money to tearing things down that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
- "They need to get rid of the no left turn signs on Wisconsin Avenue. It needs to be a prosperous street, not a freeway ramp."
- "Milwaukee could use a real transportation system. (Points to examples in Utah, Houston, Dallas, Vancouver, Portland.) Milwaukee has a higher population density than almost all those cities. Milwaukee is an ideal place for public transportation (expansion)."
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.