Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.
By Jason Sibert
Former Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan carved out a special place in sewer socialist and Socialist Party of America history. As the 32nd mayor of Milwaukee, he led the longest serving socialist administration in an American municipality in our history, as he led the midwestern city as mayor from 1916 to 1940.
Hoan began his political career with his election to city attorney for Milwaukee in 1910. This was the same year Emil Seidel was elected mayor of Milwaukee as the first socialist leader of a major city in the United States. Over the next six years, Hoan clamped down on the corruption of public officials. The sewer socialist broke with his party in World War I. While Socialist Party of America opposed the war, Hoan organized the Milwaukee County Council of Defense.
As mayor, Hoan developed a reputation for efficient government. He implemented progressive reforms, including what some call the country’s first public housing project. It would be more accurate to call it a government-supported housing co-op because today’s public housing is owned by the government. The project occurred at a time when Milwaukee’s population was increasing faster than its housing stock. As soon as he started his mayoral term, one of Hoan‘s major policies was city beautification and planning which he saw as a means to “maximize the use of the city‘s authority to reduce the high cost of living.”
In 1918, he renewed the idea for a city planned public housing project by organizing his Housing Commission.The Housing Commission was a ten-man collective of city employees and Milwaukee businessmen that had two goals. The first was to look at how to alleviate the housing problem in the short term, while the second was to look for long-term solutions for Milwaukee’s affordable housing shortage. After two years of research, the Commission believed they found their answer in a municipally funded and planned cooperative housing development. In 1920 the Garden Homes Company was organized under Wisconsin law by Mayor Hoan to “promote the economic erection, cooperative ownership and administration of healthy homes.” The company was capitalized at $500,000 with the City of Milwaukee buying 500 shares for $50,000. Shares would also be purchased by the owners of the homes. After twenty years, all the stock would be retired, and the property of Garden Homes would then be fully owned by the residents. The Garden Homes Company bought twenty-nine acres of farmland north of the city limits in 1921 and Mayor Hoan presided over the groundbreaking in September of that year.
Architect William Schuchardt, a Milwaukee native and Chairman of the Garden Homes Company, planned the neighborhood. Schuchardt had traveled to Europe several times, both after graduation from Cornell University in 1895 and again in 1911. It was during these trips that he encountered the planned, cooperative Garden Cities of Ebenezer Howard, which were also being used in the United States during the City Beautiful movement at this time. Both put an importance on large areas of green space that would be open for anyone in the community to use.
There were problems with Garden Cities, and it is considered a mix of success and failure by many. Annexation of the area into the City of Milwaukee was controversial. The addition of street and sewer improvements that the occupants of Garden Homes were forced to pay for, though they were not included within the price of the house. Residents became disenchanted with the situation after realizing that any money they spent on improvements to their homes would be lost unless they stayed for twenty-five years to fulfill ownership. In June 1925, the state legislature enacted the Garden Homes Law Amendment which permitted the sale of the homes for private profit. The Garden Homes Company finally closed in 1933, only after functioning to sell the remaining housing stock and pay off their loans.
However, there was more to the Hoan Administration than housing. He also led the successful drive towards municipal ownership of the stone quarry, street lighting, sewage disposal, and water purification. During Hoan’s administration, Milwaukee implemented the first public bus system in the United States. This was prompted by dangerous accidents: pedestrians were run over by street trolleys that ran down the middle of the road. Among the victims of such streetcar accidents was Hoan’s fellow Socialist, Victor L. Berger, who was killed in 1929. The mayor also experimented with the municipal marketing of food and providing public markets.
Hoan was defeated for mayor in 1940, and one year later he joined the Democratic Party. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1944 and 1946. In 1948 he ran for mayor another time and was defeated by socialist Frank Zeidler. Hoan lived until 1961 and will always be remembered for his prodigious list of accomplishments.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.