New history of Bay View’s (and Milwauke’s) Italian heritage

February 28, 2010

By Katherine Keller


The unique patterns of Italian and Sicilian emigration are writ large in Anthony M. Zignego’s new book, Milwaukee’s Italian Heritage: Mediterranean Roots in Midwestern Soil, as are the social, economic, and political forces in Italy that impelled the Italian diaspora in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Based on his UW-Milwaukee master’s thesis, the academic underpins Zignego’s narrative. However, his text is colorful, infused with stories and anecdotes of Milwaukee’s Italian immigrants drawn from oral history and newspaper accounts, letters and memoirs, and supported with data from church and census records. The text is richly illustrated with photos, some that will make Bay View hearts flutter.

A distinguishing feature of the Italian communities in North America, Zignego stresses, was their transient nature. Chain migration and return migration characterize the pattern of many Italians who traveled and worked in Milwaukee, Chicago, Buffalo, and New York City. Some worked in the United States for part of the year, and then returned their native village. Others made several trips back and forth.


Charlie (Remigio) Cialdini, his daughter-in-law Elsie Cialdini and her son Ray Cialdini. — photo courtesy the Italian Community Center of Milwaukee.

Between 1905 and 1920, more than 50 percent of Italian immigrants in America returned to their homes in Italy, often in November. They stayed in Italy until spring when they returned to the States with one or more family members. Astonishingly, 13 million people left Italy between 1880 and 1915, Zignego writes, the largest emigration from any country in recorded history.

Zignego points out that the majority of Italian immigrants settled in the Third Ward, migrating from southern Italy and Sicily, while another, considerably smaller population settled in Bay View, migrating predominantly from central Italy and the Piedmont in northwestern Italy. In 1910, there were 4,788 Italians in the Third Ward and over a thousand in Bay View. Among the Bay View settlers were Giocondo Groppi, who opened a grocery story at Delaware and Russell avenues in 1912; Remigio (Charlie) and Eleanora Cialdini, also grocers, whose store was on Delaware Avenue; and Baptiste Gardetto, who established a bakery on St. Clair Street in 1932 (which grew and grew and was sold to General Mills in 1999).


Zignego devotes three of the book’s five chapters to the experience of Milwaukee’s Italian immigrants, exploring the neighborhoods, living conditions, work, and the social tensions between those in the Third Ward and Bay View.  He delves into family life within the Italian community, including an exploration of the role of women in the development of the Italian culture in Milwaukee, both inside their own ethnic community and among other ethnicities via their roles as shopkeepers who served their neighbors. The final chapter demonstrates how the first and second world wars served to solidify Italian immigrants’ identity politically as Americans while retaining their cultural identity as Italian. During that same period, feste celebrations became popular, which celebrated aspects of their American and Italian identity and heritage.

Beulah Brinton, who created a social center to help Italian and other Bay View immigrants learn English, cooking, and a venue to gather for social and family functions. (center). —courtesy Tim Kenney, Giuseppe Garibaldi Society of Milwaukee

The book is a fascinating exploration of the Italian migration, including the transient nature of thousands of those émigrés, which disguishes their immigration pattern. Especially appealing are the sections about the establishment of their communities in Bay View, Milwaukee’s Third Ward, and in the Brady Street neighborhood.

Regrettably, the publishers did not include Zignego’s index, which diminishes the book’s utility as a reference work. Despite that lamentable omission, the work is a rich contribution to our knowledge of Milwaukee history, and a fine tribute to the legacy of the people of Italy and Sicily who made Milwaukee their home.

Zignego’s forebears emigrated from Portovenera, Italy (in Luguria, on the Mediterranean, south of Genoa). He grew up in Milwaukee. Leroy Zignego and his brother Vernon Zignego (the author’s grandfather and great uncle) established Zignego Company, Inc. in 1955, a construction company in Waukesha. See calendar for his forthcoming appearances at Boswell Book Company and the Italian Community Center. Text Box:

Milwaukee’s Italian Heritage: Mediterranean Roots in Midwestern Soil

Anthony M. Zignego
The History Press
Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-1-59629-836-1

Mesmerized by Avatar

February 28, 2010

By Mary Vuk Sussman

I admit to having been a holdout. I didn’t want to see Avatar because I am neither a science fiction/science fantasy buff nor a dedicated follower of the latest in film technology. But I saw it anyway, not so long ago, in a nearly deserted theater on Super Bowl Sunday (dare I admit to that, too?), donning my 3D specs with a bit of Missourian show-me defiance. And, yes, I was mesmerized and mystified and had little difficulty buying into this fabulously sensual and beautiful film directed by James Cameron.

Former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. Sully regains use of his legs, and then some, when he agrees to participate in a bizarre experiment in which his DNA is mixed with alien Na’vi DNA and steps into his hybrid avatar body. The avatar body is controlled remotely by Jake’s human self but the avatar looks like a Na’vi, the indigenous species of Pandora, a distant moon. The hybrid can survive in the rare Pandoran atmosphere that is toxic to humans. When the human “controller” “sleeps” in what looks like a tanning bed, his avatar is active in Pandora.

Pandora is home to a rare mineral, unobtanium, coveted by the humans, who are prepared to destroy the Na’vi, kill the fauna, and defoliate the flora of Pandora to realize their avaricious ends. It is strict scorched-Pandora policy. Greedy humans are rubbing their hands together while waiting in the wings to claim the spoils. Paraplegic Sully is supposed to be a pawn in their game. He is a gung-ho ex-Marine who will be brave and loyal and serve as a good infiltrator in his avatar body, helping the fanatical corporate/militarist/nihilists realize their nefarious goals.

The animation is stupendous and seamless. The landscape is eye-poppingly dramatic and the viewer goes flying on a breathtaking and exhilarating visual adventure.

Pandora is a lush land of forests and floating mountains, filled with Na’vi and the most amazing wild animals ever seen. We learn to love the Na’vi and their Edenic forest primeval as Sully adopts their ways while under the tutelage of Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), a beautiful Na’vi woman tasked with making a proper Na’vi man out of avatar Jake, who acts like an oafish and ignorant human at the outset.

The cultural and sentimental education of Jake eventually gives way to an epic battle between the forces of good and evil, which tug and pull on Jake’s human/avatar selves, forcing him to make ethical choices.

The blue Na’vi beguile with beauty, sincerity, and sensitivity. They also exude a wholesome sensuality and have Herculean strength. The over-civilized and over-armed earthlings have hearts of stone and seem to have more bombs than brains.

The movie explores a number of high-minded themes, sometimes without much nuance. Such criticism, however, does not count for much because once you enter the world of this extravagantly imaginative film you are engulfed by its tsunamic power and a willing suspension of disbelief overrides such objections.

It is not surprising that a few vocabulary words acquired during the recent Iraq war enter the script. The war is on our minds and director Cameron’s as well. No surprise either that Avatar has been nominated for nine Oscars. It’s just one of those movies that will be praised, remembered, and re-viewed often. The Oscars ceremony is March 7.

Instruments of grace—MacDowell Society concert at St. Joseph’s

February 28, 2010

By Jeremy Packer

The St. Joseph Center Chapel, 1501 S. Layton Blvd., provided a visually stunning and acoustically perfect setting for the MacDowell Club Milwaukee’s Feb. 21 “Organist’s Choice” concert. The chapel’s magnificent pipe organ was the centerpiece of the program and was heard both as a solo instrument and in ensemble with instrumental and vocal performers. Each of the five organists played with mastery, giving the audience an opportunity to appreciate the scope and power of the instrument.

The audience joined the performers in singing a well-loved hymn to open the concert, introducing the principal melody of the first piece on the program. The Partita on the Old 100th, composed by Sister Theophane Hytrek, is an elaborate variation on the original hymn in which the composer explores the range of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic possibilities she is able to develop from the original melody. Organist Dennis Janzer’s sensitive interpretation of the piece highlighted the creative range of the variations without sacrificing the strong connection to the original melody that provides the essential coherence of the work.

The Milwaukee Jewish Community Chorale joined Janzer in performing his own settings of two psalms, Celebrate and Sing and Who Shall Ascend. Director Enid Bootzin Berkovits lead a lively and spirited performance of the psalms and it is to the credit both of the members of the Chorale and the excellent acoustics of the chapel that the singers were not overpowered by the organ and that the psalm texts were clearly understood throughout. Janzer performed one of his instrumental compositions, the Toccata Fluide, between the two choral works. His Toccata is a miniature work of program music that conveys the effect of rippling or flowing water in the higher registers of the organ, supported by a more jagged bass line that suggests the uneven surface below.

Wallace Cheatham’s interpretation of John Carre’s Sonata for Organ was majestic indeed, in keeping with the allegro maestoso marking of the first movement. The rich harmonic texture and stately tempo was in many ways mirrored by the third and final movement, with the addition of passages of imitative polyphony in the established tradition of organ music. The second movement stood in stark contrast to its neighbors. The translucent, almost ethereal texture of this movement made it one of the high points of the concert. The pipe organ is such a ponderous instrument, yet as Cheatham demonstrated, it can be infinitely delicate in the proper hands.

Composer Calimario Soares’ Preludes are based on folk tunes from his native Brazil. In keeping with the nature of the original melodies, the settings are simple, at times even childlike. Organist Mariann Landa utilized a wide range of stops in her performance, giving each prelude a tone quality uniquely suited to its character. The use of the organ in a context that was neither ecclesiastical nor classical was refreshing and showed another, lighter side of the instrument’s complex character.

Ana de la Cuesta Gerlach’s exquisitely lyrical flute performance was well suited for the two works by French composer Jacques Berthier, Liturical Meditations and Pastorale. Organist Suzanne Pajunen maintained a sense of dialog between the instruments despite the disparity in their size and power, the two performers creating a sound that was always enchanting and often haunting. The fine acoustics of the chapel enhanced the full-bodied tone of the flute so that it seemed as if one were hearing a human voice rather than a wind instrument.

The acoustics of the performance space had similar benefits for the sound of Gail Hodkiewitz’s clarinet in her performance of Bernard Sander’s Ornaments of Grace, accompanied by Sheri Masiakowski on the organ. The rich, woody tone of the clarinet complemented the lyrical and moving nature of the composition, filling the aural space with the beauty of its sound.

The performance of 18th-century Spanish composer Antonio Soler’s Concerto for Two Organs was one of the true highlights of the concert. The chapel is fortunate to have, in addition to its main organ in the choir loft, a second smaller pipe organ located near the front of the church. It is one of the few places in the city where this work can be performed as intended.

— photo Katherine Keller

— photo Katherine Keller

The heart of the Concerto is a minuet with six variations. The variations are distinct units, unlike continuous variations of the Partita heard at the beginning of the concert, and are fairly conventional in terms of how they explore the original theme. The sense of conversation between the two instruments, played by Sheri Masiakowski and Suzanne Pajunen, was truly exciting. The contrasting tone qualities of the two organs along with physical separation of the instruments greatly enhanced the effect. The placement of the organs made it impossible for the two players to see one another, necessitating the slightly anachronistic use of walkie-talkies to synchronize the performance.

Sister Marion Verhaalen’s composition Summoned, performed by organist Sheri Masiakowski, was commissioned by her cousin, Father Charles Verhaalen, in connection with the dedication of the renovated St. Francis Seminary organ in 1999. The work is programmatic, depicting the internal conflicts involved in a religious vocation and has a meditative quality. The audience was once again encouraged to take part in the performance by singing the hymn Now Thank We All Our God to close the program, accompanied by the organ and the trumpet, played by Kevin Erickson.

The St. Joseph Center Chapel is one of the city’s unique treasures and offers events, tours, and religious services open to the public. Information about the chapel and a schedule of events is available on the School Sisters of St. Francis website, A listing of upcoming concerts by the MacDowell Club of Milwaukee may be found at

Gary’s Pet Jungle

February 28, 2010


—photo © 2010Ken Mobile

Gary’s Pet Jungle
2857 S. Howell Ave.
Owner: Gary Johnson
(414) 744-3338

1. What advantages do you offer your customers over chain pet stores?

We try to educate them on the animal to help them be able to be more successful in taking care of them. I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years, both retail and wholesale, so can therefore help people more with their questions.

2. What advice do you give people when they are looking for a pet?

How old is the person the pet is for? Then, what do you actually want? Some animals take more time and care, so fish or reptiles are easier for someone with more time restrictions.

3. What are the economic indicators that things are trending up or down in terms of what people buy or don’t buy at a pet store?

Normally people tend to spend more on pets in a poor economy because they don’t have the money for vacations and going out, so they are more apt to set up a fish tank or something else they can do at home.

4. Why did you decide to open a pet store?

My former boss at another store told me it wasn’t working out after 12 years of working for her, and fired me. Another employee of the store had previously suggested to me that I open a store in her storefront on Howell Avenue, so I did.


— photo © 2010 Ken Mobile

I like more different things myself, so I will sometimes order things just to see what it looks like. We will occasionally have things like freshwater lionfish, African butterflies, ropefish, and Goliath bird-eater tarantulas.

6. With so many types of animals, how do you keep your shop sanitary?

We spend a lot of the day cleaning and feeding. Bleach is used in cleaning all tanks, cages, and toys.

7. How long is an animal typically in your shop before it’s sold?

This is hard to say. Some have been sold within an hour of being here and some have been here a year or more.

8. Can customers return an animal to you if they find they can’t maintain it?

That is why we try to educate people before they take it home, so that that decision is made before taking the animal home. It is stressful for an animal, just like for a person, going to a new home, so we try not to practice this.

9. What are your favorite animals to
keep as pets?

I’ve had everything from ducks and chickens to horses, goats, fish, and snakes. I like animals, in general. They are good companions. I don’t think I could pick a favorite.

10. What is the most challenging aspect
of your business?

Remaining competitive with internet business.

If the fare were affordable, would you take the high-speed train instead of your car from Milwaukee to Madison or Chicago? How much is affordable?

February 28, 2010

Interviews & Photos by Michael Timm

Ed and Sue Frey

“Yeah, I would. I think so…Probably about $25, maybe $25 each way.” –Ed

“I would take it to Chicago but not to Madison.” —Ed & Sue Frey, Wauwatosa

James Juchemich

“I probably would not. I would not. I don’t really have a good reason.”

—James Juchemich, Milwaukee’s north side

Jim OLeary with Jake

“Absolutely. I think it’s a great idea to take the train [Amtrak] to Chicago anyway…You figure the train costs 30 bucks for a time, so $20? To Chicago. That would be great. And Madison, maybe $15. I think it would make us go to Madison more, actually.”

—Jim O’Leary, Ellen Street (holding Jake, his Boston Terrier)

Peg Gonzales-Charles

“If it were affordable I would take the rail. Yes…Um, $40 [round-trip]. Not more than $50.”

—Peg Gonzales-Charles, A Step Ahead Physical Therapy at Delaware House

Terry Malmberg

— photo Michael Timm

“If it was affordable? Sure…If it’s as cheap as my car to get there and back, then I would consider it affordable. Probably $30. I would say it would be round-trip, because it’s only going to cost me $15 to get there in my car, at the most.”

—Terry Malmberg, Donald Street in Cudahy

The kindness of strangers

February 28, 2010

Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor,

Please let me acknowledge the kindness that was extended to me Tuesday, Feb. 16 at Hi Fi Cafe. I went there to meet with a guy who was going to help me with a technical question. He did not show up, but there was a very helpful guy named Gary who ran the software that I had questions about. I just wanted to make a sincere comment about the nice kids we have here in Bay View. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee but he declined. So I gave him a tangerine.

Joyce Grant
J. Grant Painting
2201 S. Allis St.
Bay View

Dom and Phil De Marinis

February 28, 2010

By Chris Christie


©2010 Adam Ryan Morris Photography

We ordered the large cheese, sausage, onion pizza plus pepperoni and black olives. It came piping hot and the crust was thin and fairly crisp, the way I like it. It soon disappeared.

There are five different pizza offerings, including a garden pizza with your choice of broccoli, artichoke hearts, red peppers, tomatoes, three cheeses, garlic, and seasoned olive oil. They range in price from $6 for a small cheese and onion to $17.25 for a large garden. And there are many other toppings and additions that can be added.

We were happy with pizza, but if you don’t want pizza, they offer an array of pastas; sandwiches—including their original sausage sandwich with cheese, sauce, and peppers; as well as appetizers, including a large Italian salad with mixed greens, black olives, tomatoes, onions, and pepperoni with cheese and dressing. And they serve a Friday fish fry too.

There is a bar area with booths and also a small game room. You can order food and eat at the bar and in the game room. And there is no television in the dining room. We liked that.

The De Marinis family has been serving Bay View for many years and it seems, given the quality of the food and friendly atmosphere, will continue to serve good, old-fashioned southern Italian food for more to come.

On the way out, my granddaughter, a seasoned pizza easter said, “I think it’s my favorite pizza of all we’ve eaten so far.” Now, there’s a recommendation!

Dom and Phil De Marinis
1211 E. Conway St.
Bay View, WI 53207
(414) 481-2348 or (414) 481-2367
Hours: Tu-Thu 4-10pm; Fri-Sat 4pm-Midnight; Sun 3-10pm Closed Monday
Only a few vegetarian items
Children’s menu: No; No diaper changing
Full bar
Call ahead for take out
Non-Smoking Section
Wheelchair access

Share a room with your baby

February 28, 2010

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

One day in January, I was driving home from my parents’ house in that contented state of piloting a familiar route with light traffic. But a billboard on Oklahoma Avenue near the U.S. Post Office jolted me into annoyance.

The image replaced the headboard on an adult bed with a tombstone inscribed “FOR TOO MANY BABIES LAST YEAR, THIS WAS THEIR FINAL RESTING PLACE.” Below that was the statement, “The safest place is in a crib. City of Milwaukee Health Department” The image remains available at that website, but the Oklahoma Avenue billboard is no longer on display.

This dramatic billboard was part of the Milwaukee Health Department’s campaign launched Dec. 28, 2009 to minimize infant deaths. I imagine that many parents and parents-to-be, plus the family members and friends advising them, saw the billboard and formed opinions about how babies should sleep. Of course, these groups are very concerned about preventing sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Every reasonable parent thinks about it during the early months of parenthood.

The city’s dramatic, straightforward message drew criticism from James McKenna of the Mother-Child Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame and everyday parents. Lots of parents called during the topic’s discussion on the Joy Cardin radio show Jan. 26 on WPR. Some parents felt this campaign makes women feel worse about themselves, and incites guilt about a natural decision.

Among my circle of friends, I know several who have regularly shared their adult bed with a newborn. I’d say it’s so common as to be rampant. Some chose this path and others fell into it as a response to their child’s late-night waking.

While my husband and I didn’t share our bed with our newborn (known as bed-sharing), we did keep her bassinet in the room with us (known as room-sharing) for the first few weeks. I can understand the line of thinking that both bed-sharing and room-sharing are natural decisions. “Natural” in the sense of how families must have slept for thousands of years. “Natural” in the sense of how parents who research holistic topics often choose to keep their babies close, and purchase equipment to help make it safe. “Natural” in the sense of exhausted parents needing their own sleep and taking what seems to be the path of least resistance. (I remember falling asleep in a glider chair, our typical breastfeeding spot, when an illuminated billboard pasted on the nursery wall couldn’t have fended off my exhaustion.)

I was prepared to rail against the city’s campaign until I reviewed all the materials in preparation for this column. To my surprise, I found a second layer of the city’s message to be on target in its support of room-sharing. While the health department is shouting “No bed sharing!” with the billboards, it is whispering “Room sharing is good” in some circumstances. There’s no mention of room-sharing in a recent Milwaukee Courier article by Anna C. Benton, director of Family and Community Health Services for the Milwaukee Health Department, but she advocates the practice in a Journal Sentinel article.

Scroll down the site and you’re advised to “Provide a separate but nearby sleeping environment, meaning: babies should share a room with their parents, but not a bed. The risk of SIDS is reduced when the infant sleeps in the same room as the mother.” I think that many people who saw only the billboard and not the website never heard this important aspect about reducing SIDS.

The health department should better promote this pro-room-sharing detail, and information about ways to safely share a bedroom. For years, it’s been a part of nationwide SIDS reduction efforts like the Back to Sleep campaign.

Unfortunately, the point probably won’t become a dramatic billboard, and many parents will never hear the message. Lots of them will keep bringing their infants into adult beds without information about how to make it safer.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

The Cribs for Kids program provides Milwaukee families with portable cribs to help reduce deaths due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and unsafe sleep. Community professionals, such as a case worker or nurse, may refer families to the Milwaukee Cribs for Kids program by calling (414) 286-8620.

MPS/DPI spat is not just about money—it’s about major classroom changes

February 28, 2010

By Jay Bullock

It’s been hard to miss the news: Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction is on the verge of taking $175 million from the Milwaukee Public Schools, which has led to some acrimony in the press of late.

See, when a district fails to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” on state test scores and other benchmarks, as MPS has failed to do for the last three years, DPI is required by federal law to give MPS a corrective action plan, a list of fixes. Kind of like how the city may come by your house and present you with a list of repairs that will bring you up to code.

MPS has also failed to keep up with many of the critical fixes.

So comes the threat that DPI might withhold Title I federal funds—the only real remedy DPI is permitted to exercise under state law.

Which is huge: A $175 million cut is about one-sixth of MPS’s budget for the 2009-10 school year. It is the cost of educating 12,000 MPS students. It is greater than the base allocated budgets of all the Bay View-area schools combined. It would pay the annual salary of half the district’s teachers.

So what is MPS holding out on? What is worth $175 million for MPS to fight?

In short, nothing more than a near-complete remaking of the way MPS does business.

It may not look like it from the outside, but following the corrective action plan means a much different engine under MPS’s hood, a serious set of changes in the way schools and classroom teachers do their thing.

Take reading, for example. One thing that makes MPS unique is the diverse tapestry that is its elementary schools—including dozens of different approaches to literacy instruction. This gives savvy parents the opportunity to select a program that’s a good fit for their children.

However, MPS has a 15 percent student mobility rate according to this year’s district report card, meaning thousands of students the city over are bouncing around between these different methods of literacy instruction one or more times during the school year. DPI feels—and I can’t say I completely disagree—that if the district whittled down to just two or three different literacy programs, the consistency would benefit those mobile students.

Despite a $200,000 grant from DPI to work with the Council of the Great City Schools to develop a new literacy plan, MPS has missed those benchmarks in the corrective action plan.

Perhaps the biggest DPI—demanded changes spring from a special education complaint and class-action lawsuit begun almost a decade ago. MPS and DPI were both named in the complaint, and they were both on the losing end of a 2007 judgment. DPI opted to settle with the plaintiffs in 2008. MPS appealed, and while everyone waits for the next decision, the remedy imposed by the 2007 judgment is on hold.

Yet DPI has written into its corrective action plan many of the terms of the court’s order—at least in part because it has to following its settlement. The district sees this as a subversion of the legal process, and it is refusing to meet DPI’s benchmarks.

DPI wants MPS to start screening, up to three times a year, every student in math and reading starting in kindergarten, as well as in all subjects required for graduation at the high school level. After the screening, MPS would implement interventions on an individual level for any student who needs it. This is a radical—and likely very expensive—change in the way MPS does business.

But DPI sees the change as necessary for all students in a failing district like MPS, regardless of its origin in a special education lawsuit. “These are things that will help the children of Milwaukee, whether they receive or do not receive special education funds,” said John W. Johnson, DPI’s director of Education Information Services. “These are really about building capacity and systems to educate students without referring to special education.”

In a district with an exploding special education population, such measures make sense. But as long as MPS is fighting this lawsuit, it would be suicidal to make the admission, through following DPI’s order, that it is in the wrong.

And so MPS risks $175 million.

Except, maybe not.

DPI’s Johnson is pretty clear that the state doesn’t really want to keep that money away from MPS. “Any way you cut it,” he told me, “we want to make sure that Milwaukee still gets their funds.” He explained that some of the money may be spent in Milwaukee, but directed by DPI into steps that would fulfill the corrective action plan.

“We are not leaving the ground in Milwaukee,” Johnson said, noting that Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s state superintendent, is in Milwaukee several times a month working with MPS.

MPS needs to make a decision, and soon. Will it remake itself to satisfy DPI—and, frankly, make much-needed changes in the process—or will it continue to hold onto a system that has led to years of embarrassing failure?

Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View High School who blogs at Contact him at

Cracking down on predatory payday loan lenders

February 28, 2010

Last month the state Assembly passed legislation to crack down on the practice of predatory payday lending in Wisconsin. I have been a longtime advocate for capping the interest rate that these loan companies can charge consumers. However, that idea did not garner enough support among my colleagues. The final language of the bill offers meaningful consumer protection and gained wide bipartisan support.

The Responsible Lending Act, as the legislation has been dubbed, bans auto-title loans; caps loans at a maximum of $600 or 35 percent of the borrower’s biweekly income, whichever is less; and restricts the practice of rollovers. A rollover happens when a borrower does not have the money to repay the loan when it comes due. The borrower then makes another loan to pay back the first one. These rollovers trap people in a cycle of debt, all too often leaving them in financial ruin. This bill goes a long way toward protecting people against these unfair practices.

In addition to these restrictions, the bill provides borrowers the option of repaying the outstanding debt over four equal payments, without incurring any additional penalties or fees. This will help make repayment of these loans more manageable for many people. Loan companies must also disclose the interest rates and fees that are associated with the payday loan.

All of these provisions are a step in the right direction to rein in this predatory industry. The national financial crisis has been fueled in part by a lack of regulatory oversight of the financial industry. In Wisconsin, the payday loan industry has exploded over the last 15 years from just two payday stores in 1995 to over 500 in 2008. This legislation cracks down on a system that prioritizes the profit of loan sharks over the protection of consumers. Wisconsin will no longer be fertile ground for predatory payday loan companies to do business.

Jon Richards is the state representative for Wisconsin’s 19th state Assembly District, which includes Bay View, the Third Ward, eastern downtown, and the East Side. His website is He can be reached at (888) 534-0019 or

Providing city loans for energy efficiency improvements

February 28, 2010

I introduced an ordinance to make Milwaukee one of the first cities in the country to set up a revolving loan fund program for energy efficiency improvements.

Promoting solar power is critical not only for our environment, but for our economy and for job creation as well. Solar emits no greenhouse gases, as fossil fuels do. Additionally, solar would allow us to purchase less fossil fuel from overseas, and create jobs in the installation and manufacturing market.

Historically, the barrier to people installing solar panels has been the high upfront cost. This rotating loan fund requires a minimal amount of money up front, and the homeowner can pay the city back over a 15-year time period. The idea is that most of the money will come from money saved as a result of not having to purchase power from a carrier.

Milwaukee has received a federal grant to fund the initial lending program, and is actively soliciting funds from foundations and other outside sources in order to expand service to more homes. In these tight fiscal times, it’s crucial that we continue to assemble great programs like this with minimal tax impact.

This ordinance was considered before the Community and Economic Development Committee Feb. 22. I have broad support for this legislation, and anticipate it being approved by the full council when it next meets March 2. Anybody who is interested in participating in this loan fund should contact me at (414) 286-3769 or

Tony Zielinski is the city of Milwaukee’s alderman for the 14th District, which includes Bay View. He can be reached at or (414) 286-3769.

Help the census

February 28, 2010

Every decade, the United States conducts a census, a constitutionally mandated population count. In March, you will receive a 2010 census form. It is important that you participate in this year’s census for your quality of life and your community.

The census gathers information about populations, a task that sounds very general. However, the information is used for purposes that directly affect you as an individual in the state of Wisconsin.

Our population determines how many congressional seats we get. If numbers decrease enough, we lose a congressional seat and have one less Wisconsin voice in the House of Representatives. Conversely, substantial population growth could result in an additional seat and increase Wisconsin’s presence in Washington.

The information is also used to determine how billions of dollars are distributed by the government for programs based on demographics and populations. Greater participation provides more accurate data that is used to make decisions about schools, roads, and other local services. Your participation will ensure that you are considered when public health issues arise, when companies seek skilled labor populations, when businesses are making decisions about whether to locate in your community, and when decisions are made regarding emergency services.

The U.S. Census Bureau is hiring 48,000 people in Wisconsin alone. Most of these limited-term positions are census takers in field operations and pay $11.50 to $15 per hour. Each household receives a census questionnaire. Census workers will be sent to residences who fail to return the form.

Applicants must be at least 18 years old, have a valid Social Security number, and pass a background check. Many of the positions involve going door to door, which requires a vehicle. Employees will be reimbursed for mileage and expenses. Applicants must complete a 30-minute basic skills test. Bilingual candidates are encouraged to apply, and materials will be provided in several languages.

Please pass on the word about census jobs and the importance of the census to others in the community. If you would like more information regarding positions with the Census Bureau call 1 (866) 861-2010, or visit

Jeff Plale is the state senator for Wisconsin’s Seventh Senate District, which spans from Milwaukee’s East Side to Oak Creek, including downtown, the Third Ward, Bay View, St. Francis, Cudahy, and South Milwaukee. He can be reached locally at (414) 744-1444 or in Madison at (800) 361-5487 or

Next Page »