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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Philosopher Roofer

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Jim Godsil could be called many things, but “philosopher roofer” is one handle that should stick. When he’s not fixing roofs for a living, Godsil can be overheard in engaging conversations at coffee shops, seen around town as a community activist and read on his Milwaukee Renaissance Web site, whose mission is encapsulated in its name. The one-time Fulbright scholar marched with Martin Luther King, roofed a Habitat for Humanity house with Jimmy Carter and co-founded the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, the Bay View Neighborhood Association and other important local organizations. He came to Milwaukee from his hometown, St. Louis, in 1969.

Why Milwaukee?

I had a romantic attachment to Milwaukee since I was a boy. I collected baseball statistics and learned that the Milwaukee Braves drew 2 million people a year from a metro area of 1 million. It made me think the people of Milwaukee were special. In high school I became inspired by the Progressive movement, the Wisconsin Idea, that anticipated the New Deal’s concern for labor and consumer rights and the responsibility of government for the public good. In 1969 I turned down a prestigious fellowship at Washington University for a fellowship at UW-Milwaukee’s political science department.

What struck you about Milwaukee in those days?

When I got here, Milwaukee was one of the highest-paid cities in the country in terms of working-class wages. I was also struck by how little urban decay there was compared to St. Louis and Chicago.

How did you go from political science to roofing?

My dissertation on symbolic violence and cultural imperialism in the imposition of Western values on non-Western nations seemed totally inappropriate for UWM’s conservative political science department. It was important for me not to push through a dissertation that was a lie. I had a child and needed to make a living. I’d done roofing in high school and college. If you can climb a two-story ladder and put shingles on straight, and have a capacity for paying attention to details, you can get a job. I love the work, the sheer physical energy involved.

What are the challenges and opportunities facing Milwaukee in light of the Great Recession?

I have a hunch that we’re going to be forced to participate in gales of creative destruction where institutions and enterprises we’ve relied upon to serve as our anchors might not be there. It behooves us to explore alternative ways of responding to the imperatives of life—food, shelter, transportation, heat, fuel. A theory I have as to a possible road to take involves the marriage of cooperative movements with the sustainability movement—in particular, solar technology, urban farming, the rehabbing and improving of existing buildings. We may see denser and more cooperative living arrangements and “small is beautiful” design. Turn your single-family home into a duplex, for example. We will have to become more self-reliant in the context of community building.

Jim Godsil | Photo by Miranda Chaput