Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Kinnickinnic River and community development: A makeover

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A south-side community fills a void created by flooding

The truck that was to deliver the flowers was late but no one seemed to mind. Neighbors chatted amiably in Spanish. Staffers from the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers had set up two tents for an annual spring plant sale. The tents and the people milling around them seemed very small in the broad, vacant city block between the Kinnickinnic River and the row of houses fronting W. Harrison Ave .

Propelled by several impatient children, a few people went across the vestigial dead-end street to the adjacent city block, also largely vacant. Raised beds for community gardens had been built and fenced in a small corner of the block. Volunteers showed the kids how to pull weeds and rake the soil in preparation for planting. Incrementally, the community is reclaiming empty land that stretches four long city blocks alongside the river. 

Not long ago all of those blocks were filled with houses. The reason for their removal is as concrete as the river that bisects the neighborhood. The Kinnickinnic River has literally been lined with concrete since the 1960s. It looks more like a drainage ditch than a river. This was no accident. At the time it was believed that channelization would solve the problem of flooding.

Today the channeled river seems more like a catastrophe than a solution. While the drastic measure did reduce flooding for a time, it also degraded water quality, destroyed all semblance of wildlife habitat within and along the waterway and increased the threat of drowning. Now, ironically, even the original intent of the channel is no longer effective. The past 50 years has seen the floodplain rise dramatically. If nothing were done to alleviate the new circumstances, a major storm could inundate as many as 350 homes in the neighborhood.

Which is why the houses have been purchased and, one by one, dismantled. The removal of the houses is just part of a major flood management initiative led by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and partners have been implementing quality of life improvements from a companion plan called the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Neighborhood Plan. The most dramatic and eagerly awaited changes—the removal of the concrete channel and rehabilitation of a naturalized river—will come later. The most trying task is currently underway: asking families to move and tearing down houses.

Over 60 homes have already come down. Hence the vacant land. Last week I was able to observe the workers as they dismantled another. Although more expensive than traditional demolition, the MMSD has opted for a process called deconstruction. Forgoing the bulldozer for manual labor, everything salvageable or recyclable is painstakingly removed from the house. Usable appliances and fixtures are set aside. Plaster walls are pummeled until they reveal the lathe and studs beneath, which become recycled wood.

House demolition usually generates a huge amount of indiscriminately crushed debris that is hauled off to landfills. The more laborious deconstruction process enables materials to be separated for recycling and reduces what ends up in a landfill.

The process began here years ago. Numerous neighborhood meetings were conducted to explain the project and build community support. Initially, there was concern and hesitation about the acquisition and removal of homes. However, now that the work has progressed as far as it has the mood has shifted. According to Iris Gonzalez at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, many people have become not just supportive but excited about the project. There is even some impatience at the pace of the work.

As more houses come down and more land stands vacant, people have begun to imagine its eventual transformation. They anticipate the planned new parkland and an actual river running through the neighborhood. The project is supposed to be completed in 2022.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood has begun to fill the void. In addition to the community gardens some temporary public art has been erected on another corner of cleared land.

I wander back to the tents. The truck has arrived. A crowd gathers to help unload the plants and get them ready for sale. People are lined up to make their selections. The Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers staff is joined by young volunteers who help carry potted flowers back to cars and nearby homes. The annual event is called “Bloom and Groom.” It is subsidized by the collaborative efforts of Urban Anthropology and Sixteenth Street CHC along with grants from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Neighborhood Improvement Development Corporation. The organizers hope that investing in flowers and improving the appearance of the neighborhood will be a visible demonstration of pride and commitment to the future.

The flowers are beautiful in the bright morning sun and the smiles on everyone’s faces, it seems to me, are a clear sign of that hope and pride.

To see more photos from the KK River and the neighborhood go to my flickr album.

If you missed my recent post about the Earth Day clean up of the KK River, click here.

Full disclosure: I am connected to the two lead organizations responsible for the KK River Flood Management Project and Neighborhood Plan. I am working with the MMSD to document the current phase of the KK River Project and until recently my daughter was employed by the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers. But if you check out my flickr photos it will be clear that I've been interested in this work long before any of that!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Year in the Menomonee Valley on exhibit at WPCA

You're invited!

Please join me for

Eddee Daniel: A Year in the Valley
Witnessing Menomonee Valley Revitalization

May 29 - July 11

Opening reception: Friday, May 29, 5-9 pm.

Walker's Point Center for the Arts
839 South 5th Street
Milwaukee, WI

The exhibition will feature photography and stories from my 2014 tenure as the Menomonee Valley Partners' inaugural Artist in Residence.

The Menomonee Valley, once blighted and shunned, is in the midst of a dramatic and well-orchestrated transformation and has become a nationally renowned model for sustainable urban redevelopment. It was an honor and a joy to have had the opportunity to observe and document part of that transformation. I hope you'll come to see the results.

In addition to the opening reception, there will be a panel discussion on Thursday, June 18, 6–9 pm. Representatives from Menomonee Valley Partners, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Urban Ecology
Center, Sixteenth Street Community Health Center and the Harbor District will join me to discuss Menomonee Valley revitalization – its history, ongoing development and future plans.

For more information about the exhibit go to WPCA.

For a lot more information about my year in the Menomonee Valley, including photographs, essays, and stories, go to the website that I created for the purpose.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Horicon Marsh: A poetic and photographic odyssey

The marsh was burning. I’ve known for some time about changing forest management practices. I knew that controlled burning is now widely accepted as a method to control invasive species as well as to prevent uncontrolled, destructive wildfires. But it hadn’t occurred to me that a wetland would burn.

I was in Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge with my friend Charlie. We happened upon a crew in the midst of a controlled burn authorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Traveling around the marsh we noted many areas that had been visibly burned, some quite recently, others during the past year. Evidence of burning became one of my photographic themes during our odyssey.

Charlie is a poet. We share similar values, including a reverence for nature, and we like to get away together now and then to soak up some of it. We usually choose a place within a couple of hours drive that is near a park or natural area. Horicon Marsh, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S. and less than an hour from Milwaukee, easily fits the bill. 

We dawdled for two days, walking trails in several parts of the marsh. As will become clear when you read Charlie’s poetic contribution below, I did more walking than he did. We stopped at both the federal and state visitor’s centers. Yes, there are two contiguous sanctuaries, the State Wildlife Area as well as the National Wildlife Refuge. Not that you can tell by looking at the topography (although we humans couldn’t leave well enough alone—a dike roughly coincides with the boundary.)

By the second day we had circumnavigated the entire marsh, both state-owned and federal. We even discovered Nitschke Mounds County Park filled with dozens of ancient, but un-photogenic, Indian mounds (above). Unlike the wildlife refuges, which were popular, we had the mounds to ourselves—and the thousand-year-old spirits of Late Woodland Culture effigy mound builders.

People often visit Horicon to see the birds and we certainly saw plenty, although migration was far from peak. We saw mostly the ubiquitous Canada geese and a variety of ducks. I also tallied a flock of Sandhill Cranes (above), a couple flocks of swans, a deuce each of prairie chickens and wild turkeys, bluebirds and some kind of swift. Plus numerous unidentifiable (by me) other birds.

And 16 turtles. You won’t see many birds in the photos. Gotta admit I’ve never been patient enough to be a wildlife photographer. Turtles are sitting ducks, so to speak, so I caught a few of them. Mostly I focused on my customary and oppositional themes: revealing the enchantment of nature near my urban haunts and finding traces of humanity’s presence in natural landscapes. The burns were an enthralling bonus.

Charlie wrote the following poem. I took photos. More selections below.


Goose honk and bird chirp,
the blue-brown landscape
of marsh grass and water,
a few dead trees scratch the sky.
This is a place for birding,
but I’m here for loafing.
I’m good at it, lying here
with my head on a rock.
The afternoon sun, warm
on my face and jeans,
blue bird atop the blue bird house,
turkey vulture overhead.
Times like this I realize
if you stay still and wait long enough,
nature comes to you.

Charlie Rossiter, April, 2015

To see more photos go to my flickr album.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Milwaukee County parkland threatened by gun club’s plan for shooting range

This story was first published (edited and with fewer photos) as a column for Milwaukee Magazine with the title, A Bullseye View: A Milwaukee County park on Lake Michigan may be threatened by a Cudahy gun club’s new shooting range.

A persistent, hollow rat-a-tat-tat echoed from somewhere unseen, deepening the woods. Clearly a woodpecker; seemingly a large one. Then, close by, a lighter tapping drew my eye upwards. Short bursts, like stitching, repeated at irregular intervals. A small black and white downy woodpecker flitted along the tree line next to the trail. Suddenly it was directly overhead, tapping a dead branch. In a moment it was gone. Wildlife enthusiasts live for such ephemeral moments.

I had come to Warnimont Park in early April with my friend Karen Johnson, a birder who—unlike me—can tell a downy woodpecker from a red-bellied one just by the sound it makes. We continued along the bike path, listening, looking for movement amongst the trees, bright with morning sun but still gray and leafless in the lingering Wisconsin winter. The light, lively chatter, Karen said, was mostly chickadees that have been around all winter. Their bright chirps vary from a high-pitched, serene “sweet-tee” to the occasional, more urgent “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” for which they are named.

Although it is early in the season we were hoping to hear and see a few of the migrating birds that congregate in Warnimont on their annual trek north from distant wintering areas. We have two reasons for coming to this particular park. The relative wildness of the middle section of the park along with a diversity of habitats make it one of the premier locations in Milwaukee County for birders. For my part, I wanted to see what might be lost if a controversial plan to create a shooting range in the middle of it is approved.

At its north end, next to Warnimont Golf Course, the park currently has a shooting range that is slated to close. Operated by the 83-year old Cudahy Sportsmen’s Club (CSC), the range has been used for decades by gun-owners and, occasionally, by local law-enforcement. It also has been a magnet for controversy. Its bluff-top location causes lead shot to be deposited into Lake Michigan, a serious hazard to aquatic wildlife as well as a violation of both the federal Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation Recovery Act. As a result, the Milwaukee County Parks Department finally terminated the CSC’s lease in November, 2014.

When it faced identical circumstances, the Milwaukee Gun Club, once located on the lakeshore at the north end of Lincoln Memorial Drive, was compelled to close in 1992. At Warnimont, the Parks Dept. granted the club a one-year extension, allowing operations to continue with the stipulation that steel be used instead of lead shot. But a new controversy looms over the club’s plan to relocate.

Karen and I continued to walk along the winding Oak Leaf Trail. She abruptly raised her binoculars to identify a small, yellowish shape that shot across our path. A golden-crowned kinglet, she tells me with relish, an early migrant. The woodland thins and opens into a broad meadow dotted with low shrubs. Joggers and cyclists swerve around us on the trail.

We head off into the meadow on a dirt path, following a stuttering call that Karen identifies as a song sparrow. Before long we are doubly rewarded. We spot the song sparrow among brambles and then farther along a dark-eyed junco perched atop a leafless bush.

Individually, the woodland and the meadow provide excellent cover and distinct habitats for a wide variety of local and migrating birds. Together, however, they create a remarkably diverse ecosystem, one that’s hard to match in Milwaukee County. The convergence of two habitats, such as the woods and the meadow, creates what naturalists call an ecotone or a point of transition. The mingling of species that occurs in an ecotone makes for a particularly rich environment for wildlife. This is what draws so many birders to Warnimont.

The Cudahy Sportsmen’s Club would like to create its new shooting range smack in the center of this county park’s exquisite and irreplaceable natural area. According to CSC president Tom Ahmad, the design of the range would include six trap and skeet machines, a tall shot curtain and an earth berm between the range and the bluff. Also, unlike the current range, a chain-link fence would surround the new one. The curtain and berm are necessary to protect off-road cyclists, hikers and dog-walkers who frequent the bluff-top path. They also would facilitate clean up of plastic shot wads and broken clay targets, which has been another point of contention at the current site. Bright, often toxic fragments of targets litter the steep, deeply eroded escarpment and plastic wads drift onto popular beaches below.

To the untrained or utilitarian eye, a meadow in a park might seem like the ideal place to develop—unruly grass in an already open space. That’s one of the reasons upland meadows and prairies are among the most endangered habitats in the country. But many bird species require precisely those conditions. Its proximity to the Lake Michigan flyway makes Warnimont Park especially attractive to seasonal migrants. The prospect of bulldozing this exceptional landscape—a jewel in Milwaukee County’s park system—has ignited passionate opposition.

Members of the local chapter of the Audubon Society are incensed. The chapter has posted a petition online opposing the proposed location of the shooting range, addressed to County Supervisor Jursik, whose jurisdiction includes Cudahy. The petition has over 500 signatures. And birders are not the only vocal opponents.

Jursik says that she has received calls from people opposed to the proposal “for all kinds of reasons.” Park neighbors are alarmed that the already disturbing noise of shooting would be moved closer to homes near S. Lake Dr. Aurora St. Luke’s South Shore Hospital on S. Lake Dr. is “very concerned” about it, Jursik says.

The gun club proposal, which has not yet been formally submitted, would clear cut a very sensitive ecological area of mixed conifers, hardwoods, and meadow—and one of the highest points on the western shore of Lake Michigan. It also would move the heavily used Oak Leaf Trail away from the rugged scenery along the bluff to a new route adjacent to S. Lake Dr. thus diminishing the recreational experience. The vast majority of those users have not heard of the proposal and therefore have not weighed in on the controversy.

Gun club members have framed their position as a gun rights issue. “This is totally false,” says Jursik. “It has nothing to do with second amendment rights.” The issue is appropriate land use in a beautiful public park.

When the plan was first announced the club mounted a highly visible public relations campaign to muster support, enlisting the aid of talk radio. After an initial flurry of calls from club supporters, says Jursik, “in the last 2-3 months, all of my calls have been in opposition.”

Milwaukee County is under no obligation to provide a place for the gun club, according to Guy Smith, chief of operations for Milwaukee County Parks. The club has other options on private land. Jursik says the Winchester Gun Club in Racine is willing to accommodate them.

Parks Director John Dargle expects a decision to be made by June, 2016, once a detailed proposal is submitted and after engineering and environmental impact studies and public hearings are completed.

Although I’ve cycled through Warnimont on the Oak Leaf Trail many times, I had never stopped to explore it until I learned of this issue. In the past month I’ve returned several times. I’ve seen the snow melt away and the first blush of spring buds begin to green the woodlands. Thanks to several members of the Audubon Society I’ve seen a wider variety of birds than I knew existed—and heard many more that went unseen. I’m looking forward to May when the buds will have opened, grasses will have greened, and a full array of migratory birds will arrive. 

For more photos (along with captions) from Warnimont Park, click here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Earth Day: A community cleans up the KK

Which do you think is the more powerful metaphor?

A) While picking up trash along the concrete-lined Kinnickinnic River I found a framed print of exotic waterfowl discarded in riverside bushes.

B) Two hundred community members turned out last Saturday to pick up trash along a stretch of their river that has been little more than a drainage ditch for over 40 years.

The irony of the sentimental wildlife print discarded near the degraded river is good for a chuckle, but I choose B as the more important metaphor. The KK River Neighbors Association and the 16th St. Community Health Center turned people out in force to join in the annual Earth Day cleanup sponsored by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. The symbolism is clear: the community cares about its environment and is hopeful about the future of its maligned waterway.

The reason for that hope is as concrete as the river channel: The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has begun a multi-year project to remove said concrete channel and restore a more natural flow to the Kinnickinnic River. Judging from the enthusiastic comments I heard repeatedly on Saturday, the community is thrilled at the prospect.

Acres of cleared land between Harrison Street (background) and the KK River (behind me) are evidence of progress on MMSD’s rehabilitation project. After houses in the flood-prone area are purchased and demolished the concrete channel will be removed and the river reconfigured within a landscaped park.

After two hours of picking up trash near the river and throughout the neighborhood on either side everyone gathered at another concrete symbol of the river’s revitalization. The concrete channel, which until recently extended east to the I-94 overpass, now ends just shy of the 6th St. Bridge. The first phase of the MMSD project was completed in 2011. In addition to removing the concrete channel a newly dedicated KK River Trail was created alongside the rehabilitated stream.

A huge crowd that included cleanup teams from several sites on the KK gathered along the 6th St segment of the KK River Trail for a “Trash Bash” organized by the event sponsors. Free pizza and burritos were available to all. There were family-friendly interactive displays related to water and the river. A team of scientists from UW—Madison were on hand to help folks learn more about their river.

The UW team provided hip waders for the public to borrow so that they could physically immerse themselves in the river. “Having kids and adults connect with the river in that way is huge,” said Iris Gonzalez, one of the organizers from the 16th St. Community Health Center. “Most of them were very hesitant to try but, after watching others (in some cases their own children), they were convinced. It is experiences like feeling the pressure of the water against your body, or the waders suck onto your legs when you step in and seeing fish and fish eggs up close that foment a spirit of stewardship.”

Local children spray water onto a watershed model that illustrates how water flows are affected by varying slopes, soils and vegetation conditions.

The success of the “Trash Bash” in bringing the community down to the river, to activate the new trail and to celebrate the transformation that is underway was a major achievement. Many in the neighborhood had not ventured there before, according to Gonzalez. However, she told me proudly, “I know they will be back!”

The event culminated in a spectacular demonstration of hydraulic flows and river dynamics. Peter Levi, the UW limnologist heading the team of scientists, poured red dye into the river just east of the 6th St. Bridge. At first the dye turned the water bright scarlet and then expanded to fill the width of the river. The dye gradually dissipated as it swirled downstream, around rocks and settled into pools. It was a crowd pleaser and a lovely end to the Earth Day river cleanup.

A brief series of photos from the day follows.

To see even more photos from this event go to my flickr album.

Full disclosure: I am substantially connected to many of the organizations responsible for the cleanup and KK River Project because the work they are doing is dear to my soul. As a former board member of Milwaukee Riverkeeper I have participated in most (if not all—I don’t quite recall) of their 20 annual river cleanups. I am working with the MMSD to document the current phase of the KK River Project. On top of that until recently my daughter, Chelsea, was employed by the 16th St. Community Health Center. And Chelsea brought my only (so far) granddaughter to help out with the cleanup. She’s only 3 years old, so she mostly played on the Cleveland Park playground and ate pizza at the Trash Bash. Hey, I said “full disclosure!” Oh, and Chelsea took my picture with this funny-looking fish.

More photos on flickr.