Sunday, September 9, 2012

Urban Ecology Center opens in the Menomonee Valley

The Urban Ecology Center opened in 1991. No, wait – it just opened today.* Yes; and the fact that both statements are true is a tribute to the entire community and provides hope for the future of Milwaukee – and the world. Hyperbole? One of Thoreau’s most famous quotes is often taken out of context: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” he wrote; and then he went on: “Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price.” If Thoreau only knew how desperate is the need in most cities today, over one hundred and fifty years after he penned those words!

But we in Milwaukee are more fortunate than most. Not only do we have a wealth of “wildness” in the form of natural areas in our parks, but also we have one of the most remarkable and effective educational resources in the country heralding its importance.

The Urban Ecology Center first began bringing Milwaukee’s inner city school children to nature back in 1991. What opened today was the newest of three branches of the Urban Ecology Center, at 3700 W. Pierce St. in the Menomonee Valley. 

Ken Leinbach, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center with Kate Morgan of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin on the rooftop deck, which overlooks the Menomonee River in the background.

If you’re a follower of Urban Wilderness you know I love the Urban Ecology Center. I think it’s one of the very best things Milwaukee has going for it. One of the things I love the most is hearing the stories about the Center and the experiences children have as a direct result of the Center’s programs. 

From the podium at the opening ceremonies, Ken Leinbach, and Beth Heller, Branch Coordinator, mused about the day in 1991 when they first formulated the idea. “This was before we even had the trailer in Riverside Park,” Leinbach said. “We knew even then that we wanted a branch in Washington Park. We knew we wanted to serve the South Side. And now, here we are next to a park that’s being built from scratch!”

Ask Leinbach about the Valley Passage, which is a short tunnel under a single railroad track that provides the new Center – and the nearby Silver City community – access to the Menomonee River, the Hank AaronState Trail, and the unfinished park. He will tell you about the intense negotiations – with the City, the County, the railroad and the companies it serves, among others – that were necessary to make that passage possible. …And the remarkable single night of construction that it took to build the passage under a working rail line that couldn’t be interrupted even for one day.

Beth Heller introduced Glenna Holstein, whose personal story exemplifies the mission of the Center better than any other. As a teen Glenna experienced some of the earliest programing offered by the Center in its infamous double-wide trailer in Riverside Park (before the construction of their current multimillion dollar, award-winning, 20,000 sq. ft. “green”building.) Glenna now has come full circle. Her new job, as branch manager of the Menomonee Valley Branch of the Urban Ecology Center has just begun.

Glenna Holstein helps Aniyah plant a seedling along the Hank Aaron State Trail in the still unfinished park.

The most moving story in a long series of moving stories came from Laura Bray, Executive Director of the Menomonee Valley Partners, a non-profit that shares much of the glory in the celebrations of this opening ceremony. She recalled growing up near the Milwaukee River in the 1980s. But she was not allowed to go there because it was unsafe. When it was her turn to raise children, she said, she deliberately moved to the Riverwest neighborhood so that she could encourage her children to go to the Milwaukee River and break the cycle of disengagement with nature. The tears in her eyes brought tears to my own. Children need nature. In Wildness is the preservation of the world – and our physical and mental health. We all need safe parks and rivers.

The fact that the Milwaukee River, and now the Menomonee River, have safe parks for us to take our children to today is due in no small part to the Urban Ecology Center.

Celebrants of all ages were serenaded by a mariachi band and other musicians.

 A beautiful mosaic mural hangs in the new Center. It was made by neighborhood children, teens and adults under the direction of mosaic artist Leann Wooten, who was on hand to explain some of the symbolism. References to rivers, flowers and trees are clear enough, but the three moons represent the three branches of the Urban Ecology Center itself. Most important, she said, it is the spirit of collaboration that went into its creation. This symbolizes a world in which we are all connected not only to each other but also to the natural world all around us. In Wildness is the preservation….

Urban Ecology Center educator Dan Graves leads a diverse and enthusiastic crowd as they head out to plant native wildflowers in the new park.

Everett plants a seedling.

Beekeeping is in the planning stage at this new Center, but several beehive frames ready to be harvested were imported for the day. Below, family members Seamus, Anna, and their mother, Beth, help scrap the wax cap from a frame of cells.

On this first day the Center is already doing what it does best: allowing children, of all ages, to get their hands dirty – and sticky!

Sandwiched between the Menomonee River and the still active railroad line, Milwaukee’s newest park, as yet unnamed, is taking shape. Not only is it being “built from scratch,” but it reintroduces nature into the most industrialized and long abused valley in the region, if not the state. Thoreau, were he alive to reflect on it, might amend his famous prescription: In urban wildness is the preservation of the world. If our children can’t experience nature where they live, in cities, then the future will be bleak. Here in Milwaukee, at the Urban Ecology Center and in the Menomonee Valley, there is a vision for a brighter future.

*I wrote this on Saturday, September 8, 2012.

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