Tuesday, January 21, 2014

3 Bridges Park is a contender for a MANDI Award

Ribbon cutting for the 3 Bridges Park opening
MANDI stands for The Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation. The annual awards, given out by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), recognize outstanding efforts to revitalize Milwaukee's central city neighborhoods. According to the MANDI page on LISC’s website, the goal of the award “is to lift up the inspiring stories of people and projects working to ensure that Milwaukee's central city is a great place to live, work, play and grow.”

Awards are given in six categories. Three Bridges Park is one of three finalists for the Brewers Community Foundation Public Space Award, which recognizes a public space that helps build the community. The other two finalists are the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum and Journey House Packers Football Stadium.

I feel the need to say at the outset that these are all exemplary projects. I don’t envy the job of the volunteers who make the final selection, which might seem a little like choosing the best of your three children. All three will help make Milwaukee’s central city a better place to live, work, play and grow. And yet, I personally find the story of Three Bridges Park the most inspiring. Furthermore, the “story” of the park is more like a compilation of many stories told from many different points of view.

Last week the awards committee visited the Menomonee Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center, which is adjacent to the park. They were there in order to hear testimony from stakeholders and neighbors about the value of the park, to hear their stories. The hearing is part of the rigorous and thoughtful analysis and discernment process that leads to selection of the award winner from amongst the finalists.

Some of those stories came from people in leadership positions who were instrumental in the creation and development of the park. Laura Bray, Executive Director of the Menomonee Valley Partners, gave an overview of the park. A video allowed us all to quickly experience, vicariously, the joy of people of all ages skiing and snowshoeing in the wintry conditions outside.

Ken Leinbach, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center, began with the word, “transformation.” Milwaukee’s newest park was created from scratch, “from the ground up,” as its promoters like to say. An abandoned rail yard next to a formerly polluted river is now a welcoming place to experience nature. The Menomonee River has been there all these years, he said, no more than 25 yards from some of the houses in the neighborhood. Any yet it was completely inaccessible until now.

Melissa Cook, the DNR’s Trail Manager for the Hank Aaron State Trail, explained the importance of the connectivity provided by the new park. A section of the Hank Aaron Trail runs through the park. Along with the eponymous 3 bridges and the Valley Passage Tunnel, the trail creates linkages between Mitchell Park, the new Menomonee Valley Branch of the Urban Ecology Center, Miller Park stadium, the entire Valley itself, the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond.

Several business leaders were there because visionary redevelopment plans that included Three Bridges Park had led them to bring their businesses back to a Menomonee Valley that had seen industries and jobs depart for decades previously. The Wisconsin Bike Federation decided that being adjacent to Three Bridges Park was an ideal location for its members, who bike there from all over the Milwaukee region.

Eloquent as many of the leaders were, some of the most inspiring stories came from people who live in the neighborhoods nearby.

Several people who live and work in the Silver City neighborhood that abuts the park to the south described with great passion how important it is to have a safe park, open green space, and a clean river so close for their children to enjoy nature. Three nearby neighborhoods, among the most densely populated in the state, had little parkland before. Now they can bike, explore and fish in Three Bridges Park.

A woman who came in her wheelchair applauded the developers of Three Bridges Park for making it so accessible.

A young father told the story that moved many in the audience to tears, including me. He and his wife moved to the Merrill Park neighborhood just north of the Valley last year and their first child was born at the same time as Three Bridges Park. He took the baby out to the park for her first portrait next to one of the newly planted trees. They plan to repeat the process yearly to mark the growth: of his daughter and the tree and the park.

I myself spoke about the experience of “discovering” the resurgence of feral wildlife in the post industrial brownfields of the Menomonee Valley many years ago during my explorations of what I came to call the urban wilderness. Since then I’ve seen a metamorphosis that seems as miraculous as that which turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. But there is no miracle in the intentionality of this enterprise, which is the result of hard work, dedication to a visionary plan and devotion to the needs of an urban community.

Glenna Holstein, director of the Menomonee Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center, capped off the session by asserting that the story of Three Bridges Park is story of hope. Three Bridges Park is a good news story for young people growing up in a world of bad news. It is a story about the environment that stands in contrast to the all too common gloom and doom of pollution, global warming and habitat destruction; one that is uplifting about something we are doing right to make a brighter future.

The MANDI Awards are a program of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and sponsored by US Bank. The MANDI Award winners will be announced at the MANDI Award ceremony on April 9, 2014 at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For more information, visit the LISC website.

The images accompanying this post were taken during the Three Bridges Park opening ceremonies in July, 2013. To see more images from the event click here.

To see a video of the opening ceremonies click here. 

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