Thursday, February 27, 2014

Potholes close Menomonee River Parkway

Everyone complains about the potholes these days--with good reason! The unusually severe conditions this winter have combined with years of increasing government austerity (thanks to anti-tax political attitudes) to leave many roads in deplorable shape. Driving has become a little like what we saw in the slalom events at the recent Olympics. Only far slower (if you care about your car.)

However, if you've tried to drive on the heavily traveled section of the Menomonee River Parkway between North Avenue and the Village of Wauwatosa in the past week you've noticed that a section is completely closed. If you haven't already heard, the closure is due to the potholes, which extend in several spots clear across the width of the roadway. As you can see in this example.

The closure isn't absolute. I've seen cars slip around the barricades on several occasions. In fact, there are residential driveways that must remain accessible in that stretch. Even so, I was surprised by the appearance of this Arctic Ice truck, which clearly had no business on the parkway even if it had not been closed. Trucking is not allowed on Menomonee River Parkway. The parkway was bad anyway--has been for years--and the plowing is largely to blame for the extent of the damage, I'm sure. But scofflaw truckers can't be a good sign.

To read more about the parkway pothole problem in Wauwatosa NOW, go to "Menomonee Parkway a victim of potholes, crumbling pavement."

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Monarch Trail at Milwaukee County Grounds featured on TV

Followers of Urban Wilderness know that the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa is among my favorite places. I try to keep abreast of ongoing developments. One of the most significant among many remarkable features of that diverse urban landscape is the Monarch butterfly migration. Historically, migrating Monarchs have roosted there in great numbers. It is one of the few known roosting sites in the region. The planners and developers of Innovation Park, UWM's research accelerator and business campus, have honored the phenomenon by setting aside an 11-acre portion of their development zone as butterfly habitat. And there is a dedicated group of volunteers who maintain the Monarch Trail for the ever increasing throngs of people who have discovered how beautiful it is.

Of course none of this is happening in February, so you may be wondering why I bring it up.

Last August, when it was happening, MPTV sent a camera crew to cover the story and interview some of the principle people involved. These include the indefatigable leader of the Friends of the Monarch Trail, Barb Agnew, and Sue Borkin, a biologist with the Milwaukee Public Museum. The video they created has just been released. You can see it on Adelante!

The video explains the unique character of the Monarch migration, the significance of the County Grounds as a stopover on that migration, and threats to the Monarch population and the continuation of the migration. These threats include the loss of critical species like milkweed (below), which is the Monarch caterpillar's only source of nutrients. The video also shows the Friends of the Monarch Trail leading the effort to involve more people in preservation and enjoyment of the site (above).

Although Adelante! is a Spanish language program, don't be deterred by the introduction, which is in Spanish with English subtitles. The people who are interviewed during the segment all speak in English. The Monarch segment is at the beginning of the program and lasts about ten minutes.

Check it out: Monarch Migration.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Cross-country in the heart of the city

The idea of skiing in the park hit me like sunshine breaking through an overcast, wintry sky. You see it wasn’t my idea.

Skiing wasn’t on my mind when I walked into the Menomonee Valley Branch of the Urban Ecology Center. In fact I hadn’t thought about skiing in years. My intention had been to revisit Three Bridges Park—on foot, with my camera. The stop at the UEC was to see if there might be kids heading out to the park to sled on its hills. It had snowed earlier in the day and I was hoping to shoot some action.

As I enter, Omar, the UEC’s Visitors Services Assistant, greets me in the reception area. No, he says, the last group for the day had just left. When I tell him I am heading out to the park he asks, “Would you like to take skis?”

I am taken aback. Why have I never done this before? It isn’t as if I hadn’t known about the UEC’s free rental program for members. In warmer seasons I’ve borrowed canoes and often I’ve encouraged people to become members by telling them about this wonderful membership perk.

“Yes!” I exclaim, with equal parts gratitude for the suggestion and surprise at my own enthusiasm. I don’t even hesitate to dwell on out of tune muscles. If no one else is going to be out there why not provide the action I came to see!

We head upstairs to the corridor where a long, colorful row of skis stands in ascending heights. The shortest ones appear far too small for any real people who might go skiing! Then, overruling myself, I muse that even the younger elementary school children would probably be far better at this than I. Ha! Omar confirms this: kids as young as 4 go out with skis, he says.

Omar quickly outfits me with skis and poles. We descend to the lower level for boots. How long has it been since I’ve worn cross-country ski boots? Their sleek and efficient design feels futuristic, probably because I inhabit a future I couldn’t imagine when last I skied. Feeling anachronistic, like George Jetson, I lace them up. As Omar gives me a quick tutorial to refresh my memory of skiing technique I confess that I can’t remember how long it has been. I do recall having to wax the skis!

I pop the boots onto ski bindings that are remarkably easy to use; wonder again why it’s taken me so long to return to the sport I had so loved. Especially considering how much simpler it all is now!

The Valley Passage between the UEC and the park has been shoveled. I walk through to the snow-covered trail leading into the park, pop on the skis again and take off. Well, I move forward at least. I feel awkward and slow. The warm front that dropped an inch or two of fresh snow has also rendered it soft. No one has been out on skis before me and so I am left to carve my own path.

Nevertheless it feels great!

After surviving the better part of 3 months near and often well below 0°, today’s 30° feels positively balmy. Before long before I unzip my coat to avoid sweating. Maintaining a slow pace I fall into a meditative rhythm without too much stumbling. I might walk as fast but the glide of the skis feels easier on my back, which usually ends up aching after a slog through snow on foot.

The snow thins to a trace in the shadow of the 35th St. viaduct. I step carefully across the short space where black asphalt of the Hank Aaron State Trail shows through. My ski poles ping on the pavement. I glide up the long easy slope of the first moraine-like hill, anticipating the steeper slope I know to be on the far end. Blue plastic cylinders pop up here and there on the hillside, looking incongruous in the fresh blanket of snow. They protect fragile new seedlings that were planted last summer by UEC volunteers. They represent hope; the dream of a future forest.

The sloping sides of the ridge are well tracked by kids and their sleds but the steeper end when I reach it lies pristine and smooth before me. I stare into the white expanse of a suddenly remembered youth. Expecting an exhilarating rush to the bottom, I take a deep breath and push off. The skis sink into deep, mushy snow; I proceed at a steady, sedate pace all the way down. Downhill racer this isn’t.

Counting myself lucky that I didn’t tumble head over heels I continue on my way. I regain the rhythm of poling and gliding. The Menomonee River must flow under its icy roof, but there is only silence where it lies, snowbound. The likewise snow-covered hills rise in sequence like the backs of white whales breaching the surface of this ocean, in this city. The afternoon light slowly dims. I glide on.

Sweden has upset Norway to take gold in Olympic cross-country skiing, I have read. None of the cross-country events have been shown during the primetime broadcasts I’ve been watching, so I haven’t seen them. The network likely believes that viewers demand speed and thrills. The network may be correct. There are no spectacular crashes in cross-country as there are in the downhill, snowboarding, speed skating and even figure skating events. The ever-present threat of a spill raises the ante in already suspenseful events. Still, who could have expected—or wanted—to see Evgeni Plushenko, the Russian figure skating superstar, quit skating entirely after his very public fall on the ice.

I digress. Not being an Olympic—or any other—competitor, for me cross-country skiing is a meditative sport.

I ping across another thin spot under the 27th St. viaduct. A long, easy slope leads to where the park ends in an overlook. There I pause to take in the familiar panoramic view of the Valley with the Milwaukee skyline beyond. 

Turning back, I attempt to schuss down the slightly steeper side of the incline I’d just come up. No graceful glide this time—I take a plunge. Coat still open, I am spread-eagled, poles akimbo. Snow crawls inside my sweater and coat sleeves. The meditative sport just became worthy of prime time! Ha. Fortunately, no one is there to witness my ignominious downfall.

I brush off as much snow as I can and push on. I’m neither Plushenko nor a stalwart Swedish cross-country skier. No matter. This isn’t Sochi, either. (No, it’s colder here! They say the temperature there has gone above 60° Fahrenheit there. Putin’s follies.)

Sliding up and down the backs of white whales, feeling a little like Ahab, the rest of the run is unremarkable. Unremarkable, that is, unless you stop to consider, as I do, that this really is not Sochi; it is not even the Kettle Moraine State Forest. It is still the City of Milwaukee; still the Menomonee Valley. Amazing enough for me.

I glide on.

As no on was there to witness any of my first feat of cross-country skiing in twenty-odd years I resort to an unaccustomed selfie to record it. I feel as awkward pointing the camera at myself as I do on the skis! 

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

At midwinter: The rebirth of the Menomonee Valley

I went for a nice long walk in 3 Bridges Park on Sunday afternoon, Groundhog Day. There was no sign of a groundhog, but also no doubt about seeing shadows. The sun was bright and the temperature surprisingly comfortable. It felt like a respite from our winter of alternating polar vortices and snowstorms. I had expected to find other people out enjoying the pleasant conditions but my ramble up and down the length of the park was surprisingly solitary.

Judging from the numerous tracks, Saturday had seen heavy use of the park, after yet another snowfall. Ski tracks along the sloping terrain, sled runs down the steeper hills, foot traffic along the Hank Aaron State Trail. Today, though, the park was empty—and beautiful, with a minimalist kind of simplicity. It appeared pristine, as if a freshly laundered sheet had been stretched over the rolling hills. How symbolic, I thought, of its newness and potential.

February 2, is Groundhog Day. But did you know that Feb. 1 is Imbolc? You can be forgiven if you’re not familiar with this ancient mid-winter festival. It is one of four seasonal festivals that come from the Gaelic tradition. Imbolc marks halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and its approximation to Groundhog Day is unlikely to be a coincidence. Sunny or not it’s always a safe bet in Wisconsin that winter will last another six weeks; this year perhaps even longer!

Imbolc is closely tied to the ancient Celtic goddess Brigid, a healer and protector of artisans, poets, blacksmiths, and domesticated animals. Her element is fire and her season is spring. Christian Ireland turned a nun and abbess named Brigid (or Brigit) of Kildare into one of its three patron saints. Legend has it that St. Brigid “resigned her spirit to heaven” on February 1, which became her feast day. In this case the coincidences of name and date almost certainly are deliberate.

Whether it is referred to as Imbolc or the Feast Day of St. Brigid, however, February 1 is celebrated as the beginning of spring. Unlike Wisconsin, in Ireland it is not unreasonable to envision spring at this early date. But even here there are real as well as symbolic reasons for recognizing spring while the ground is still frozen and covered with snow. It is at this early date when the domestic animals associated with Brigid anticipate spring; ewes begin to lamb and cows to lactate. These hopeful signs, along with the lengthening days and gathering light, bolster people’s faith that seeds lying dormant in the earth will stir. The regeneration of spring that will burst forth at their sprouting is coming.

What does all this have to do with the Menomonee Valley? You might well ask.

I’d like to suggest that the Menomonee Valley is at a symbolic moment of burgeoning possibilities; a time when revitalization is more than a dormant seed in barren earth; a time, in metaphoric terms, akin to Imbolc, when faith and hope envision a brighter future.

The Menomonee Valley once shone brightly as the economic engine of Milwaukee. Although it came at a substantial cost to the natural environment, the Menomonee Valley’s diverse industries—railroads, machinery, leather, farm products, cream city bricks and others—employed thousands of people who lived in surrounding neighborhoods. Then, as these industries and jobs relocated, came the winter of decline and decay. By late 20th century the formerly vibrant Valley was largely deserted and distressingly polluted.

For a couple of decades things looked quite bleak, much as they can during a particularly long, frigid and snowy winter. The ruins of vacant industries dominated the landscape; contaminated brownfields sprouted feral flora and fauna; the desultory and dirty river was constrained within steel cofferdams and concrete embankments. Few people without specific business there ventured into the Valley. Part of a national shift that saw the “industrial heartland” transformed into the “rust belt,” the Menomonee Valley, at the heart of the city, was its most visible manifestation in Milwaukee.

But, like the ancient followers of Brigid, there have always been a stalwart few who kept the faith, who believed that the Valley could be not simply reborn but reimagined. And what has been imagined involves an unusual combination of industry, community development and care for the environment.

At the dawn of a new century the Menomonee Valley is in the throes of a transformation. Industries are returning, bringing with them jobs that once again attract workers from adjacent neighborhoods. But this new transformation, unlike earlier industrial development, is accompanied by rehabilitation of the river and the natural environment. Along with new industry there are numerous new recreational opportunities. People are beginning to value the Valley in completely new ways. They are coming not only to work but also to play and to experience delight in the presence of nature.

What is being imagined and invented in the Menomonee Valley isn’t simply redevelopment but a new and more sustainable vision for how to live in cities. It is a healing vision that integrates industry, nature, and culture. The seeds of this vision have been sown and are beginning to stir. In fact, some already are visible: a new business park created out of the ruins of the Milwaukee Road yards; a newly accessible and cleaner river; recreational destinations such as Miller Park, Potawatomi Bingo & Casino and the Harley Davidson Museum. Threading them all together is the Hank Aaron State Trail, Wisconsin’s most unique State Park.

The work is not complete. Winter is ebbing and the way ahead looks brighter but it will take time and continued commitment for these seeds to bear fruit. It still is hard for many people to grasp the coming spring. 3 Bridges Park is one of the best places to go to understand the scope of change. Especially now, in mid-winter, with the hills snow laden and stark, it takes great imagination and no small measure of faith to recognize its potential. This is not simply a new park in the city where before there was none, as remarkable as that is. It is not merely open natural space in the most densely populated region of Wisconsin, as precious as that is. It is not only a refuge in an urban environment for wildlife and the human community, as vital as that is.

This apparently empty landscape is the canvas, the blank slate, on which our community has decided to paint a vision for urban life in the twenty-first century. Here in the park and throughout the Menomonee Valley we are forging new relationships between the too often disparate components of our society. It is a healing vision, worthy of the attention of saints and goddesses.

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”  ~ Henry David Thoreau

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.