Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thousands gather at the river to hear Water!

What a triumph! Yes, the music was magnificent, but there was much more to Saturday’s concert, aptly titled Water, at the Marcus Center. More even than the diverse outdoor performances and festive activities that literally surrounded the concert outside the hall. The real triumph was the Milwaukee River and the crowds who gathered there to experience the multimedia extravaganza orchestrated by Present Music.

When I moved to Milwaukee in 1976, the then Performing Arts Center (PAC) was still new. I didn’t realize at the time how bold a move it was for Milwaukee to build its premier performing arts showcase on the riverfront. Unlike today, there was no riverwalk then and even the businesses that lined it didn’t face towards the river.

Although a newcomer to the city, it didn’t take me long to discover that the sorry state of the river itself was the main reason. But it wasn’t just the polluted river. Downtown Milwaukee suffered the malaise of many rustbelt cities in the 1970’s. No one lived there and after five o’clock it emptied. The streets were deserted by six.

The riverside plaza behind the PAC that led down to the water likewise languished, underutilized.
Flash forward to today.

While no one will claim that Milwaukee has overcome all its problems, its downtown, and especially its namesake river, couldn’t be more different than it was 35 years ago. On Saturday evening thousands of people packed the riverfront plaza and lined the two flanking bridges. Boats of all sizes paraded past, idled to watch. The musicians floated up to the concert hall on the water.

This event made the Marcus Center, at its prescient location, the epicenter of a revitalization that has water as one of its defining features. The theme of the evening was no coincidence and its success was far more than symbolic. It represents a still nascent but real transformation in the hearts and minds of Milwaukeeans.

Moreover, the event brought together two constituencies that haven’t always found common purpose. It warmed my heart to see this event sponsored by both the United Performing Arts Fund and Milwaukee Riverkeeper, by the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Urban Ecology Center. For once I don’t have to choose between my two blogs to post this story, for it is appropriate to both.

The performances by Present Music and its partners, including Danceworks, several choirs, and video artists, were remarkable and moving. The music evoked the various rhythms and sounds of water in its many forms. In a piece commissioned especially for this concert, water itself was one of the “instruments.” The musician seated before a clear plastic tub with his sleeves rolled up looked incongruous, even humorous – until he began to “play” the water with reverent solemnity. The gentle, natural sounds he made harmonized beautifully, fittingly, with the voices and instruments of the ensemble.

Poet and naturalist Gary Snyder has said, “Art is not real unless some wild is let in.” Kudos to artistic director Kevin Stalheim and composer Kamran Ince for taking his metaphor to a new level.

The highlight of the evening, for me, was the concluding piece, a medley of songs “concocted” by Stalheim. Small groups of choristers stood around the periphery of Uihlein Hall, adding their voices to those on stage. Familiar tunes – How Dry I Am, The Water Is Wide, Down by the Riverside, Row, Row, Row Your Boat – joined with Handel’s Water Music (of course!) The melodies tumbled and washed over the audience like water.

A crescendo was followed by a hush. Then, out of the pregnant silence, a child’s voice sang out the single line: “Shall we gather at the river?” In a brilliant move, the thrilling climax erupted from the audience itself as the hall filled with two thousand voices proclaiming in song, “YES, WE’LL GATHER AT THE RIVER….”
And we did.

For more detailed reviews of the concert, read those by Tom Strini in Third Coast Digest and Jim Higgins at JSOnline.

The images that accompany this post are my own tribute to this important event.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Potholes degrade the Parkway experience

Broken pavement is a symptom of economic malaise and misplaced priorities. 

Over a century ago, Frederick Law Olmsted conceived of the parkway, intended to be a place in the city where its citizens could go for a ride or a walk and enjoy natural scenery. Charles Whitnall, founding father of the Milwaukee County parks, took Olmsted’s brilliant idea even further by designing parkways that parallel rivers and streams.

However, it’s hard to achieve the level of serenity envisioned by either man when a ride on the parkway requires constant vigilance in order to prevent a serious mishap due to potholes and crumbling pavement. This was brought forcefully home to me by contrast the other day.

I was out walking in the Milwaukee County Grounds the other day. I took the gravel path east around the detention basin from Hoyt Pool. When I reached what has been a wide gravel access road I was surprised to find a pristine expanse of newly laid asphalt stretching as far as I could see in both directions.

My first reaction was, who needs asphalt here where gravel would suffice? I am often dismayed when parkland is covered with concrete or asphalt. When I’d had a moment to reflect on the smooth surface further, though, I got angry instead.

Why has this dead end road that bears so little traffic been made so smooth while the heavily used Menomonee River Parkway continues to crumble? If you’ve driven on the parkway lately you know how bad it is. Potholes that can wreak havoc with a suspension system or cause a blowout seem to appear overnight.

In warm weather, overworked County crews eventually come by and throw a patch of asphalt in the worst of the holes. In winter the patches don’t stand a chance against the snowplows. Every year, in April the parkways look like they’ve been bombed. I’ve seen whole caravans of cars swerve into the opposite lane to avoid a wide swath of potholes.

If, like me, you enjoy riding a bicycle along the parkway, it’s even worse. There are some stretches where the severity of the conditions goes beyond the potential to cause expensive damage. It is downright dangerous to ride a bike on these roads.

Between Swan Boulevard and Congress Street, the Oak Leaf Trail coincides with the Menomonee River Parkway. The off-road section of the Oak Leaf Trail north of Congress is one of the loveliest places to ride a bike and I used to go there regularly. I don’t go as often now because I have to ride on the parkway to get there. It worsens year by year.

I made a call to the County Parks Department to ask about the situation. The County has a budget for road repairs and when a particular road reaches the top of the priority list it gets repaired. For now, believe it or not, there are worse roads on the list than this stretch of the Menomonee River Parkway. Compounding the problem for our particular stretch of parkway, apparently, are some turf battles between Milwaukee County and the City of Wauwatosa over who is responsible for repairs. 

The paving of the road into the County Grounds, although on County land, was part of MMSD’s detention basin construction project and as such was paid for out of that budget – a different pot of taxpayer money.

Personally, I don’t blame the County workers. It’s the budget. Who isn’t aware that the County budget is out of whack or that the parks are underfunded? The problems predate any current incumbent and have continued to escalate through administrations of different political persuasions.

It’s easy to pick on potholes. No one likes them. I don’t understand why there hasn’t been a louder public outcry over this before now. But frankly, we are all responsible. In the current anti-tax environment we are going to have to live with potholes a long while. What we need is the political spine to increase revenues. Otherwise our broken roads will never be repaired.

While we’re at it, let’s get our priorities straight. Take a look at the accompanying photos and tell me what’s wrong with the picture. Why are our taxes going to pave roads we don’t use instead of the ones we do? If this kind of thinking prevails we really will find ourselves at a dead end. 

The above first appeared in the Wauwatosa Patch on my WildWauwatosa column. I’ve since learned from my county supervisor, James Schmitt, that there is nothing in this year’s budget for repairs to the Menomonee River Parkway. “Maybe in 2012,” he said; “we’ll see.” Thanking me for bringing it to his attention, he went on to suggest that more complaints from constituents would help him argue in favor of moving up the timetable on road improvements.

So, what say? Let’s give him plenty of ammunition: send a message to your county supervisor and tell him or her that our parks and parkways deserve better care, more funding.  We all deserve better than a smooth road to nowhere.

Where are today's Olmsteds and Whitnalls, who have the vision to improve our quality of life, our psychic and spiritual well-being, with the serenity and beauty of urban nature?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Real Water Park!

Sweet Water, the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, kicked off its new public awareness campaign yesterday - with a splash!

 Milwaukee alderman Nic Kovac gets wet in a dunk tank specially decorated for the occasion.
With Greenfield Park's Cool Waters for a backdrop, a boatload of officials announced the campaign slogan, "The Real Water Park." It's a fantastic idea. The real water park is not a fenced pool with water slides and jets of spray. The real water parks are our natural waterways, lakes and ponds - an idea that comes quite naturally to Urban Wilderness!

Sweet Water's Jeff Martinka, surrounded by bags of fertilizer and facsimilies of dog poop, led off the program.

The simulated poop and fertilizer were there to represent two of the most common concerns for our natural water parks, pollution from "non-point sources," including you and me. A major feature of the campaign is to bring the public up to date on the main causes of water pollution, which has changed over the years from clearly identifiable industrial "point sources" to more widespread run off from streets, lawns, and farms.

The next speaker, Tom Grisa, the Brookfield Director of Public Works, dramatized the issue by wearing a pair of swim goggles as he suggested that no one would swim in Cool Waters if they knew there was dog poop floating around in the pool. It isn't a giant leap of logic to observe that we should all be just as intolerant of common pollutants like dog poop and fertilizer getting into our rivers and lakes.

Wisconsin, which invented the idea, has led the nation when it comes to water parks. Here is an archival image of one of the earliest water parks at Gordon Park on the Milwaukee River in 1921. A large lake was created behind the North Avenue dam, enabling Milwaukeeans to have a taste of the country just minutes away from downtown.

Milwaukee and its rivers have changed a lot since 1921. Pollution made swimming unappealing and then downright dangerous. Then came the Clean Water Act and other environmental reforms of the 1970's. By the 1990's, when the North Avenue dam was finally removed, it once again was possible to envision the river as a recreational resource. This is a current view of the Milwaukee River near Gordon Park.

The highlight of yesterday's festivities was the dunk tank, which also was filled with (simulated) dog poop. After alderman Kovac (above), Neil Palmer, Village President of Elm Grove, took a turn. Former Brewer Jerry Augustine made the pitches.

One of the unfortunate side effects of excessive fertilizer getting into the waterways is an unhealthy build up of algae in ponds and lakes. I didn't have to go far after the ceremony to see an example. This pond, completely covered with a thick mat of algae, is right in Greenfield Park. The ducks that I discovered lingering along the edges did not swim away from me as I approached the bank. They flew off instead.

The Sweet Water website is beautiful, engaging, and also filled with helpful tips on how you can help minimize your own impact on our real water parks so that they will be healthy and appealing places to enjoy.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kinnickinnic River: images and metaphors

I watch for clouds. When I notice them tumbling overhead, I seek out open spaces where I can see the drama unfold. Today a brisk westerly wind whips them up. I’ve been eager for an excuse to revisit the troubled Kinnickinnic River. On my way there I crane my neck to see through the car windows. Cumulus, billowing and wrestling, converge on torn patches of blue sky.

By the time I reach the KK Parkway gray clouds have overcome the blue. It is completely overcast; gloomy.  Disappointed but unfazed, I head down the concrete slope into the KK channel, where gloomy seems an appropriate mood.

Last week I kayaked down the Milwaukee River. (Read my previous post.) The KK River repels as romantic nonsense any notion of setting a boat into it. This river repels even the notion of “river.” It appears more like an empty freeway with a watery median.

What kind of society paves its rivers?

To slightly alter one of my favorite lines from an old song by Paul Simon, “I’d rather be a river than a street….”  So, now and then, I step off the concrete “pavement” into the channel. The chorus concludes, “I’d rather sail away, like a Swan that’s here and gone….” But I am determined. I continue down the much-abused river.

Within fifteen minutes the clouds have dissipated. Shredded remnants are a theatrical backdrop for the river of concrete. The resurgent sun lightens my mood as well as the surroundings.

I rarely go out without my camera, which is probably my loss. Mostly I acquire a lot of pictures that fill up an enormous amount of space on my hard drives. What I risk losing is the freedom to experience my surroundings aimlessly, purely.

Thoreau wrote, “Our moments of inspiration are not lost though we have no particular poem to show for them; for those experiences have left an indelible impression….” (Substitute “photo” for “poem.”) The Kinnickinnic River, with its relentless concrete, leaves an indelible impression.

I am glad for my camera today. The abased river is rich with imagery and metaphor.

I come to a wall built during the Civilian Conservation Corps era. The meticulous craftsmanship of its construction is still evident despite the depredations of time and erosion. Vines dangle over it and in places trees burst through the carefully laid stones, as if mocking our puny efforts to control natural forces, raging rivers, erosion. Even a walk along a concrete river can provide a lesson in humility. Who are we to wall in a river?

Adding insult to injury, the steel ramparts of a railroad bridge are defiled with layers of graffiti. One particular tag is compellingly ironic: boldly, the word JOKE vanquishes previous tags, for now. The question goes begging: on who is the joke? Trailing vines swing in the breeze, emphasizing how inert the JOKE really is.

A variegated shaft of sunlight slashes across the warring layers of graffiti underneath the bridge. There is no victor here. But! Farther on….

Grass ruptures concrete. The leaves of emergent bushes burst through, spill out like an organic solvent for human arrogance. Trees rise from the paved river. An ovation of clouds rises to applaud the transfiguration.

The Kinnickinnic, identified as one of the “most endangered” rivers in the country, is nothing to celebrate. The penetration of concrete by blades of grass, while marvelous, does not constitute redemption. And yet…!

I arrived in gloom; but the clouds have lifted and so have my spirits. There is hope. The ruptured concrete may be a symbol of a new awareness. Not far downstream machinery is poised to remove the concrete channel from a section of the KK and reconfigure a more natural river. The concrete channel is not ordained. Let us be like the humble grass.

We can be a society that unpaves its rivers. But it is in ourselves that change must happen.

I leave the concrete river, satisfied that I have managed to arrest the flow of time and the river with a few photographs, but challenged by Thoreau once again:

“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. We are tasked to make our lives, even in their details, worthy of the contemplation of our most elevated and critical hour.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Meditations on the Milwaukee River Greenway

Twelve kayaks put in below the dam in Kletsch Park in Glendale. The rain-swollen river pours over the dam like water from a tipped bucket that never empties.  Our progress is swift. Without lifting a paddle we can drift and daydream. Welcome to my daydream.

Richard Louv suggests that technology and nature are not incompatible, but “the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.” I’ve left my cell phone behind, but not my camera. To each their own technologies. Balance, too, is up to each of us.

There are few places on earth with an abundance of fresh water. The danger of abundance is a tendency to take the resource for granted; perhaps to fail to protect it. Milwaukee, part of the Great Lakes watershed, is particularly fortunate. Drifting, my mind fills with the grace of abundance.

It is Friday, a workday; lawn chairs poised to enjoy river views sit empty and silent.  The day, warm and bright, reminds me of a line from Leonard Cohen’s song, Suzanne: “the sun shone down like honey…”

Canada geese preen themselves on stones near the shore. I slide slowly towards one who nonchalantly continues its regimen of grooming until I am so near I could wack it with my paddle. (Indeed, this species is often considered a pest and others might have been tempted to do so.)

We round a sharp bend to where the river parallels the forbidding barrier along I-43. The tranquility of our idyll is disturbed by the sound of unseen traffic. A famous line comes to mind from Frost’s poem, Mending Wall: “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down…”

Serenity returns when the river veers into Lincoln Park. The river divides into two channels around an island. Our guide, Jeanne, cautions us to keep to the right, which only serves to whet my curiosity: what would I find if I go to the left? Had I been alone, I might have tried it, but, conditioned as I am by my years of teaching, I dutifully follow the group.

Purple loosestrife grows rampant on the muddy floodplain exposed when the Estabrook Dam was opened a couple years back. Ironic, perhaps: an invasive species floods in where an invasive dam once held back the water. Something there is that doesn't love a dam, that wants it down…

We drift with the current, under a synchronicity of clouds.

I am stupefied, unable to conjure a clever caption. Robert Michael Pyle asks, “What happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat?”

On the freeway a river of cars, nearly as incessant as water, speeds over the Milwaukee River.

We portage around the dam, the proposed removal of which has generated so much heated debate. Frost’s poem returns to haunt me: neither walls nor dams make good neighbors.

We also portage around the falls in Estabrook Park. Four teenage boys in the flood-swollen river use the dangerous cataract as a waterslide. The cell phone comes in handy. We drift on. We can only hope that the police will arrive before tragedy befalls the foolish. 

Buddhism teaches us to be mindful. Mindfulness is not disengagement but its opposite. It is thoughtlessness that allows us to fritter away the earth’s abundance – or to sit idly by and see it frittered away, doing nothing to prevent it.

Below the Capitol Drive bridge we enter my favorite stretch of the Greenway. In the kayak, in the middle of the channel, the last remaining tower slowly disappears behind the tree line. With it goes the feeling of being in the city. My imagination is set completely at ease. 

The elusive feeling of wildness resolves itself and I welcome it. 

Still adrift, still moving buoyantly forward, I raise my eyes skyward, filled with enchantment.

I have long been inspired by Thoreau’s famous words, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I don’t believe it diminishes Thoreau to agree with Mike Houck, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute in Portland, OR, who updates that for the twenty-first century: “In livable cities is the preservation of the wild.”

After three hours, twelve kayaks pull up on the bank at Riverside Park, below the Urban Ecology Center, which organized our excursion into the urban wilderness.

In a new book called Urban Green, Peter Harnik says “…parks are on the public’s agenda” and “…cities are vying with one another for ‘the best park system’ and the ‘livability crown’….” He mentions New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Seattle, and even Detroit as examples. Why not Milwaukee? Where are Milwaukee’s cheerleaders when it comes to promoting the virtues of our gold medal park system?