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.