Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ruby and the Tree: Growing with 3 Bridges Park


It is at once perfectly ordinary and miraculous each time a baby is born into a loving family as it was for Dan and Nora not long ago. By contrast, the creation of an urban park isn’t an ordinary event and although in retrospect it may seem like a miracle, it is not. The establishment of 3 Bridges Park in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley was the result of a long planning process, hard work, and no small financial commitment. 3 Bridges Park arrived the same year as Dan and Nora’s daughter, Ruby.

The coincidence of these seemingly unrelated events has become intertwined for the young couple who saw in them new beginnings not only for their family but also for the community at large. Moved by the symbolism of new life and growth, they began what they intend to be an annual ritual. They agreed to let me accompany them and to share their story.

On a warm, sunny afternoon in August I met the three of them at their home in the Merrill Park neighborhood on the north edge of the Menomonee Valley. After bundling Ruby into her stroller, we headed past the 35th Street viaduct towards the freeway underpass where 32nd Street connects with Canal Street. Dan, who works for Layton Boulevard West Neighbors, explained that he takes the viaduct back and forth every day to his job near 27th and Greenfield. For casual walks in the Valley and to reach the park they prefer the Canal Street route. Although less direct, it’s quieter and they generally see other people using the Hank Aaron State Trail, which parallels the roadway.

We wound our way through the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center, past Palermo’s Pizza, J.F. Ahern Co. and Falk Corporation, to where 33rd Ct. ends at the middle of the three bridges leading into the park. We paused on the bridge to look out over the river and the park. Dan pointed to the place they had gone the year before to pick out a tree. “We thought it would be meaningful,” he said “to document Ruby growing up as the park grows up.”

After we had circled around and descended the boat ramp nearly to the water Dan gestured towards a small oak, its tender leaves resplendent in the mid-day sun. He continued his story. “We found the tree in this picturesque spot. You can see the river and the middle bridge in the background.” They sat infant Ruby next to the tree and snapped the shot.

“The idea,” Nora told me, “is that every year around the same time we will come back and take a picture so that as she grows and the tree grows and the park grows up around it, we’ll get a record of that kind of growth—the park, the community, our daughter.”

In the year since that first photo was taken Ruby already has grown significantly, of course. She now toddles around the tree, the nearby log, and the rocks along the path. The park too has begun to bloom. The earthen slope, still predominantly covered in protective burlap, sprouts spindly saplings, thin patches of rye grass and the occasional wildflower. Dan concludes, “It’s nice to see all of this happening all at once right here where we live in the center of Milwaukee.”

I looked up from the tableau of this family and their symbolic tree and surveyed the surrounding landscape. Suddenly, from this vantage it seemed as though the city itself was growing up around the newly created park. Perhaps it is, in a sense. Perhaps that’s the real lesson of 3 Bridges Park and of the Menomonee Valley redevelopment process. Like Ruby, we all have an opportunity to grow together with a new and sustainable urban landscape. After all, building a park out of an abandoned brownfield is a hopeful act.

Ruby and the tree are a perfect symbol for the desire to improve our world. The motivation for planting trees is to some degree the same as for having children: they embody our dreams for a brighter future. 

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.

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