Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Kinnickinnic River and community development: A makeover

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A south-side community fills a void created by flooding

The truck that was to deliver the flowers was late but no one seemed to mind. Neighbors chatted amiably in Spanish. Staffers from the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers had set up two tents for an annual spring plant sale. The tents and the people milling around them seemed very small in the broad, vacant city block between the Kinnickinnic River and the row of houses fronting W. Harrison Ave .

Propelled by several impatient children, a few people went across the vestigial dead-end street to the adjacent city block, also largely vacant. Raised beds for community gardens had been built and fenced in a small corner of the block. Volunteers showed the kids how to pull weeds and rake the soil in preparation for planting. Incrementally, the community is reclaiming empty land that stretches four long city blocks alongside the river. 

Not long ago all of those blocks were filled with houses. The reason for their removal is as concrete as the river that bisects the neighborhood. The Kinnickinnic River has literally been lined with concrete since the 1960s. It looks more like a drainage ditch than a river. This was no accident. At the time it was believed that channelization would solve the problem of flooding.

Today the channeled river seems more like a catastrophe than a solution. While the drastic measure did reduce flooding for a time, it also degraded water quality, destroyed all semblance of wildlife habitat within and along the waterway and increased the threat of drowning. Now, ironically, even the original intent of the channel is no longer effective. The past 50 years has seen the floodplain rise dramatically. If nothing were done to alleviate the new circumstances, a major storm could inundate as many as 350 homes in the neighborhood.

Which is why the houses have been purchased and, one by one, dismantled. The removal of the houses is just part of a major flood management initiative led by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and partners have been implementing quality of life improvements from a companion plan called the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Neighborhood Plan. The most dramatic and eagerly awaited changes—the removal of the concrete channel and rehabilitation of a naturalized river—will come later. The most trying task is currently underway: asking families to move and tearing down houses.

Over 60 homes have already come down. Hence the vacant land. Last week I was able to observe the workers as they dismantled another. Although more expensive than traditional demolition, the MMSD has opted for a process called deconstruction. Forgoing the bulldozer for manual labor, everything salvageable or recyclable is painstakingly removed from the house. Usable appliances and fixtures are set aside. Plaster walls are pummeled until they reveal the lathe and studs beneath, which become recycled wood.

House demolition usually generates a huge amount of indiscriminately crushed debris that is hauled off to landfills. The more laborious deconstruction process enables materials to be separated for recycling and reduces what ends up in a landfill.

The process began here years ago. Numerous neighborhood meetings were conducted to explain the project and build community support. Initially, there was concern and hesitation about the acquisition and removal of homes. However, now that the work has progressed as far as it has the mood has shifted. According to Iris Gonzalez at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, many people have become not just supportive but excited about the project. There is even some impatience at the pace of the work.

As more houses come down and more land stands vacant, people have begun to imagine its eventual transformation. They anticipate the planned new parkland and an actual river running through the neighborhood. The project is supposed to be completed in 2022.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood has begun to fill the void. In addition to the community gardens some temporary public art has been erected on another corner of cleared land.

I wander back to the tents. The truck has arrived. A crowd gathers to help unload the plants and get them ready for sale. People are lined up to make their selections. The Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers staff is joined by young volunteers who help carry potted flowers back to cars and nearby homes. The annual event is called “Bloom and Groom.” It is subsidized by the collaborative efforts of Urban Anthropology and Sixteenth Street CHC along with grants from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Neighborhood Improvement Development Corporation. The organizers hope that investing in flowers and improving the appearance of the neighborhood will be a visible demonstration of pride and commitment to the future.

The flowers are beautiful in the bright morning sun and the smiles on everyone’s faces, it seems to me, are a clear sign of that hope and pride.

To see more photos from the KK River and the neighborhood go to my flickr album.

If you missed my recent post about the Earth Day clean up of the KK River, click here.

Full disclosure: I am connected to the two lead organizations responsible for the KK River Flood Management Project and Neighborhood Plan. I am working with the MMSD to document the current phase of the KK River Project and until recently my daughter was employed by the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers. But if you check out my flickr photos it will be clear that I've been interested in this work long before any of that!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Year in the Menomonee Valley on exhibit at WPCA

You're invited!

Please join me for

Eddee Daniel: A Year in the Valley
Witnessing Menomonee Valley Revitalization

May 29 - July 11

Opening reception: Friday, May 29, 5-9 pm.

Walker's Point Center for the Arts
839 South 5th Street
Milwaukee, WI

The exhibition will feature photography and stories from my 2014 tenure as the Menomonee Valley Partners' inaugural Artist in Residence.

The Menomonee Valley, once blighted and shunned, is in the midst of a dramatic and well-orchestrated transformation and has become a nationally renowned model for sustainable urban redevelopment. It was an honor and a joy to have had the opportunity to observe and document part of that transformation. I hope you'll come to see the results.

In addition to the opening reception, there will be a panel discussion on Thursday, June 18, 6–9 pm. Representatives from Menomonee Valley Partners, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Urban Ecology
Center, Sixteenth Street Community Health Center and the Harbor District will join me to discuss Menomonee Valley revitalization – its history, ongoing development and future plans.

For more information about the exhibit go to WPCA.

For a lot more information about my year in the Menomonee Valley, including photographs, essays, and stories, go to the website that I created for the purpose.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Horicon Marsh: A poetic and photographic odyssey

The marsh was burning. I’ve known for some time about changing forest management practices. I knew that controlled burning is now widely accepted as a method to control invasive species as well as to prevent uncontrolled, destructive wildfires. But it hadn’t occurred to me that a wetland would burn.

I was in Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge with my friend Charlie. We happened upon a crew in the midst of a controlled burn authorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Traveling around the marsh we noted many areas that had been visibly burned, some quite recently, others during the past year. Evidence of burning became one of my photographic themes during our odyssey.

Charlie is a poet. We share similar values, including a reverence for nature, and we like to get away together now and then to soak up some of it. We usually choose a place within a couple of hours drive that is near a park or natural area. Horicon Marsh, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S. and less than an hour from Milwaukee, easily fits the bill. 

We dawdled for two days, walking trails in several parts of the marsh. As will become clear when you read Charlie’s poetic contribution below, I did more walking than he did. We stopped at both the federal and state visitor’s centers. Yes, there are two contiguous sanctuaries, the State Wildlife Area as well as the National Wildlife Refuge. Not that you can tell by looking at the topography (although we humans couldn’t leave well enough alone—a dike roughly coincides with the boundary.)

By the second day we had circumnavigated the entire marsh, both state-owned and federal. We even discovered Nitschke Mounds County Park filled with dozens of ancient, but un-photogenic, Indian mounds (above). Unlike the wildlife refuges, which were popular, we had the mounds to ourselves—and the thousand-year-old spirits of Late Woodland Culture effigy mound builders.

People often visit Horicon to see the birds and we certainly saw plenty, although migration was far from peak. We saw mostly the ubiquitous Canada geese and a variety of ducks. I also tallied a flock of Sandhill Cranes (above), a couple flocks of swans, a deuce each of prairie chickens and wild turkeys, bluebirds and some kind of swift. Plus numerous unidentifiable (by me) other birds.

And 16 turtles. You won’t see many birds in the photos. Gotta admit I’ve never been patient enough to be a wildlife photographer. Turtles are sitting ducks, so to speak, so I caught a few of them. Mostly I focused on my customary and oppositional themes: revealing the enchantment of nature near my urban haunts and finding traces of humanity’s presence in natural landscapes. The burns were an enthralling bonus.

Charlie wrote the following poem. I took photos. More selections below.


Goose honk and bird chirp,
the blue-brown landscape
of marsh grass and water,
a few dead trees scratch the sky.
This is a place for birding,
but I’m here for loafing.
I’m good at it, lying here
with my head on a rock.
The afternoon sun, warm
on my face and jeans,
blue bird atop the blue bird house,
turkey vulture overhead.
Times like this I realize
if you stay still and wait long enough,
nature comes to you.

Charlie Rossiter, April, 2015

To see more photos go to my flickr album.