Planting seeds of resilience in Milwaukee – photo essay

Posted September 22nd, 2011 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

I awoke today to two disturbing front page headlines: State median income plummets, and Poverty numbers spike in Milwaukee. The news is appalling as more people in my city and state fall into a the growing mire of unemployment, home foreclosure, declining neighborhoods, a seemingly intractable path of misery, insecurity, and fear.

The second article for me is a perfect measure of the moral bankruptcy of our economic system. It reports that 171,521 people in my city are living in poverty, nearly 30% of the population, and about half of the city’s children. That this is acceptable in the sense that we are doing so little as a society or polity to address it is a mark of our moral failure.

Okay, so I didn’t start out here on a note of resilience. But I’m going there now because, despite this, and against all odds, some remarkable things are happening in Milwaukee. Seeds of resilience, of faith in the human spirit, are being planted, one neighborhood at a time.

Day before yesterday, I had the privilege of participating in the first-ever Eco-Spirit bus tour organized by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and the Interfaith Earth Network. We spent 4 hours touring places of urban decay and urban renewal. We had an opportunity to see how some of the smallest initiatives can have real impacts in parts of the city that seem overwhelmed by the challenges reflected in that rising poverty rate.

I have reflected before that a new food culture is showing great potential for opening paths for ecological renewal and wholeness, a reclaiming of the dignity of the human spirit and human labor. In the communities being formed around urban gardens and reclamation of parks and blighted streets, in the work of reclaiming neglected and abandoned neighborhoods one block at a time, something is being born here. If these seeds can be nurtured, if what grows out of them can flourish enough that they start growing more and more into one another, we may find one of these days that we have created a new culture in the City of Milwaukee that has the well-being of humans in healthy ecological communities at its core.

These are just a few examples:

industrial wasteland

The 30th Street industrial corridor is a neighborhood notorious for industrial blight. Once a manufacturing heart of the city, factories that employed thousands of people began to close, some fleeing in the middle of the night, leaving behind a toxic mess and neighborhoods fallen into ruin. The scale of this corridor is hard to describe. 2-3 feet of toxic sludge covers the earth, accumulated over a century of manufacturing. The city is now trying to clean it up in a massive reclamation project. For info, click here.

Part of the redevelopment of the Menomonee River Valley involves restoring the river itself.

The model for the redevelopment of the 30th St. corridor is the decades-long effort that has gone into cleaning up and revitalizing the Menomonee River Valley, an industrial center of the city. New businesses are growing up in the valley (including a solar panel factory that we visited, built practically in the shadows of WE Energy’s grossly polluting coal power plant), and many of them have cooperated with the city in cleaning up the river and restoring its natural habitats. Many company employees volunteer in river clean-up and renewal projects.

Valley Passageway. The building across the river on the right is an old tavern that will soon become a new site for the Urban Ecology Center.

Alice's Garden

On a smaller scale, there is the example of Alice’s Garden, “a robust urban resilience project that is nourishing the surrounding Lindsay Heights community by fostering opportunity, building social networks and promoting healthy lifestyles.” It continues to be a remarkable, delightfully jarring experience to come upon the gardens right in the heart of the urban milieu. Do visit the site to learn about the significance of this project to our community. It can serve as model – everywhere.

Labyrinth at Alice's Garden

Walnut Way garden in a reclaimed neighborhood

The house pictured at the side of this urban garden was once a site for prostitution and drug trafficking. But then the neighborhood had had enough. Please read the Walnut Way story. I promise it will inspire you.

More Walnut Way

Gardens at All People's Church

What can one community do? What can one church do? Plenty, if it is really committed to a neighborhood. We stopped by All Peoples Lutheran Church where a whole lot is going on. We were particularly interested in visiting the garden where youth get in touch with the earth, learn important skills, and find dignity and self-worth in the process. In a neighborhood with many boarded up houses and plenty of poverty, the congregation is contributing towards a renewal of life and spirit. I believe more and more that these are the seeds of the new future we must begin to envision, to dream into existence by putting our hands to the plow, so to speak. A nice story here about the church’s plans to build a greenhouse and offer job training for neighborhood youth.

Capturing water for the gardens - great story. One of the challenges of the All Peoples gardeners was how to get water. This abandoned house sits on the border of the property. A friend of the community purchased it, and this very sophisticated rain barrel was set up. Problem solved.

The pastor told us the back story to this bench. Having started the garden on this empty lot across from the church, the city at one point kicked them off, calling what they were doing illegal because the land was not theirs. So they did what any self-respecting bunch of farmers might do - they squatted, they refused to leave. End of story.

We will grow into the new way of life one community, one neighborhood, one reclaimed natural area at a time. We will do it by sharing these projects together, by restoring through the work of our hands and hearts our true dignity and self-worth, which have been so violated by the market economy, and by degrading poverty, racism, neglect, abandonment, or simply indifference, by chasms between rich and poor. The seeds that make the food, that restore quality of life to a neighborhood, are also planted in human hearts.

Really, you should just see the life, energy, and enthusiasm in the people we met. This is the New Creation being reborn in our time.

All photos: Margaret Swedish
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One Response

  1. Amy Bender

    Thank you very much for documenting the tour we took on Tuesday. You captured in pictures the essence of the tour and effectively communicated the hope we must believe in to move things forward. Thank you so much for your time and energy, and for attending the tour!