Relationship Between Residential Neighborhoods & Washington Park
The Washington Park area has a long, vast history; the community itself has changed drastically in the past 70 years. The area is currently home to a variety of cultures, ethnicities, and, unfortunately, a higher-than-average poverty rate. The Urban Ecology Center and Washington Park partners worked extensively in the Washington Park neighborhood in recent years. They have organized many activities directed towards culture, education, health, and job searing as a goal for convergence within the community. The goal for them is to increase the quality of life, gain job opportunities for the Washington Park neighborhood, and, as a result, decrease the crime rates. To improve upon the lack of business, cultural, and neighborhood initiative within the community, there are a few things that need to be more clearly understood.
In order to achieve the goal mentioned above, it is necessary to have a greater knowledge of how gentrification is manifested in the Washington Park area. Throughout this project, it has become clear that there are many negative perceptions toward the Washington Park area, a phenomenon that can greatly influence how the community is defined. It is understood that cultural convergence could become a key to help improve upon the negative perceptions people have toward the neighborhood, hopefully in that it attracts outside investors to the area, resulting in the reinvestment of Washington Park.
Washington Park originated as a neighborhood of predominantly white residents with a fairly moderate level of income. When "white flight" drove this demographic out of the neighborhood, a more diverse group of people settled into the area. Because the residents leaving the neighborhood wanted more desirable homes in the suburbs outside of the City of Milwaukee, naturally, the "abandoned" Washington Park became a haven for lower income residents.
When Washington Park began exhibiting signs of distress brought about by issues that low income residents face (for instance, drug dealing and other crime), public perception of the neighborhood started to change. The reputation of the park was deemed "unsafe" and in need of improvement. As is the case in any city, there is often a desire to remedy "blighted" areas so that the image of the city as a whole does not become overshadowed by the negative aspects of the individual neighborhoods. Usually, the first approach to remedying blight (aside from leveling buildings) is to find assets that could strengthen the existing characteristics of the neighborhood in order to attract or maintain occupancy numbers.
Indications of gentrification come from a variety of factors. Washington Park itself, around which the Washington Park neighborhood is developed, has public amenities and organizations through which residents and outsiders can positively contribute to the community. One example -- the Urban Ecology Center -- reaches out to the community in an attempt to educate children and adults, giving them a sense of purpose within the neighborhood. Organizations are unifying the neighborhood and making it a safer place to live; criminal activity cannot flourish when community activity converges and replaces it. Though the Urban Ecology Center is not explicitly a sign of gentrification, its role is one which inevitably makes Washington Park a more attractive destination and, thus, increases the actual (or perceived) value of living there.
Gentrification is all about land value and the "driving out" of lower income residents. If, and when, Washington Park attains a status desirable for medium and high income residents, there is not much that lower income residents can do to avoid eviction after rent of homeownership becomes unaffordable. This outcome is not yet on the horizon, but the possibility of gentrification is there, considering how large of an asset the park is. In ordinary circumstances, proximity to the park alone is enough to increase land value and desirability. Issues of public perception and convergence of the community essentially factor into the rate of gentrification of Washington Park. When more positive events make the news, that news is received by the public, and eventually people decide that the park is actually an attractive place to live.
Throughout the research process it became clear that the perception a person holds toward an area plays a key role in the Washington Park neighborhood environment. Again, it is a phenomenon that can greatly influence how the community is defined -- its relationship between the community's physical activity settings, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
Neighborhoods that are perceived as safe have strong community participation and encourage physical activities and community connectedness. Neighborhood safety, or the changed perception of such, can only be achieved through the development and support of residents, community groups, and local organizations. Yet, it is important to understand that there are other factors that play a role in the perception of the neighborhood. For example, the built environment and the way neighborhoods are designed and maintained, impact greatly on perceptions of safety and are critical factors in improving safety in neighborhoods.
Educational and cultural convergence can also help in improving the negative perception people towards the neighborhood. Based on the data mentioned before, the Washington Park neighborhood area has an extremely high crime rate, which is higher than the average rate in Milwaukee.
The Urban Ecology Center as an organization dedicated to serving the community and neighborhood schools has come up with actions effective in the improvement of this problem. For example, the Urban Ecology Center created an education program called “The Young Scientist Club,” which invites children from different schools within a two miles radius around the park to take part in various activities in the park area. For children, this is an example of a great program that helps in achieving community participation and connectedness. As a result, the benefit through this program to keep the high rates of crime away from the park and the neighborhood is gained. Willie Karidis, the branch manager of the Urban Ecology Center noted, that a busy park is a safe park; the encouragement of physical activities within the park and community participation results in lower crime rates within the park. He also stated that individuals who commit crime naturally tend to leave and stay away from a highly used public areas. This program resulted in a decrease of 70% in crime. It is truly outstanding that one organization that promotes community activities could have such an influence on the Washington Park neighborhood area. Moving forward with a future goal, the Urban Ecology Center is attempting to go a step further and gather all the different cultures and ethnicities that are present around the neighborhood by organizing events that include and invite everyone to participate in the activities Washington Park organizations have to offer. Its sole purpose is to achieve educational and cultural convergence and help in the improvement of the currently maintained perception towards the community.
The next step was to look at ways in which neighborhood participation could be implemented as a catalyst to change the negative perception now found in the Washington Park neighborhood. The perception of the park and neighborhood can be altered by including more "benchmarks in social activities." The bandstand and bike polo courts serve as new working benchmarks in the neighborhood. The bandstand's revitalization reintroduced a quality of space for public enrichment, whereas the bike polo courts were built out of necessity and are a beacon of convergence for the neighborhood and the city.
The Washington Park neighborhood is primarily comprised of intimate and semi-public spaces divided by public streets. The park itself should be a public space for all uses. The perception of the park is more of a crossbreed between public and anonymous. That is to say, the park is public, but direct interaction with it is limited due to the perception of crime it holds. If the community and the city strive to create new benchmarks of public space and social activity within the neighborhood and the park, it will create quality spaces that will draw people and new interests into the neighborhood.