The Nature of Place
The concept of a neighborhood is one of community within a greater whole. With a constant flux of generations moving in and out of a place, the neighborhood becomes a densely-layered set of traditions and values developed over time. Beyond the pragmatic systems of infrastructure and economy necessary for a neighborhood to function, cultural interventions act as temporal markers of important qualities of a place’s history. Because these neighborhood interventions are typically established by the people who live and work in that place, they become inherent vehicles of the spirit of those very people — something that Thomas Hubka begins to explore in his analysis of the vernacular built environment. Culture, in this sense, is an instrument with which a community can develop a sense of belonging to and ownership of a place by layering their unique traditions and values on top of an already rich heritage.
Just as a neighborhood develops on top of its own history, the story of culture in Washington Park Neighborhood begins with the history of the park itself. At the beginning of the 20th century, Milwaukee found itself with a large plot of valuable land, and city developers naturally wanted to do something with it. West Park was to be another beautiful park among Milwaukee’s collection of pseudo-natural landscapes. Frederick Law Olmsted, premier landscape architect of the time, was hired to imbue his well-established picturesque style of rolling meadows, glistening man-made bodies of water, and seemingly natural fields of trees. He believed that the neighborhood needed a place to get away from daily life, and when the park was finished, it certainly was; however, the residents of the neighborhood did not want such a solution. This “oasis” was actually a rejection of the history of the place — something Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Man caution against in retrospect. Shortly after Olmsted left, new amenities emerged in the park. Toboggan tracks and ice skating rinks in the winter, an enormous horse-racing track, and the genesis of today’s Milwaukee County Zoo were all physical manifestations of the neighborhood’s desires at the time.
It did not matter to the neighborhood whether or not West Park was a perfect execution of the picturesque movement. What was most compelling to them was to have an asset in the neighborhood that was very much their own. The Washington Park neighborhood was a place where the residents lived and worked, and so it also needed to reflect the qualities of those same people. By establishing moments within the park that had a sense of identity that resonated with the people who lived in the area, the community strengthened their visceral connection to place, and the neighborhood flourished. Today, these moments express themselves in radically different ways, but the attitude of the community is very much the same.
When unfamiliar with the Washington Park neighborhood, it is difficult to relate to the cultural diversity that the neighborhood provides for Milwaukee residents. This neighborhood is a unique place that transitions from the bustling city life to the quiet suburbs. In finding the neighborhood’s identity, the park itself has always been an incredible asset for the community. Since the conception of the park, the neighborhood would utilize the space for events such as concerts in the park during the heat of summer, which was popular throughout Milwaukee. It seemed that the idea of creating a space, not only for the community, but for people visiting the community was growing important.
In visiting the neighborhood, there are many identifiable markers that make this neighborhood unique. Commonly, the neighborhood is seen through the thick windscreens of cars or buses. One way the community represents itself quickly is with artistic murals scattered throughout building facades. Roots of these murals could be tied into the community back when it was established or showcase a new modern addition. The artwork usually represents the businesses housed within that building, portraying an idea of quality and commitment. Other institutions simply create something interesting to look at instead of a boring wall; in turn, the company portrays its awareness to the surrounding community. These murals would attract more public attention and, therefore, would access a larger customer base. In turn, it would create a network of customers who could share their advice and experiences with the rest of the community by word of mouth.
Now what if an institution does not use exterior murals to showcase its business? Is the customer negatively affected by this lack of personalization and how would word of their business spread? If there was a network to advertise in a more professional direct way, then the businesses could be as successfully represented within the community, in turn gaining vital respect. Group events, fundraisers, and larger public events could be that communal advertisement needed. In many ways, the picturesque Washington Park represents the nucleus of culture and advertisement. The park is a central gathering space for large amounts of people all congregated to experience an event. For example, throughout the summer months, Washington Park is home to multiple artists, each with a diverse background, who share their artistic forms to the public. The Vliet Street Green Market is another refined example of smaller community organizations pooling their expertise into a larger group to capitalize on the public’s curiousity. Urban farmers in the area congregate one day a week and sell fresh home grown produce. This communal space is necessary because it creates a sense of congregation that benefits participants and public spectators alike.
In creating larger public spaces for people to congregate and exchange ideas is a vital networking infrastructure that provides information for the rest of the community. This idea has the ability then to branch out to different organizations throughout the community. Each group, such as churches and schools, remains an important foundation for presenting and sharing information throughout the neighborhood.
The churches that are located in the Washington Park neighborhood offer the community with a unique identity. There are varying arrays of churches that include both monumental as well as assorted storefront churches. Usually storefront churches can be an eyesore on the area, but they hold within them a possibility to be the high points of the neighborhood. These smaller churches usually hold a smaller congregation that is much more of a close knit group than larger churches and this leads to events and opportunities that make the neighborhood a better place. Referencing Pierce F. Lewis’s Axioms for Reading the Landscape, the corollary of taste is where “they (people) often claim that their tastes are based on “practical” grounds." This would explain all the storefront churches that have replaced buildings that used to be part of a prosperous industrial area. The storefronts also provide a unique opportunity to design the space and the street wall so that, even though they are not the average style of church, they can still bring light to the area and an opportunity for the community to participate in the look of the neighborhood. Not only do the churches provide space for the community, but they also provide opportunities for smaller businesses to help maintain the buildings. By employing smaller companies to work on the churches, the branching neighborhood workforce is strengthened.
Monumental churches are very different from storefront churches because they are stand-alone buildings that bring a more sophisticated appeal to the neighborhood in which they are located. Monumental churches tend to have larger congregations and may even draw from outside their immediate vicinity. The larger draw of people can bring more than just people into the area and start to boost the economy and the small businesses near these places of worship. This also brings another identity to the area so that there is a diverse mix of people as well as more religious options for the residents.
When talking about the culture of a neighborhood, it is important to not only focus on the ways in which the adult residents interact with the place, but also the way a place cares for and accommodates the younger generations growing and thriving in the neighborhood because they are the future for the community. The Washington Park neighborhood, as a community that formed its identity through the creation of a successful park and business street, has attracted many family groups to the area that bring their children to grow up in the neighborhood. As far back as Washington Park goes, there has been a need for a school system to teach the neighborhood's young. These schools developed their individual identities alongside the neighborhood developing its own identity. They began as numbered buildings on the Milwaukee Public School System's grid of charges, and as the neighborhood grew, the schools were grounded to their sites by being renamed. A couple of changes took place between then and modern days: a private school cropped up, the private school was converted to a sister school to one of the original public school buildings, and the other public school was moved off of the business street intersection and into the heart of the neighborhood. All of these moves demonstrate the changing needs of the residents and the ability of the neighborhood to adapt to them. However, there have always been two or three primary school buildings in the neighborhood, an occurrence that can be explained through Pierce F. Lewis’s Axioms for Reading the Landscape, in the Historic Axiom, where a place rarely makes a large cultural leap once it has a set history unless a large event happens to change it.
In the modern day, the neighborhood's childcare has expanded to include a network of daycare centers spread throughout. These centers show a need for younger children to be cared for during the working day while parents earn money to support their families. As an asset, these daycare centers show where there are people who are invested in the well-being and care of children in the neighborhood and the abundance of working citizens with families. In combination with the school system in the area, there is a large number of people, adults and children, who care about the future of the neighborhood and keeping its cultural dynamic sound and moving forward.
Through the park, the art, the churches, and the childcare of the Washington Park neighborhood as instruments of cultural identity, the community has developed and continues to develop its own sense of belonging to and ownership of the neighborhood. By creating this diverse set of cultural assets within the area over time, the residents become stakeholders in both the heritage and future of Washington Park. As culture in its everyday sense continues to expand and transform in tandem with the neighborhood residents, Washington Park neighborhood becomes more of a place in and of itself that inspires its own residents to commit to the well-being of their community.