Washington Park: A Story of Development & Discovery
Within urban environments such as Washington Park, assets become the foundation for future sustainability. Rather than relying on external influence, the opportunities in this neighborhood rely on a grassroots effort aimed for growth within the community and facilitated by neighborhood residents. Washington Park's assets were critically looked at, and concepts of renewal than can be implemented from the ground up were applied. A platform of sustainable economics remains at the forefront of this analysis, seen through the availability of flexible parcels and unused lots. These opportunities are obtainable by the residents and would reinforce ownership and pride throughout the neighborhood.
The Washington Park neighborhood was once densely inhabited by a diverse group of working class residents who built up the main streets of W. North Avenue, W. Lisbon Avenue, and W. Vliet Street, among others. Throughout the studies of these streets, retail spaces and industrial complexes provided evidence of a once-prosperous economy. This gives hope to the revitalization of this localized economy.
Looking at the neighborhood in today's context, it is clear that available commercial property is currently unused or underutilized. In some areas, a majority of commercial property has been left vacant. These buildings have the potential for a variety of uses and range from small retail to heavy industry.
In areas where business is being sustained, commercial drags are maintained in clusters. More often than not, real estate within these clusters is better maintained and smaller while being integrated into the city block, much like what is seen in denser urban environments. Strangely, areas of high activity are resigned to mere blocks, revealing virtually empty corridors. Uses are mixed and non-traditional throughout as well, proving that residents and owners rely heavily on opportunity in developing their businesses and churches.
The flexibility and adaptability of the residents offers encouragement to the potential of grassroots renewal that has proven successful in past decades. A clear variety of available commercial and industrial space invites an array of growth potential. Community-oriented gathering spaces are within close proximity of small industrial and retail space. Many opportunities exist for the implementation of new small business, which could be locally owned and provide a sustainable source of growth within the neighborhood. Property is comparatively affordable for an inner-city area and could invited other low income city residents to invest in the area.
The Washington Park neighborhood was once a prosperous area which took pride in its community and how it presented itself to outsiders. In the 1930s on W. Lisbon Avenue between N. 39th Street and N. 40th Street, there was a grocery store, a filling station, an apartment complex, a barber shop, a furniture store, and some single-family homes. The neighborhood had a small density of traffic coming in and out of it and showed promise that there would be more. It is possible that there was a good amount of outside traffic coming in from the city to the grocery store or from possible public markets that existed in the 1930s.
Today, this same block holds an apartment building, a school, duplexes, and green spaces. There is also a bus stop on the corner of N. 40th Street and W. Lisbon Avenue. One part of this project uses specific bus stops on W. Lisbon Avenue and pinpoints which ones are closest to the assets that were listed for the sustainable community plan for Washington Park Partners. One aspect that once existed in Washington Park that is missing today is the connection of the main streets where the bus circulation and the main flow of traffic is, though it seems that Washington Park Partners is slowly working on that.
One of the most important aspects of a community is its ability to cooperate. If people are not working toward a common goal together, they are competing against one another. The ability to communicate and interact is what allows the common struggles that people face to be identified. It also allows for potential solutions to be made. When public areas offer events or activities, it creates hubs for interaction between the residents of the neighborhood. One of the easiest ways to promote this interaction is through growing food.
Farmers' markets and community gardens are great tools for building character and appeal in a community. They demonstrate responsibility and pride through the level of care and maintenance needed to sustain growth of the garden, and, at the same time, they maintain people's health. They also provide opportunities for the elderly to share their knowledge with younger generations on how to live better lives through growing one's own food. Recently, it seems as though many people have caught onto this shift in thinking, feeling the need to grow organic and local produce. People are attracted to the idea of being self-sufficient but also understand that a group effort is needed in order to prosper and continue to grow. Greater feelings of community and camaraderie are able to be obtained because people are working together and interacting on a more regular basis.
In the book entitled Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, there is a section that relates to this idea of a community utilizing a central hub. Yi-Fu Tuan writes, "A homeland has its landmarks, which may be features of high visibility and public significance...these visible signs serve to enhance a people's sense of identity; they encourage awareness of loyalty to a place." When this idea of loyalty and identity is visible, it allows for people to see the positive aspects of the neighborhood without having to look too hard. Tuan also writes, "Profound sentiment for land has not disappeared; it persists in places isolated from the traffic of civilization." It is sometimes easy to forget humankind's ties to nature, but it is very prominent when it comes to food.
In order for a neighborhood to thrive, there have to be common goals and a common identity, and the only way these ideas are established is through communication. When a community has the opportunity to interact, this opens the potential for substantial growth and a promising future.
Mapping out assets such as vacant business lots and parcels of residential land along the W. Lisbon Avenue corridor provides an excellent resource, as mentioned earlier in this story. Following a path to rediscovery and revitalization is the key to creating a positive identity that all can buy into and create a new sense of community in Washington Park -- one that prides itself in its diversity and the unique qualities it has as a patch in the fabric of Milwaukee. Outsiders have convenient means to rediscover this neighborhood with transportation into the area via bus along W. Lisbon Avenue flooding them into the commercial area, a main attractive force second only to Washington Park, it would seem. The initiative of farmers' markets and gardens are an active signal that these organizations comprised of people from this neighborhood are literally taking root and making positive changes today for the community of Washington Park. A great deal can be learned from the past.
Looking back helps when the eventual goal is to look forward. It was observed that there was a pattern between the 1920 Sanborn map of Milwaukee and the 1927 Street and Railway and Motor Bus Guide of Milwaukee. These maps detail the gridwork of roads in this area. From these maps, it is evident that there was a rapid movement westward toward areas like Wauwatosa.
Nature can also teach a great deal. C. Alexander, S. Ishikawa, and M. Siverstein wrote, "so deep, so deeply [patterns] rooted in the nature of things that it seems likely that they will be a part of human nature and human action as much in five hundred years as they are today." This statement lends perfectly to the idea of rediscovery in the Washington Park area. The same vigor and energy that came into this area in the beginning of the twentieth century are there, but they have been lost; they need to be found again. A starting point has been found to this path of rediscovery as well as continued discovery from thereafter. The starting point is with those who show pride.
Pride is a force for change. Those who really love their neighborhood will show it, and those people who show pride will be a great place to start in the rediscovery of this neighborhood. By creating criteria to grade houses in a sample area, houses were able to be identified as "open for business" and "closed for business." The area of concern is bound to the north and south by W. Lisbon Avenue and W. Vliet Street respectively and to the east and west by N. 39th Street and N. 40th Street respectively. The criteria were as follows: porch level (falling off the building of structurally sound), whether there was paint on about 95-100% of the building, whether the sidewalk was shoveled, and finally, if all the windows were intact and none broken. If a house could satisfy a majority of these criteria, it would be classified as "open for business."
The results revealed that W. Roberts Street and W. Galena Street have a higher density of "open for business" houses, along with a stretch of homes on N. 40th Street just south of W. Lisbon Avenue. This is just one sample area that was mapped, but others can be done in a similar fashion with the allotted time and resources. The houses that are "open for business" are a place to start. These area which are "open for business" are the biggest assets because, after all, this is a project for the people. The assets of unused or underutilized parcels are things to be utilized or activated by these people.
Whether it be an outside organization or a "grassroots program," the Washington Park community will be "open for business" upon them gearing up and rediscovering these assets. The transportation nodes will bring new money and people into an area that is hurting. The Washington Park area will be a model for other underprivileged communities and will affect a change that will make Milwaukee, as an unbelievably diverse and vibrant city, an even greater place to live.