A Changing Community
The City of Milwaukee has many diverse neighborhoods, each with its own unique history. This project sparked an investigation into the neighborhood of Washington Park, more specifically, the area between N. 34th Street, N. 36th Street, W. Brown Street, and W. Vine Street. A negative atmosphere was expected in this neighborhood due to the tellings of others; however, research uncovered a very different story than the one that was expected. On the western portion of this region sits an abandoned church building, the former St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church, as well as a school that once belonged to the church. It was discovered that there was once a very high population in this area that attended this school, and the church was a very tight-knit community. It was also soon found that this church has a group page on Facebook, the members of which provided valuable information on the area from their experiences living there as far back as before the 1940s. This allowed for the area's broad story to be accumulated, one that was focused around the beating heart of the community: the church. The group members described a thriving community with a very strong sense of family. They spoke of the many activities available to them in Washington Park, as well as the many community focused events through the church and school. This painted a very positive image of the community.
Fast-forward to today, and the community is vastly different. The church no longer holds services, instead acting as a storage building for the school. The people who once lived in this neighborhood left as the industrial jobs left the city. The school was sold and transformed into Westside Academy II, a school for grades four through eight. Through faculty interviews at the school, it was found that the school still owns the aging basketball courts and green spaces on the lot. It was also found that crime rates in the area are high and have caused students to lose access to their playgrounds. Looking across the street to the houses on these blocks show that time certainly has taken a toll on this neighborhood. Where there once was a lively community, there is now a row of rotting homes, half of which are empty and boarded up. Residents remain indoors, limiting contact with their neighbors and the community. The neighborhood still manages to attract residents, however; Washington Park still maintains many assets that remain unseen to outsiders. The media only shows a crime ridden, rotting community, but in reality it has a lot more going for it than meets the eye and many unseen assets waiting to be tapped.
As stated above, the neighborhood is not currently thriving and has nowhere near the levels of interaction and energy that it had in the last century. The immediate community's only binding asset is the potential of the school and what it currently provides and could provide. Unfortunately, due to high crime rates, resident interaction is limited, further inhibiting the potential for the community to come back to life.
Washington Park has many untapped resources, some of which were used historically as mediums to bring the community together. The abandoned church is the most important asset to the community. Although it now stands as a dilapidated storage room, in the past it was the beating heart of the neighborhood. While the church was still functioning, it worked as a sort of community center, providing activities not only for the neighborhood's youth, but for residents of all ages. Although the church mainly catered to those members of its congregation, it also provided activities for any community member who wished to take part, examples being the church's annual Brat Festival, as well as its many basketball games. On resource that is currently being provided for the community is the variety of after school activities through COA Youth and Family Center, mainly for the children of Westside Academy II. These after school programs last all year and throughout the summer; they are open to anybody who wants to attend, offering family services, early education support, and youth development programs. The problem with this is it is the only community involvement outlet provided in the immediate area and caters mainly to young children. One other tangible asset to the neighborhood is the empty space that exists in it, both around the church and school and in the lots in the immediate area. The empty space around the school and church are not specifically designated as anything, leaving it empty and purposeless.
These assets are very important to the neighborhood and could potentially turn it around. The empty church could be used again as a community center. Historically, as mentioned before, it was the heart of the community, a state to which it can return; it does not require becoming a church again, nor being affiliated with any religion, only the building has to be used. Using the church as a community center restores a neighborhood landmark, both giving the residents something to feel proud of as well as a functional community building. This theorized community center would only need to be a place for activity to be held. It could provide workshops, classes, daycare, etc. as well as giving the after school programs already working in the area a permanent place to work out of. Using the methods learned from William Whyte's The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, the empty spaces in the neighborhood could be used as assets. Transforming the empty green spaces into safe, usable spaces would benefit the community in several ways. First of all, it would beautify the neighborhood, giving the people who live there a better sense of pride and potentially drawing prospective renters in to fill vacant houses. On top of that, creating well-lit spaces outside increases nighttime security, a prevalent problem in the neighborhood as it stands now. Safety would also potentially increase if the exterior spaces created work as ways to draw people out of their homes and onto the streets. With an increased street presence of residents, crime rates would likely decrease. Lastly, creating public spaces outside gives a greater range of possibility with community activities that can connect to the potential of the church, creating a bigger force for community interaction, thus getting the neighborhood back on track towards once again being healthy and vibrant.
In architecture, the strive is not only to design buildings, but spaces that affect how people feel, interact, and react. It is not about the shape of the building entirely; it is about the space it creates. After a neighborhood visit and conversations with some of the community members, it was discovered that people in this community do not get to know each other on a personal level, and they feel that the neighborhood, as it stands now, has no potential for that to happen. Using current observations, previous experiences, and knowledge of the community's history will allow for solutions to be thought of that would make this community an asset to its residents and the Greater Milwaukee area.
Knowing that this site has an abundance of land available for potential development, it is important to take what is known about creating public spaces and apply it to this area to give the residents a space to be proud of that will be a destination for people to interact; however, to make a real impact on the site, it was necessary to take a look at what the people in Washington Park want and what types of spaces they would actually use. In its present state, the unoccupied church building that sits adjacent to the open land has little interaction with both the street and the community. The first step in creating a more pleasant and lively community is to get the church operating as a community center for the neighborhood once again. If this can be achieved, the land surrounding the church and the school would naturally become livelier as people would enter and exit the church throughout the day. This opens up an opportunity to create a plaza-like space for the people who use the community center as well as the residents who pass by the space. Creating a space filled with trees and seating would be successful due to its location to the proposed community center and the school. Parents of students could sit in this plaza and interact and socialize while they wait for their children to get out of class; residents could meet there before an event at the community center. The architecture of a space can bring this area together and produce a new feeling of community, something that the neighborhood needs for it to thrive.
Washington Park, specifically the block containing the old St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church, was once a thriving community. Through high crime rates and high levels of abandoned lots and buildings, the neighborhood fell into disrepair. Through the creation of a permanent community center and safe, family friendly outdoor spaces, life can be brought back into this once-proud community.