Solutions & Musings
W. Lisbon Avenue was once a thriving street in the City of Milwaukee, and although much of it has fallen into disarray, it remains an asset to the Washington Park community. The section of the street between N. 33rd Street and N. 35th Street is one of the few sections that harbors a positive outlook on the community, and hopefully that mentality can spread throughout the neighborhood. Faith in community leads to change in community. For this research, local businesses were visited, and business owners shared their experiences living in Washington park.
The first stop was Amaranth Bakery & Cafe, where the owner, Dave, shared his thoughts. Dave has been a part of the community for a long time and truly invested himself in the neighborhood. He spoke for several hours about the history of the neighborhood, its current condition, and what he and others are doing to bring life back into the community. The next stop was just across the street from Amaranth Bakery, the home of Muneer, an artist who is also actively involved in the neighborhood. His studio is located where the historic Schaefer Jewelry Store used to reside as a multi-generational business dating back to the early 1900s. Dave and Muneer collaborate with others around the city to try to help revitalize old businesses into new ones that will have lasting positive impacts on the neighborhood. Their focus is to bring individuals who will invest themselves, not just their money, into the community. Dave and Muneer are two great examples of people who have taken a serious investment in the infrastructure of the neighborhood and viewed its "liabilities" as assets. Each of them has purchased a vacant building and brought new life to them as well as enlivened the empty lots adjacent to them as both an outdoor art gallery and outdoor cafe seating.
Aside from personal interviews, Sanborn maps from the 1950s and demographic data were studied. The creation of hybrid maps which layered the Sanborn maps over current maps and aerial photographs of the neighborhood revealed that there have been radical physical changes in the area. Today close to 15-20% of the Washington Park neighborhood is comprised of empty lots. Following this discovery, businesses and homes were mapped out to find how they relate to the empty lots. Some of these empty lots are currently being used, but many more have the potential to be more than underutilized green space. These spaces are the interstitial remains of what once was in the neighborhood and, therefore, can be used to help better the neighborhood.
This study of the vacant lots on W. Lisbon Avenue correlates perfectly to the book Place: A Short Introduction. This book teaches how to perceive such lots; even though abandoned or underused, "a place is not just a thing in the world, but a way of understanding the world." As stated in the book, lots are not to be labelled "vacant" and be dismissed. A closer look shows more than just an empty lot; it is a place where people cut through to make a shortcut or a place to dump trash.
The main goal is to take these underused spaces and turn them into purposeful attributes to the community. These lots are assets, not liabilities. As stated in the book, "places are social constructs." Their physical parts define what activity happens there. Humans take and mold these "artificial landscape" to fit specific needs. These spaces are manipulated as time moves on. A place defines an experience.
The application of this research and interviews, in conjunction with the teachings of Place: A Short Introduction, could lead to multiple conclusions about the next step in this community. The first and most prominent step involves the necessity to make W. Lisbon Avenue and the Washington Park neighborhood a place the community can be proud of. The research suggests that the best way to do that is to address the parts of the streets the are "placeless." Another suggested solution is that the Washington Park neighborhood redefines the spaces it already has to help strengthen the existing context.
Making a community proud of its neighborhood is achieved through quality buildings with quality spaces. As W. Lisbon Avenue deteriorated beginning in the 1970s, existing houses and businesses were demolished, leaving the street broken up by empty lots. These empty spaces became placeless, lending themselves to fall into disarray. The best of these empty lots can only claim a mowed patch of grass, maintained by the city. The research made clear that in order to address the issues of pride and placelessness in the neighborhood, the empty lots must first be addressed. It is recognized that the city-owned green space does not provide the type of space that the street needs. The empty lots need to be developed enough to encourage their use. This could mean an institution such as a semi-permanent public market space for the spring and summer and a skating rink for the winter.
Another solution that would take the collective effort of the whole neighborhood would be to change the image of the existing context. Many individuals, both from within the Washington Park community and from the surrounding neighborhoods, have stereotyped the neighborhood as a failed and potentially unsafe part of town. This comes mostly due to the excessive amount of empty lots, consistent road construction, and plentiful board-ups. By addressing the empty lots as mentioned above, the neighborhood can be free to redefine its existing facades; stores become ambassadors for the neighborhood with their front doors and protruding signs and awnings. Houses with fresh paint and unblemished windows show the residents' active pursuit of a better community.