Update from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This past month has been busy with work outside the realm of printmaking and graphics. Instead it has involved circular saws, cordless drills, and dirt.
This summer has been all about working on Phase Two of the M.L.K. Peace Place park in Milwaukee that the four of us in ReciproCITY (Fidel Verdin and Michael Carriere, along with Nicolas Lampert and Paul Kjelland from Justseeds) helped inaugurate this past Fall. One recent goal has been to fortify the giant 18′ x 12′ mural of the Milwaukee Commandos that Paul and I painted that sits upon three 6′ x 6′ wood poles. The high winds were becoming a risk to the integrity of the structure so we decided to secure it with braces on the back end. The idea quickly emerged to use this as an opportunity to build a rain water catchment system to water the garden beds directly behind the murals that Fidel Verdin and True Skool had installed this past Spring. After building the structure and taking a photo of it to share with my co-collaborators, I quickly realized that the structure was the epitome of what ReciproCITY seeks to do: we seek to combine art, urban farming, and community building at the local level and all elements were symbolized in this new structure, along with the park itself that involved turning empty city lots into a community asset.
Some background on M.L.K. Peace Place. In 2015 – after three years of meetings with the community and city officials – ReciproCITY – helped turn two vacant city-owned lots into a new community park on N. Martin Luther King Dr. in the Harambee neighborhood of Milwaukee.
This park- now named M.L.K. Peace Place – is in direct collaboration with HeartLove Place that is the host of the park. HeartLove Place in a bedrock institution for the neighborhood providing family resources, a child development center, and a culinary training program, among other services.
Everything we do at Peace Place is first run through HeartLove. Community art means working with the community, listening to the community, and collaborating with an organization that has deep roots in the community. Our trusted partner is HeartLove and everything we do in the park is meant to work in tandem with the work they are already doing.
Phase one of the park included getting permission from the city to turn two vacant city-owned lots into a park. This led to a grant from Home Gr/OWN (an amazing city government program that supports urban ecology throughout the city) to fund the Blue Skies Landscaping crew from Walnut Way Conservation Corp to landscape the park and to plant twenty fruit trees.
Also through the city (the Milwaukee Arts Board) we were able to secure funding to paint two large-scale murals based on a prior print series by Kjelland and Lampert that honor the history of the Milwaukee Commandos (the NAACP Youth Council) who during the Civil Rights Movement in Milwaukee helped lead two hundred consecutive nights of marching for fair housing legislation.
This past Fall the murals were dedicated at a community gathering that featured speakers from HeartLove Place, along with past members of the Commandos (Prentice McKinney), and Peggy Rozga – a community-activist and widow of Father James Groppi who was the adviser of the Commandos. The dedication itself was led by Fidel Verdin who wears many hats – Summer of Peace, True Skool, and ReciproCITY.
This leads us up to the present. Work on the park this summer has included the building of garden beds, a gateway entrance, signage, benches, and bike racks. We are also in the early stages of building a large-scale community stage that is designed by Antonio Furgiule and students from the UWM School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
It should be stressed that all this work is the combined efforts of many people and many organizations.
But I don’t want to overlook the work of artists. It took artists to ignite the spark. One just has to look at the other Peace Place park – the one that Fidel Verdin first started on Locust Street and 6th to ignite the idea of turning empty lots into parks in the neighborhood. It took Fidel joining up with ReciproCITY and collaborating with HeartLove to make Peace Place happen on MLK Drive. It took Mike Carriere and all the work that he does with his students at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) to make this happen. It took Una Van Duvall at HeartLove to make this all happen. And it took our partnerships with Antoine Carter and Milwaukee Urban Gardens (MUG), Home Gr/OWN and Tim McCollow, Concordia Gardens and the Victoria Gardens Initiative, Sweetwater Organics and the Sweetwater Foundation. And it took Will Allen and Growing Power to inspire it all.
What is most exciting about the work at Peace Place is that it is just getting started. More partners are coming aboard each week, plans are getting bigger, and the future of the project is unwritten. The project is as organic as the plants in the garden beds. All I know is that it has cemented my love for Milwaukee and the power of the combined forces of art, urban farming, and community building.