Consider this project as a beginning of a conversation. More precisely, a three-year long conversation exploring enduring values, themes, dreams and practices that capture the spirit of the Washington Park neighborhood. This conversation will involve local residents, businesses, organizations, community scholars, students and faculty and engage them in a collaborative dialog. Philosopher Hannah Arendt once said that to live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. That shared common world, for the purpose of this project, is Washington Park—its people, events, daily life, architecture, roads, green spaces, gardens, and the many networks of relationships that connect them. But Arendt also reminds us that this world we share between us is never interpreted as the same by each of us. Rather we all approach it from different perspectives, bring our unique worldviews and “differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives.”
When we set out to write urban stories of Washington Park, we confronted a conceptual dilemma. What do we choose to hear amongst the rich din of voices? Do we only hear the few loud commentaries and ignore those who prefer to remain silent? How do we make sense of this thriving multicultural neighborhood without reducing and simplifying its stories? If we see Washington Park neighborhood from diverse points of view, then what is it that we hold in common?
Mainstream commentaries and media representations of this neighborhood are woefully insufficient. Quantitative demographic numbers, property values, or more vulgarly, coarse statistical narratives of crime and revenue do not do justice to this neighborhood. These stories of Washington Park neither represent the nuanced diversity of opinions within this community nor do they solicit the life histories of a range of local residents. At the BLC field school we became intensely aware of the shortfalls of any research project that “reduces” a neighborhood and ends up narrating a single story of a place and its people.
The historical complexity of Washington Park ensured that we discovered an entangled network of myriad stories. Our stories emerged from our conversation with residents. Material culture and homes spoke to us too. Events and daily life suggested more tales. Each account came with a plot, a cast of characters, and larger contexts within which they played out. We approached the stories of Washington Park by identifying central themes around which they cohered. These themes were like plot-vortexes around which many conversations coalesced. In the section titled forum we introduce you to community voices around seven central themes that emerged during our 2014 field school: Change, Strength, Values, Dreams, Resilience, Ties, and Contact. Although the themes were common, people interpreted them from distinct vantage points, making each individual story a variation on a theme. If you search the stories of people and places in this website, you will discover that each story resonates with many of these thematic ideas.
A vibrant discussion around these themes will serve as a point of entry for our long journey. We need your feedback and engagement. We encourage this nascent conversation to become a civic or community discourse. We hope that this project will provide strangers, visitors, and neighbors something common to talk about.
How are our stories relevant for future action? We suggest two tentative answers: enhancement of grassroots power and knowledge. During the next three years we will explore if multiple stories around enduring plots can be heard in ways that are resounding and empowering. We want to find out if by sharing our knowledge about our common world we can strengthen, support, and enhance that world. We want to examine how our personal stories and public conversations may unite us as citizens.
So let our journey begin.
Washington Park Newsletter. Milan Outlaw, Editor 2014
BLC Field School: A Unique Concept
Previous Field School Pages
Washington Park Stories
Washington Park Partners Sustainable Community Plan
Cultures and Communities Program
Wisconsin Humanities Council
2014 NID Plan for Washington Park
A note from the neighborhood
Dave Boucher, April 30, 2017
Late in the 1990s, Mayor Norquist's chief of staff said there is no gentrification in Milwaukee. It was before the real estate bubble began its exponential growth, collapsing in 2008. It was at a moment when City Hall correlated community development success with increasing assessments; a time when the tacit assumption was a little gentrification is good.
While out-of-state lending was still in its infancy, with few local lenders capable of understanding how to value much of Milwaukee’s duplexes, low value rental housing market landlords snapped up multi-unit rentals often near higher value historic districts where "comps" were high. They could acquire, rehab and refinance dozen-home Ponzi schemes at a time when housing was the only economic driver in the central city. City Hall understood the risks and even prosecuted a few notorious property flippers; Stanelle and Bonds were nearly household names among those in City Hall.
As the new century unfolded after 9/11 and interstate banking took hold, supported by late night, get-rich-quick-investment TV schemes, the imagination of home flippers ran wild. The stage was set for the last of 3 great convulsions in 20th century Milwaukee. Prosecuted flippers were replaced with HGTV shows on the topic.
What is gentrification? Is it as simple as pushing poorer members of a community out in favor of richer ones? Is it the outcome of large projects supported by city hall after outsiders trigger real estate speculation, or when a new coffee house moves in? We all know it when we see it but how is "it" quantified and are there certain thresholds or tipping points we can point to?
There are few residents who would argue against living in a safer neighborhood with walkable stores that sell more than chips and blunts. A leader of Milwaukee's community development scene said rising values are good for all homeowners. But at what cost and more importantly, do increased property values always lead to improvements? The real estate bubble of 2008 proved there is no correlation.
Gentrification is no intrinsically evil mystery if everyone understands who is working with whom, who's investing, subsidizing, profiting, and ultimately holding equity and building wealth. And most importantly, who's left out. Thus, trust and sense of betterment for all is the best social outcome.
Unfortunately, Milwaukee's low income homeowners, the foundation of resilience in many minority neighborhoods, have lost considerable ground and leverage in policy circles over the past decade. In fact, it could be argued that Desmond's book "Evicted", by shining a light only on renters, supports neoliberal notions of poverty and dependency without offering substantive alternatives beyond subsidized rentals where the subsidy ultimately accumulates with an investor elsewhere.
Additionally, there are few communities where a comprehensive set of community development tools are employed. Today, affordable housing policy in Milwaukee is a jumble of strategies unevenly deployed with unclear costs and outcomes.
Perhaps efforts can be broken into 2 groups; 1. affordable housing that enhances tax base while serving an underserved population and 2. stabilizing neighborhoods with gentle triage. (An often-uncited goal is to support a functioning market rate housing complete with growing assessments.) The former is often anchored in expanded programs of faith-based nonprofits and the latter is often based in CBO/CDC programs looking at a specific housing market. Rarely do strategies examine a housing market in a given community to assess comprehensive sets of needs or tools to support the broadest base. Never are policies enacted that reinforce the relationship of persons to their homes and therefore communities.
With claims of ever-diminishing resources, policy makers attempt strategic and catalytic projects positing that experience dictates this is the best path. In most instances, City Hall responds to either; 1. crises or 2. when there's tax base growth associated with development proposals. There are no strategies that support minority communities with equity and income growth commensurate with tax base growth.
Policy grounded in economic principles or wealth accumulation in minority, low income communities are absent since assumptions of poverty prevent it. A case in point may be the recent Sherman Park proposal for investors to purchase InRem properties that left the community out of the equation.
The model described in The Nation has no parallel in Milwaukee that I am aware of for a few reasons. While the story inferred similarities to suburban association housing models it is also along a continuum that includes condominium and coop living approaches where trust, risk and costs are shared.
To be fair, the coop model that pools risk and spreads investment costs over a larger group don’t directly address the challenge of low value real estate in this city. Many own duplexes for less than $50k and defray costs by renting a unit out, resulting in housing cost that are nil.
In Milwaukee, coop and condominium models that employ such techniques are often dismissed, as policy makers reflect on the challenges of the past. North Meadows was long referred to as North Ghettos, Westside Housing Coop's collapse in the '90s and this decade's failed West End SoHi development at N 27th St. & Wells make proponents pause.
Dave Boucher, Washington Park
CC has a message for you!
Maps of Washington Park Neighborhood taken from the USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer. The USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection, http://historicalmaps.arcgis.com, (Accessed July 9, 2014)
Sponsors: Wisconsin Humanities Council; Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures, Office of Undergraduate Research, Cultures and Communities Program, School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Washington Park Partners; Milwaukee Preservation Alliance; Historic Milwaukee, Inc.; Our Next Generation.