Monday, June 25, 2012

Can we grow food in public parks?

As we stepped out of the airport shuttle, a gleaming, new modern building challenged us to cross its threshold into the refreshing air- conditioned lobby. Once inside, we went straight to the front desk and checked in. A middle-aged, portly, balding Brit with glimpses of teeth missing smiled at us and gave us our keys. We rounded the corner from the brand new breakfast area, complete with waffle makers and juice dispensers, and called the bright, steely elevator.

Once in our room, we quickly threw everything down, grabbed a couple of hats and went back down to the lobby to ask about where we should go on our first night in the "Charm City".

We decided to go to Little Italy, since it was within walking distance. Thus began our explorations of a city that for many is known only for its high rate of crime and the Harbor. While these two elements do exist and are telling of what kind of a city Baltimore is, we refused to accept that this could define its identity.

After stepping out into the still- bright evening sun, we realized that this newly refaced 19th century building that now held our luggage was surrounded by an area that betrayed the modern interior. If we had let appearances dictate, we might have spent all our money on cabs. As we would find out, appearances were mostly only that.

In fact, one thing I found about this historically significant, coastal town was how seemingly progressive it was. Adjacent our hotel, stands St. Vincent Church, a mission-style building whose glory might be restored with a simple coat of white paint to repair that which is already peeling away from its obvious brick exterior. This church, we were told by a hotel employee, takes care of the homeless that flock to the public park just next to it. As one walks by, it is easy to see why a person would go there if they were homeless. There are many benches shaded by the massive trees. This is a perfect place to escape the brutally hot summers of Maryland -Baltimore is south of the Mason- Dixon Line. It's a testament to the city that the police station is in close proximity to the park, and yet the homeless are left alone to live in the park.

On another of our walks toward the western part of downtown, I encountered a public square in front of the courthouse where the plants in raised beds were not merely ornamental (they were very beautiful); the city ( or someone) had planted red cabbage, red and yellow-stemmed chard and kale. The plants were lush and well maintained, as if no one had touched them. I wondered if they were free for the picking. If not, they should be. My question is this: can we do this in Milwaukee?

Friday, June 15, 2012

June 14, 2012: Day of Hue?

Today, I was at a conference on technology that really was not going anywhere fast, when I received an email that the city nursery was giving away free flowers to non-profits. I had thought it would be a nice idea to have everyone on the block plant flowers, either on the curbs in front of their houses or in their front yards. In short, I wanted to beautify the block. There was a shooting on Sunday and since then I have really been trying to get the other residents to think about how aesthetics can play a role in inviting or repelling crime.
I decided to leave the useless tech conference in favor of gaining free flowers for the block. I had to drive all the way to 51st and Drexel. I had no idea how far away and in the middle of nowhere this was. As I drove down 51st St., I noticed a wooden, engraved sign, just like those in any of the city parks. This one tells you that you have arrived at the City of Milwaukee nursery (where they grow all of the plants for boulevard improvements and other initiatives paid for by the city). You have to get out of your car and open a large gate, then drive onto the property. Once inside, you have to get out of the car again to close the gate. They keep it very private.
I asked where I could find the "free flowers", and a hipster with hipster sunglasses on told me to pull around to the garage and that someone would be "wandering around". I found no one, but after asking again, they radioed the woman and I finally made contact.
There were so many different types of plants to choose from that it was a very difficult choice to make; I decided to ask for low-maintenance, hearty flowers so that the neighbors would be more likely to take them, knowing that the care would be minimal. The woman was extremely helpful and everyone was super pleasant. We loaded my car full of tall, purple flowers whose petals fall off at a whim, French's mustard-colored marigolds, low-lying, ground hugging pink flowers, ornamental grass and some kind of flowering plant with copper and rust-colored leaves- the flowers themselves are more like spiky caterpillars.
When I got them home, Steve and I divided them into 9 different groupings, with 1-3 of each type of plant; I distributed them to the neighbors who I thought could use more color in their front yards. I asked them to only accept the free plants if they would commit to using them in the front yard, in order to contribute to the look of the block as a whole. So far, no one has planted them, but I am hoping on Saturday to see splashes of intensity in every yard so that the block looks expressly unified in color...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

June 12, 2012

Today, after biking to Alterra on 1st St. (as I do almost every day in the summer), I ran into my neighbor Geri, who lives behind us on the alley. We started talking and I asked her again how long she has lived in the neighborhood. "26 years," she said, almost with some nostalgia. I asked her what she thought we might do to create more of a sense of community on and around our block. She suggested a block party.
"Has anyone ever done this here?" I asked."No, it was talked about once, but they never acted on it." I then suggested we get a core group together to brainstorm about how to create a sense of community and told her I would talk to her soon.
On my way home from the spot in front of Doerfler school where I had run into Geri, I made a conscious effort to ride past the house of the block captain for the 3200 block of Scott. I had introduced myself on Sunday night after the shooting on the corner of 32nd and Scott. She wasn't home, but I did make sure to say hello to the people outside the house and even meet a friend of theirs, who doesn't live here. It is really important to keep up relationships; it takes time and energy to build them.
Once at home, I called Will at LBWN to see what could be done to expedite the pocket park project, since it seems that the residents (myself included) are losing some momentum. The project seems vague and out of reach. In addition to this question, I wondered if our block might be amenable to planting flowers in the admittedly slim patches of very often ill-cared-for grass between the crumbling,original slate curbs and the sidewalks. This neighborhood is incredibly rich in history, but like a fine old book that has sat too long in a damp attic, it needs the care of professional restorers to bring it back to its original lustre. Stay tuned for more on actively pursuing the ideal neighborhood...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Daily acts that promote neighborhood improvement

The next set of posts will be about my daily efforts to instill a sense of community among residents on and around my immediate block. Every day I am in town, I am making a commitment to do one small thing that works toward improving the quality of life in the neighborhood. I will then chronicle these actions. Through this, I hope to inspire others to do the same in their neighborhoods.

Pocket parks: Productive land-use to improve the quality of life

Since moving to the Silver City neighborhood in June 2009, I have been involved with an effort to make the neighborhood an even better place to live. It is much more feasible to do this by beginning with the smallest possible unit, the block.
In the fall of 2012, Will Sebern, the outreach coordinator with Layton Boulevard West Neighbors, followed up on a conversation we had had the previous summer about what to do with a vacant lot across the street from our house. It had been suggested that we look into purchasing the lot from the city and gift it to the neighborhood association so that they could do something productive with it. Will had another idea. He contacted the city and was given permission to begin brainstorming ways to use this forgotten piece of land. Architecture for Humanity came on board for design counsel and thus a partnership was born. Through several meetings between residents of the 3100 and 3200 blocks of West Madison, a design was chosen and plans to get the materials donated were made. The pool of initial meeting goers was mixed: Hispanic, White and African-American; young and old; men and women; renters and owners.
The next step was to contact the alderman's office to gain his support. A letter was sent to constituents within two blocks on all sides of the vacant lot (in Spanish as well as English). The last meeting was held on Sat., June 1 with about 12 residents in attendance. We are now looking to have Milwaukee Urban Garden purchase the property to maintain stewardship of the land, since the city will not allow any permanent structure to be built on city land. Once this is done, we will set build-out dates and any volunteers are welcome.