Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The End

This title hints at the close of summer. Yet is this really the end? In many ways, yes. This is the final year of research in the Washington Park neighborhood, and these are the last nine days before the community presentation day. It is, then, the end.

Next summer, the Field School moves to study Sherman Park, a nearby neighborhood. What is the difference between this neighborhood and Washington Park? Well, at the risk of avoiding the question, that's kind of the purpose of the Field School--to find those differences and to tell those narratives, the ones that have yet to be unearthed.

I won't be here next summer. Grad school calls and I know that it is time for me to partially set aside my obsession with the Washington Park community. This upcoming school year, we will push for one last analysis, one last discovery, one last attempt to tell the stories of the people--and then we walk away.

Or is that simple? Would we still return to Amaranth Café on Lisbon? Would we still return to the community gardens and to HAFA, to eat egg rolls and enthuse about produce? Or, because we are outsiders even now, would we feel uncomfortable to return to this place where we have spent so much time?

When I think of a good farmers' market in Milwaukee, I think of the Friday night ones next to Amaranth, I don't think about Shorewood or Whitefish Bay or any part of the East Side--that place I call home. Instead, this layered, complex, devastatingly underappreciated neighborhood comes to mind. So what does it mean to walk away from this?

At this point the social connections and place-based connections that we have made are profound, they stretch across geography, age, social class, and a dozen other factors. So looking into the future, how are we to remain connected to those who we have befriended? Again, my discomfort at being a complete outsider (I think of the one interview I took notes for, the man effortlessly identified both of us conducting the interview as East Side residents) results in my inability to understand how to remain present in a neighborhood I have no clear purpose being in.

Next year, Sherman Park--will they open up, reveal secrets, share stories, or will they remain aloof for a year, hard to pin down and tough to fully understand? Probably some of both. It is people's lives we are asking about, all their personal stories and their homes, after all. So how can I say that this is "the end" when in fact next year there will be more research?

This is definitely muddled in my brain, and while on the one had I feel as though the entire research project is ending, another part of me, more rational, recognizes that while we are leaving Washington Park, we are not going very far and we will not forget where we came from.

And who is to say there won't be cross-connections? The neighborhoods press against each other, their government-decided boundaries fade into each other, the overlaps in residential makeup and neighborhood culture have the potential to simply continue, with shifts, the research of the past three years.

I ramble now, avoiding the obvious end and conclusion to both this post and my work. I'm still stuck on the difficulties of walking away from the neighborhood of my research. Perhaps it is good that I graduate in the spring, and won't be around to watch the Field School take on an entirely new neighborhood. In some ways, this entire post is fueled by my own personal fear of change, even positive change.

A year from now I hope to be on the east coast, preparing for grad school. A year from now I hope to log onto my computer, go to the newest Weebly page, read the stories and feel a connection to Sherman Park like the one I feel to Washington Park. A year from now I hope that this endeavor will have changed, adapted to the unique neighborhood, and yet remained the same. Stories of people, their lives, stories of place and space. A thousand narratives to discover--what I would give to lend my hand to this future project, to do it all over again just so that I could still claim some reason to visit Washington Park, Sherman Park, all those people we have connected to on the way.

So, in lieu of a good ending, here's to the future success of the Field School, regardless of where it goes and what it finds.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

In the Wake Of

In the wake of last week's violence,  I struggle to find a voice in the turmoil. Do I even have the authority to speak about this all? How can we move forward from this? What of our daily lives, how then do we alter our ways of being so that this violence--in Baton Rouge, in Minnesota, in Dallas--is not repeated? I've been musing all weekend, trying to see how our Milwaukee lives can shape a better future for our society overall. The connections between the nation's social upheaval and our work in the Washington Park neighborhood are vague, hidden under the surface, but very much there.

Our nation struggles to adequately face, acknowledge, and then heal the harsh realities of its very own citizens. In a neighborhood with an incredibly diverse ethnic population--Hmong, African American, Hispanic/Latino, Burmese, Somali, and so on--the complicated relationships between race, economic class, immigration, crime/incarceration, policing, and poverty are apparent by the quietly lived daily experiences of its residents.

As an outsider, in a team of outsiders, looking to "research" this community, it is easy for me to feel both displaced from my own native turf, and inconvenient to the lives of residents. Who am I, after all, to sweep in and attempt to tell a story of the neighborhood, regardless of how much we rely on the community residents to tell their own truths?

I am still struck, five weeks later, by the foreclosed home I walked in. The family photos, with one man wearing what looked to be a prison jumpsuit, scattered on the floor, tells the story of how this place and its residences were tied up in a struggle to maintain home, both physical and familial. The eviction must have came suddenly, and I wonder still if the man in the jumpsuit was home by the time they had to leave. Or was the family further fractured--pushed apart by incarceration, and then pushed out of their most private space--the family home?

Overall, the neighborhood faces challenges that are not faced by majority-white neighborhoods. Last week the nation was forced to confront--again--the systemic violence against people of color and the horrors of the lone gunman. I wonder, in Washington Park, how many paused, tying together their own experiences with the fatalities of Baton Rouge and Minnesota--and perhaps those in Dallas too. Then again, as an outsider, isn't my assumption that some residents have had similar experiences an example of my biases, my clouded perspective, the lack of real experiential knowledge?

I interviewed participants in the 2014 Field School in the fall of 2014, and I still remember what one of them said to me: "I can't say that we witnessed poverty, we just saw something that might look like it." This, this deferential non-assumption is what we all need most. I am guilty of assuming--we all are. Yet when we walked in the foreclosed home, the temptation to cast judgments and make class-based assumptions about the last residents is strong. How then can we move on, from assuming to know the stories of a neighborhood while at the same time researching and trying to make those stories made evident? How then can we accept our requirement to be deferential to the residents, to their experiences, while at the same time trying to pinpoint areas for action to end poverty and violence?

The paradoxes of being a researcher in a neighborhood to which I do not belong are more apparent now then they were two years ago, when I was struggling to adequately find any sort of researcher's voice. Now I feel as though I stand at the other end, offering up some voice but unsure if it is the right one. Could community-based research help in any real way to heal this country? Again, I am reminded of my interviewee, when he said that the Field School "goes beyond neighborhood-based issues [of poverty]" and connects to the larger fabric of it all.

Our tiny actions--phone calls, greeting residents by name, asking after gardens and children, visiting locations of community value, asking, always, if our rendering of their lives are accurate--amount to something beyond a cold neighborhood analysis. Whether or not the Field School plays a role in ending violence, I can't say. The end result is not yet felt and won't be for years. Yet the real human connections we have made might simply be enough to remind residents of the real respect we, as outsiders, have for the community.

I still struggle to find a way to deal with the horrors our country is putting itself through. I'm not sure if our research makes a difference. I'm not sure if we are even on the right track. All of these uncertainties, however, make it that much more important to keep trying. To do nothing, or to assume to already know the answer and the stories, is what we cannot let ourselves succumb to.

Wading through papers and toys, the soft smells of dirt and rot rose with every step, I stared at the small piano left in the dining room. Guilt overtook me--why would I have assumed a family who was evicted would not have owned a piano? There are no guidelines over what a family at risk of eviction can and cannot have, yet in that moment of quiet assumption, I fell into the trap of projecting my biases onto the realities of residents and people who are both radically different from me and yet at the core similar. While I'm not proud of my biases and assumptions, I feel now is the time to lay them out on the table, to recognize them and then ultimately set them aside, discard these preconceived notions and simply work forward.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Beginnings of Thematic Narratives

Though it is only Wednesday, more has happened in the past three days that the first two weeks combined. I've been culminating within me all the themes of social action and social justice (through whatever lens) that have been shared. And I've been thinking long-term, instead of remaining grounded in the everyday cycles of gathering photos and tagging interviews. My themes have came forth sideways, out of other obvious patterns.

My emergent themes:
Grassroots Activism and the ACTS' Process
Financial Systems and Institutional Agency

And of course, as this is a community-based exploration and research project, I find myself struggling to remain grounded as is necessary. While a thousand words and theories might be appropriate on one level, the giving back aspect of this project requires me to meet people on a nonacademic level, and that is the true challenge for me. While Anthony Giddens' theory of structuration and personal agency feels theoretically appropriate for the financial systems analysis and theme, the actual content has to both adequately outline the theory while simultaneously working to make it approachable on the street level.

Additionally, the documentary will be driven largely by another thematic narrative: the struggles, triumphs, and mission of ACTS. While this might err on the side of descriptive, the analysis component will focus on human stories of connection and challenge. This will obviously be challenging, to make a non-descriptive narrative out of what could easily be a bland organizational description.

So for the next two weeks, challenges, and a lot of listening and writing. But the themes and narratives that emerge will rise to the appropriate level of what this Field School can produce. The overall trajectory of the project makes so much more sense now that the themes have come to light.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

How Did They Get To Here?

Oftentimes, we bumble along, moving forward mindlessly, when suddenly we are at a place we never thought we would get to. A job we never thought we would have, a city we didn't expect to live in. The history of several of the ACTS (Allied Churches Teaching Self-empowerment) staff fall into this, never seeking out a housing-based nonprofit but falling, head-first, into roles and positions within the organization almost effortlessly.

One rehab counselor, Sam, found a posting online, as he was scrolling through looking for something new. Ready to leave the city, he applied on a whim and four interviews later was offered the job. Now a homeowner and dedicated member of one of the ACTS neighborhoods, this job ties Sam to the place and gives him reason to stay in Milwaukee.

Blia, a real estate broker, began as a volunteer after pulling together a massive house showing simply by being an already-established member of the community. Unable to provide her with a salary, ACTS took her in as a volunteer until they received the necessary grant money. Blia now has spent over 20 years working with the organization and owns her home through ACTS.

An interview with Woody, who was on the board, reveals that he has worked in countless public office positions and in various industry positions. He was called to join ACTS' board simply because he was asked by his friend Father Dennis. Being asked by the founder was enough to prompt Woody to go beyond his previous commitments to various neighborhoods and help, in his own words, "throw the grenade down the aisle."

How did they get to here? Not one of these people expressed a life-long desire to work in the nonprofit sector, or even necessarily do something with housing. Though not in an official interview, another employee, Becky, mentions that she found her interest in housing when she was volunteering at a homeless shelter on the east coast.

Though at some point, each of these people made a deliberate choice to commit to ACTS, they never sought it out. And this is somewhat the story of ACTS itself. Instead of being a highly thought out endeavor, one of the founders, Father Dennis, refers to its origins as a "brain fart" that simply met the needs of the community in a way that he could feasibly do. As a Catholic priest in an inner city parish, there was not much he could do about crime or drugs directly, yet he saw housing as the way in, the way to expand neighborhood services in a meaningful way.

Perhaps without realizing it, housing actually brings stability to the neighborhood on a block-by-block level, bring down the level of transience and overall crime rate. So perhaps Father Dennis understood home-ownership as the gateway, the key, to bringing the quality of life up in areas that need it most. So while Father Dennis did not believe that reducing crime was within his reach, he actually did bring about these changes through a non-direct approach.

Executive director Michael fell into working for ACTS in a similar way. After spending time in the private sector, he felt that his individual value was not manifest in the work, and began to volunteer for ACTS after meeting the previous director. He created his own position and sought to push the ACTS message and model, and has been the director of both ACTS and its affiliate ACTS Lending for several years. Once Michael found the work, he threw himself, headlong into the patterns of nonprofit brokerage and social impact. And the results speak for themselves, in his own words, they are "working to put themselves out of business."

Again, none of these people sought this work out to the degree that this was their one dream. Instead, each woke up every day and moved forward, trying to make the world a little bit better. And suddenly, they're here, striving to make neighborhoods better, to connect people with places to live and spaces to build entire lives around, and to provide people with the tools to go above and beyond what ACTS itself can do. How did they get to here? Simply by being, by doing what was right for these families and for the greater Milwaukee area.

A history of unintentionality, yet also a history of unbelievable intentions. Each interviewee, each ACTS employee holds within themselves all the quiet intentions of social change--maybe without even realizing it. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The End of the Week: Narratives from the Field

Wednesday we went to two foreclosed homes that are owned by the city. The previous owners were unable to pay property taxes, and were upheaved, throw out of their homes. One home had been stripped down, cleaned and yet musty. The other, far harder for me to walk through, had been left by the city largely unchanged from when the previous owners left--in what must have been a hurry. I imagine the head of the family telling the children, "Take only what you can carry."

On the floor, personal artifacts intermixed with
standard everyday artifacts: social security papers, bank deposit slips, renter's receipts, family photos. Piles of stuffed animal toys, trashed electronics, clothing. What gets left, and what gets taken with?

A mix-tape, graduation robes, overturned furniture. We stand in the middle, taking photographs. How did this home get to here?

Scene one: Sometime in the early 1900's, maybe 1920 at the latest, the home is built by a middle-class family. Upper-middle management perhaps, due to the size. And the structure bears the traces of it being built as a single family home, large with at least three bedrooms. Walking in, the opening to the dining room shows the built-in cabinets that once would have displayed the best china and family keepsakes.

The family owned the home, presumably, because they had it built for them. When did this family leave? After 20 years? A comfortable live framed by the higher-end size of the rooms, a quiet corner lot. This would be the place for family reunions, holidays, celebrations. So why leave, sell or rent out the nucleus of family life?

Scene two: A heavy, heavy door now separates the upstairs and downstairs. A tiny kitchenette is pushed into the back bedroom upstairs. Somewhere, perhaps in the 1940's or 1950's, the two floors were subdivided and rented out. Was this before or after the original family sold the place? Was there an absentee landlord after the original family? By tracing census manuscripts, I will be able find who at least lived there at every ten year mark, but this does not tell the story of who owned it and why they left.

Perhaps 30 years pass, the building being rented again and again to different families. I can feel the presence of multiple stories, multiple families, all overlapping and lingering in the extant walls. The attic space holds a typewriter, ancient luggage, piles and piles of papers accumulated over the years.

Scene three: Sold again and reunited, the kitchenette upstairs partially ripped out. The family that lived here next is presumably the one who was evicted, or the last in a string of homeowners. Yet this is not the kind of family associated with direct poverty. They own their own home, the couches that remain are in an antique style, and a poster of the Eiffel Tower leans against furniture, all markers of a family that has their life at least partially stable. Yet something was said to me recently, "these are the families that are one payment away from disaster."

The veneer of respectability that was maintained up until the eviction links back to the actual security of the first owners. While change over time has doubtlessly occurred, both time periods were occupied by single families trying to convey their upward mobility. Yet only one was only a veneer, and that led to being one payment, perhaps one month, away from being evicted.

Scene four: The abandoned home, squatted in. Empty, at least theoretically. Untouched by the city who now owns the property. Allowed to accumulate dust and rodents, yet now ACTS Housing partners with the city to find a homeowner who will actually take care of this space and build within it both a renovated and a preserved space--the perfect combination of old and new.

I wade through the trash, careful to not step on trash or nails. The musty scents of lives past and intense dust hits my face. This is a place of devastation, most recently, and yet also a space where opportunities can be made. I creep through the attic, seeing a wheelchair, a lock box, evidence of animals. All those details, the lives. Who can sum up a hundred years of life in a few paragraphs? The next few years will see renovation, revitalization, and hopefully home-ownership. Only another visit years away will fill in this presumed future.

Monday, June 13, 2016

First Encounters

Small things: An ornate, yet mass-produced, cabinet handle. Tiny knobs to connect gas lamps--now closed off. The barest remnants of graffiti on a stained-glass window, "Desa."

Larger things: A built-in cabinet in what was once the dining room. A bricked-over window barely visible from the inside. Groin vaulting in the ceiling, just made of plaster, lacking support.

Such are my first encounters with the now re-purposed convent on Vliet Street. I walked blindly into the space, after the short 20 minutes driving from UWM to the Washington Park Neighborhood. While there are old buildings on the east side, this convent feels other-worldly.

And isn't it? The nuns for whom this building was created exist now elsewhere, yet they still remain softly in the bones of the structure. Is it truly possible for this building to become a-religious? For this structure was created solely as convent, even as it is now brilliantly re-purposed.

What was once the chapel is now a conference room, with stained-glass windows throwing colored light on the table. Where was once a pulpit, a projection screen stands.

The upstairs lays at once open and crowded--the dining room with its ancient gas light fixtures on ceilings and walls, and yet the hallway precludes crowding. This narrowness as I walk past built-in cabinets and tiny, closed-off rooms, reminds me of the utterly solitary lives these women were supposed to lead. And yet, the dining room ends the hallway as I go past, on my way downstairs again. Is it possible to lead both a solitary and a communal life simultaneously?

We were reminded today to think of details such as which doors have locks and which do not. The cabinets too, some of them having the potential to lock away whatever was kept, and some of them swing gently open.

Private spaces I certainly would not have thought about before today, the bathrooms of the second floor, speak to various level of authority. Where there are two small, sparse bathrooms side-by-side, a dormitory feeling is evoked. Images of women sharing highly intimate moments arise. And yet, just down the hall, next to a small raised-up room, a full bathroom is nestled away. Whomever lived in the room next door essentially had sole access to this bathroom.

It's the small things, such as who has the access to moments of true privacy and who must share, who may lock her belongings and who must trust their security, who resides on the second floor and who is relegated to the third floor--it's these small things that control and order the space of this convent.

Spaces and structures speak to me often as spaces of control and procedure, so now that I see these themes within the convent, I cannot say I am surprised. Yet I question, as I must, if the original religious purpose is linked to the spatial orderings, or if this building was allowed the potential to become something else?

For to build a convent solely, with no future purpose in mind, is to build a space that controls and orders spatiality in such a specific way that any other use of the space is at best inadequate. While architectural intent, so like authorial intent, is impossible to say with absolutely certainty, those tiny details and hidden markers in the building may reveal some level of intent.

After all, it's the small things that tell the story: Door hinges, pressed iron with designs on both sides. Inlaid and painted wooden flooring underneath the carpet, just visible where the doorway slides over. Door jams with carved oak designs, and some with just painted wood grains.

Tomorrow, when I go back to measure every wall and window of this building, perhaps its future will become apparent to me: could it ever become something more than a convent, truly, in its bones? Or will it remain, as long as it stands and regardless of its use, the old convent?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

First Performance @ the artery on the Beerline Trail Saturday June 28th

After an Open Call for Performance Ideas received 116 applications from neighbors aged 5­75, a jury of Milwaukee artists and community leaders selected the Top 20 ideas through a public audition held on February 22, 2014. Each performer was awarded $500 for their winning idea and up to $1000 to produce their piece. These performances will take place over the course of the summer, organized into festivals on the last Saturdays of June, July, and August.
Each festival day will run from 11am to 6pm occupying a new public space defined by upcycled materials including 5 shipping containers. Performances will take place on 3 stages as well as in ICAN2 LABS alongside a Marketplace of food trucks, vendors, and information booths.
First Performance @ the artery on the Beerline Trail
Saturday June 28th 

Muneer Bahuddeen: Community Profile

Muneer Bahauddeen is a Milwaukee-area artist who is well known for his work in ceramics. Muneer has taught ceramic sculpture at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, the University of Wisconsin-Madison at Rhinelander, and at the University School of Milwaukee. He has also participated in a number of area public art projects and has worked with Artists Working in Education, Inc. to bring art enrichment programs to children in Milwaukee.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Michael Frisch in Washington Park next week

Picture of Michael H. Frisch

Picture of Frisch's Book

Michael H. FrischProfessor and Senior Research Scholar (History and American Studies)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Impromptu Presentation On Artisanal Chocolate Making!

Found ourselves in the kitchen of Tabal Chocolate . . .
Local chocolatier Dan Bieser starts us at the beginning.
 Something you don't see every day: vanilla beans.
 You had us at "chocolate . . ."
 Future T.A.?
Not every question can be answered.
By the way, this chocolate is amazing, the sea salt stuff is out of this world (sold at local places like Outpost.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Free Lecture in the Washington Park Partners 'Auditorium'
 Jeff Klee of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Had some interesting stories of shifting
perspectives in architectural history