Project Picturing Milwaukee

What is Project Picturing Milwaukee?

Project Scope: Recounting stories of everyday places where we live and work can spur active engagement with others who share these spaces with us, revive interest in our built environment, and encourage stewardship of this patrimony. The need for collaborative storytelling to create a public culture takes on a sense of urgency when established traditions and ways of life disappear and new ones emerge. Such is the case of Historic Water Tower Neighborhood in the city of Milwaukee whose old demographics and culture have given way to new inhabitants, economic practices, and cultural life. Merely telling stories is not enough in these cases - rather citizens should be inspired to participate and contribute in a collective retelling of stories thereby producing a public discourse that is invested and engaged.

The objective of this project is to produce an inventory of sites that have historical value to this neighborhood and to provide users with interpretive ways of reading these sites. We expect that this project will increase awareness of neighborhood history and preservation of the built environment. Project Picturing Milwaukee hopes that by providing critical tools and an interactive public forum for city officials, residents, neighborhood groups, and citizens of Milwaukee, we can learn, discuss and produce stories of places that matter to all these people. We hope to achieve our objectives by implementing a two-staged data collection and interpretation process during summer 2013 that seeks to integrate scholarly analysis with grassroots citizen participation.
This project is significant because it will promote an easily accessible and free public forum for urban residents to share, interpret, learn and disseminate information about urban places as public culture. This project is innovative because it focuses on making expert ways of reading the city available to non-specialist users thereby seeking to create a critically informed citizenry who can serve as advocates and stewards of our urban built heritage.

A unique field school
The BLC Field School project seeks to broaden and popularize historic preservation and ecological awareness in the City of Milwaukee and beyond.  We have carefully planned and executed a unique collaborative platform that engages students, faculty members, and staff at UWM with local communities, Milwaukee residents and multiple stakeholders to collectively examine cultural and environmental heritage. We do it through collecting, analyzing and disseminating stories of stewardship and cultural heritage in local neighborhoods. Using a series of digital platforms and techniques we make these stories available to the general public in quick and efficient ways. 

The second of these field schools is scheduled for Summer 2013 at the Historic Water Tower neighborhood on the shores of Lake Michigan. During this 5-week field school we hope to bring nationally renowned historians and experts to work with community members and students in documenting and interpreting the built and natural resources of this neighborhood.  We plan on using a unique method of data collection and analysis – a mix of environmental analysis, spatial mapping, oral history interpretation, ethnographic and observational studies, asset mapping, digital humanities, and archival research.  Through this method, we document neighborhood stories of identity, culture and architectural heritage, and everyday strategies of environmental stewardship practiced by residents of local communities in Milwaukee.  Such stories include how residents remember and maintain their homes, institutions, public spaces, gardens, and yards, how community members relate to the landscape, how they experience weather and nature, and how they care for flora and fauna. In short, we examine how residents of these neighborhoods envision and execute their role as stewards of their urban environment.  We expect to find novel strategies that people use in order to create and sustain community identity, public space, promote and police their worlds, mark and guard their territories, conserve their ecosystem, value their built heritage, and improve their home spaces.

Our long-term goal is more ambitious.  We seek to address a fundamental limitation in the current narrow understanding of historic preservation that focuses on buildings with limited references to the larger context.  According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, stories of ecological conservation and sustainable stewardship can produce an expanded understanding of our built heritage as part of a larger ecosystem and contribute to an enhanced understanding of the urgency of protecting our heritage.  Recent experiences with historic preservation battles fought in the City of Milwaukee have taught us that successful practice of historic preservation must include the viewpoints of diverse stakeholders within this expanded understanding of our physical, cultural and ecological heritage. 

Historic preservation, ecological stewardship, social justice, community based art practice and storytelling have one common thread. These are all about the "ethics of caring."  We don't usually think of "caring" when we talk about preservation and local history. In discussions of social justice or urban movements the words "justice" and equity are more common. In the US arguments of justice and equity often borrow from scholars like Rawls and Hume and we encounter words like distributive justice, libertarian justice, and of course, social justice. The principle behind these concepts is equity, driven by individual rights and merit, not care, nurturance or relationships. Many have commented on the gendered nature of the use of the terms justice versus caring (Hofstede, 1980). 

Our fieldwork at BLC Field Schools explores grassroots knowledge and we examine everyday life of community members. Consequently, most discussions revolve around relationships and caring, not around policy and equity. Our research demonstrates that the extents of stewardship (caring) are proportionate to social power. For many home, neighborhood, environment, even the world came up as objects of caring. But we also meet people who could barely care for their own body, keep oneself healthy and happy. They could not afford to save the world even if they wanted to.

The above realization has framed our future plans.

The 5 year long Picturing Milwaukee project will take us to 5 communities along North Avenue with the same overarching questions - what do you care for, how do you care for it, and why do you do so? Can we learn the art and practice of caring from local residents? Can such knowledge be incorporated into the ways we practice historic preservation and ecological conservation? Can we document these practices and show the world how every community cares - in different and innovative ways? Can we show the world that an act of caring can be a struggle too!  Beginning with Summer 2013 and ending in Summer 2017 the selected neighborhoods include Historic Water Tower Neighborhood, Brewers Hill, Lindsay Heights, Washington Heights and Metcalf Park.  Located along an urban (social/ecological/demographic) cross-section these neighborhoods are along North Avenue, a thoroughfare that connect the city to its suburban outskirts.

We argue that rethinking the way we think about preservation, by integrating values of environmental stewardship, civic engagement, and sustainable development into the discourse of historic preservation will require us to fundamentally reimagine the way we read architecture and the built environment.  Traditionally we visualize a city by using maps that demarcate neighborhoods and delineate administrative boundaries. In this project we hope to use urban cross section (transect) as an alternative way to read the selected neighborhoods along North Avenue. By visualizing the city as a continuous cross-section we are able to construe culture, people, flora, fauna, topography, climate and biomes as continuous flows that bridge across neighborhood boundaries.

This project is significant because of its unique methodology and its innovative rethinking of preservation practice. It serves as a national model for University-Community collaboration and a preservation+conservation field school curriculum as we combine research, community engagement and teaching.  It is innovative because it focuses on integrating local knowledge with expert ways of reading the city and seeking to create a critically informed citizenry who can serve as advocates and stewards of our urban built heritage. The project uses digital tools to collect, analyze and disseminate information efficiently to a wider audience and explores innovative ways to incorporate new technologies into a curricular and service-learning context. This novel collaboration between an academic institution and neighborhood groups that, once successful in Milwaukee, may be duplicated in other cities.

At the end of this project we expect to produce a monograph listing stewardship strategies that complement more traditional approaches to historic preservation.  We plan to produce documentation and exhibits of places of cultural relevance using criteria suggested by the residents themselves; these places may include historic buildings, landmarks, structures, cultural landscapes and traditional cultural properties.  We also expect to produce a series of 4-minute multi-media documentaries comparing, explaining and evaluating best stewardship practices and strategies found in each neighborhood.