Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why have an Artist in Residence in the Menomonee Valley?

I read a news article recently about a guy named Jesse Welter who has started a tourist business in Detroit. He guides clients through abandoned buildings because, apparently, there is a great demand to see the devastation and decay of a once great city. (Welter works surreptitiously because what he’s doing is both illegal and risky.) Detroit also has become a mecca for photographers attracted to the opportunities it provides for producing images of ruin and social upheaval. There is a book by two French photographers called, “The Ruins of Detroit.”

Using ruins as an artistic motif has historical roots tracing back at least to the Italian Renaissance, of course, when ancient civilizations were unearthed and used as a springboard for modern transformations of a medieval society. But what is being done in Detroit has been dubbed “ruin porn” by residents who see it as exploiting the decay without offering any solutions to the problems facing their community.

When I first began photographing the Menomonee Valley about 15 years ago, Milwaukee was often compared to Detroit and many thought our city to be on the verge of slipping into a similar abyss. The Menomonee Valley, the geographical center of the city, was also the epicenter of urban decay. We had ruins, too, particularly at the west end of the Valley where the Milwaukee Road once was the city’s largest employer. For a while, until they became unstable and had to be torn down, the chimneys that were the last vestiges of those ruins acquired value as monuments.

Chimneys, 2009

Although Milwaukee still has work to do, we have not suffered Detroit’s fate. The story of Milwaukee diverged from that of Detroit and one of the most important chapters in that story is the one about the Menomonee Valley. Ever since white settlers drove out the indigenous inhabitants, the history of the Valley has been one of repeated transformations.

The verdant wild rice marsh became the locus of urban expansion as the surrounding bluffs were torn down to fill it in. The Valley became Milwaukee’s industrial core—“machine shop to the world.” By the late Twentieth Century industry had moved on. The Valley had been abandoned, blighted with pollution, and hollowed out, much like Detroit.

The Valley is now seeing its fourth major period of transformation. This new transformation has been led, in no small measure, by Menomonee Valley Partners (MVP), a non-profit organization created for the purpose. While the revitalization of Milwaukee is part of a global trend of urbanization, the story of the Menomonee Valley diverges, again, in important ways. As in most cities, jobs and economic development are appropriately a primary concern. But from its inception MVP has had a larger vision.  

What first attracted me to the Valley weren’t the ruins. It was the resurgent wildness that had grown up around them. Neglect, contamination and blight had driven out the people and, ironically, made the valley once again attractive to wildlife. In contrast to the first transformation of the Valley, which filled the marshes, channeled the river and drove out wildlife, the new vision for redevelopment has included restoration of the river and natural areas along with business development.

Spiderwort, ca. 2001
Instead of destroying natural habitats in the name of progress, there is a new understanding that a sustainable future involves the integration of the natural environment with human activity. The vision for the Valley layers on a third component to economic development and ecological rehabilitation: cultural revitalization. After all, what distinguish great cities from merely dense population centers are their cultural assets. They are places made vibrant by their histories, their recreational opportunities and by the arts.

If Detroit is to be saved it won’t be because Jesse Welter saw in it a business opportunity. It won’t be due to a flock of photographers who descend on the city for a day or a week and leave with images, however poignant and metaphorical. It will be the result of community efforts, including the many artists who have taken up residence there and whose work is about transformation and hope rather than decay and despair.

The latest chapter in the on-going story of the Menomonee Valley is one of transformation and hope. It is a story worth telling. Stay tuned.

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