Friday, August 15, 2014

Canal Street and placemaking in the Menomonee Valley

Canal St. overpass connects east end of valley with west
(A photo essay follows.)

Sometime around the turn of the millennium I stood on the stub end of Canal Street and looked across the west end of the Menomonee Valley at a scene of devastation. Near at hand stood Falk Corporation, one of the few old heavy manufacturing industries left in the Valley, which once had been full of such factories. Off in the distance cranes hovered over the an unfinished mammoth new stadium. Between these points the 35th Street Viaduct sliced across a broad no-man’s land dominated by the ruins of the Milwaukee Road Yards, a locomotive and railcar manufacturing and repair facility abandoned in the 1980s.

Around the crumbling buildings I also could see wide, grassy meadows speckled with wildflowers—interspersed with gravel pits and piles of broken concrete.  Along the steel-bracketed Menomonee River grew an expanding feral forest of box elder and other weedy trees. Over the next few years I found ways to explore the area, which wasn’t easy to reach. It became one of my favorite places to find what I termed “urban wilderness.” 

Jacques Vieau, a French fur trader, discovered the Menomonee Valley in 1795. I discovered a very different Menomonee Valley in 1999. But neither of us found anything new. Vieau, credited with being the first white settler in what is now Milwaukee, was preceded by no fewer than five distinct Indian tribes. When I first started to explore its urban wilderness the Valley had gone through two great periods of transformation at the hands of Vieau’s successors. The first replaced the original wild rice marsh with Milwaukee’s industrial powerhouse. The second resulted in the devastated landscape that confronted me the day I first went there.

Today, as I walk around a great sloping curve where Canal Street now proceeds down onto that former brownfield, I see notable consequences of continuing transformation. Nestled into the curve, fresh paint gleams on the Rishi Tea Company’s newly constructed factory. Rishi joins a growing number of businesses that have rediscovered the Valley, many of them right here on the former rail yards. It is no coincidence that these businesses are located along the sinuous strip of pavement that finally spans the distance from Falk to Miller Park. In fact, Canal Street has meant far more to the redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley than the average street.

When asked to describe a favorite Milwaukee street for a series in Art City on placemaking I immediately thought of Canal Street and the Menomonee Valley. Despite its storied history, for most Milwaukeeans it's the streets that cross over Canal on viaducts that have defined the Valley. The long-blighted valley floor, first with its noisy and smelly industries then later with its polluted river, crumbling buildings and vacant, often contaminated lots, was a place to avoid, a place that seemed not only unappealing but dangerous.

The Menomonee Valley was a dank, forbidding place that divided the city.

Until recently, that is. In the past 15 years the Menomonee Valley has undergone a remarkable—and well-planned—transformation. After decades of contraction, business and industry are expanding once again. The natural environment that suffered degradation while the Valley became “machine shop to the world” is being reintroduced. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Valley now attracts 10 million visitors a year to recreational and entertainment destinations.

To a large extent, the redesign and extension of Canal Street made all of this possible.

In 1999 when I first saw the Milwaukee Road Yards you could not drive the four-mile length of the Menomonee Valley. Canal Street languished beneath the viaducts as a dusty, deteriorating alley that provided truck access to the few remaining industries. Near 32nd St. the pavement ended abruptly atop a truncated ramp overlooking the urban wilderness.

The Harley-Davidson Museum
Today Canal Street is a continuous four-lane road that connects the Harley Davidson Museum on the Valley’s east end with Miller Park on the west. Significantly, the roadway is flanked by the Hank Aaron State Trail, a unique urban park. By bike or on foot, the trail is the best way I’ve found to experience the resurgent vitality of this place.

Miller Park
Commuters drive and cycle their way in both directions along Canal and the bike trail. But they do far more than provide access to workplaces and recreational venues in the Valley. Together they have helped create a new, inviting and forward-looking identity for the Menomonee Valley.

The Valley is now recognized locally and nationally as a model of economic and environmental sustainability. Canal Street has been a catalyst for cultural as well as economic development. Public arts programming has brought performances as well as temporary installations and permanent sculptures.

"Nature Belle," temporary public sculpture by Roy Staab, 2006
Since most of the viaducts still sweep over the Menomonee Valley, access is one of the keys to its revitalization. Geographically and functionally isolated, disconnected from the municipal street grid, and handicapped by a legacy of negative perception, simply bringing people down to the Valley and enabling free movement once there has been a major accomplishment. The new Sixth Street Bridges provide gateways into the valley but it is Canal Street that physically and symbolically creates a unified whole.
Stormwater Park & Industrial Center
The street winds past the Palermo Pizza factory, under the 35th Street Viaduct and around an industrial center, which has risen atop the former Milwaukee Road Yards. I walk beside the road on the Hank Aaron Trail, through Stormwater Park. The path arcs gracefully among tall golden coneflowers, brushy shrubs, and young oak and maple trees. I pause at a railing overlooking a pond. A heron rises abruptly from the reeds, sails off over the resuscitated river.

The newly unified Valley is in the midst of another great transformation. It is not only being revitalized but also reimagined. By design it is a place where economic development is tied to environmental restoration, community needs, and cultural assets. I believe the Menomonee Valley truly embodies an exciting vision for sustainable urban development. It all began with Canal Street.

An edited version of this essay first appeared in Art City. To see it there click here. I want to thank Mary Louise Schumacher for inspiring this essay and creating the placemaking series on Art City.

Photo Essay (all photos 2014 except as noted)

The end of Canal St., circa 2003
Construction of Canal St. overpass, 2006
Public art on Hank Aaron Trail, circa 2005 (taken 2014)
Fundraising run/walk on Canal St. and Hank Aaron Trail, 2007
Hank Aaron Trail & Canal St. looking west from 6th St.
High Rise Bridge spanning the Valley
27th St. Viaduct and Menomonee River

35th St. Viaduct
25th St. roundabout and Potawatomi hotel under construction
City Yards at 25th and Canal
27th St. Viaduct, Canal St. & CP Rail from bike trail
Stormwater Park in action after rainfall in June

Canal Street extension winds into the west end of the Valley around Rishi Tea factory and under the 35th St. Viaduct.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.  


  1. Eddee, thanks for making us aware of this ongoing transformation of the Valley. I have only recently started to enjoy its new vitality thanks to you. I look forward to exploring more on the Hank Aaron trail someday.

  2. Nicely done Eddee, as always. Three of us, Peter, John and myself ride our bikes out to Miller Park along Canal and the Hank Aaron Trail and have seen the steady change that's taken place along the way. Mike Flanagan