Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Growing with the Menomonee Valley


Even now, 24 years later, Kymme vividly remembers her first day in the Menomonee Valley. A sandblasting company had just hired her and she was looking for the building. She chuckles about it today, but back then it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

“I lived on the south side and was going to MATC at the time,” she told me.  “I had gone back and forth across the 16th Street Viaduct plenty of times and never paid attention to the Valley. It was an area that nobody went to. I saw railroad tracks and it was dirty and I thought there would be trouble down there. It looked scary!”
16th Street Viaduct
Then came the fateful day that the temp agency she worked for to help pay for college assigned her to the sandblasting company. She reminisced: “I had to find my way into the Valley. I don’t remember the address—probably it was Canal Street. The road didn’t even seem like a road. I had no idea where to go.”

She finally found the business in a non-descript building at the end of a dusty path lined with used tires. She recalls working there for a couple of months. For about a year after that she again gave little thought to the Valley. Then she was surprised to learn about a bingo hall that was under construction at the very location where the sandblasting company had been. “You couldn’t see the bingo hall from the viaduct,” she said with a smile.

As we spoke finishing touches were being added to the new 19-story hotel now looming over that viaduct. But even before the new addition it’s been many years since anyone could cross the 16th Street Viaduct without noticing the presence of Potawatomi Bingo & Casino (recently renamed Potawatomi Hotel & Casino). Kymme’s personal story is closely tied with the continual transformation that began with that first bingo hall, a transformation that extends from Potawatomi’s periods of expansion to revitalization of the surrounding Menomonee Valley, the place she had once shunned as scary.

The hotel opened in August
“I was hired February 28, 1991 and we opened in March. I was here from the beginning,” she said proudly. Kymme started as a pull-tab clerk. This meant walking up and down the bingo aisles selling tabs or tickets with combinations of symbols, some of which would be winning combinations that could be turned in for a cash prize. For several years after that she worked as the paper clerk who sold bingo sheets. Because of her qualifications and skills, she steadily worked her way up in the organization, becoming a supervisor, a payroll specialist, and eventually executive assistant to the General Manager.

After seven years at Potawatomi Kymme, who is Oneida, decided to take a break and return to her home in northern Wisconsin. The hiatus lasted two years before she returned. “I was bored up there,” she freely admits. Back in Milwaukee she studied bioscience at UWM, her sights aimed on a career as a crime scene investigator. She also went back to Potawatomi, working part time to support her studies. She remembers it as a busy time when she also became “a full time mom.”

After Potawatomi opened a poker room in 2001 Kymme dealt poker for a couple years. One day a friend suggested she apply to the public relations department. They needed a community relations specialist, she was told. “I didn’t know anything about PR,” she confesses, “but I knew a lot of people in the Native American community. I had the connections and resources.” This led to the Community Relations position she’s held ever since.

One of Kymme’s favorite duties has been to coordinate the annual Powwow, which is held in the Casino’s Expo Center. Although not widely advertised, the Powwow, with its traditional dances and singing, is open to the public. “It’s also the one time you can bring children to the casino,” Kymme tells me.

Before long, as the Menomonee Valley itself began to change, Kymme found herself the go-to person for people newly interested in the Native American heritage of the vicinity. She muses, “It was kind of funny because they were calling a casino to learn stuff about Native Americans.” But it seems natural enough for two reasons. First, as Kymme puts it, “We were here before it was Milwaukee.” But more to the point, perhaps, it was the return of the Potawatomi to this degraded landscape that helped inspire Milwaukee to turn things around.

“We were the first to see the potential,” Kymme says. When the tribe began investing in the valley and cleaning up the river “there was a domino effect” as other businesses saw the value of locating there. “Slowly it became a safe place and a beautiful place.”

Kymme is particularly happy to have the opportunity to work with the Urban Ecology Center as a cultural outreach and education specialist. The Center, which opened its Menomonee Valley Branch in July, 2013, has assumed stewardship of the new Three Bridges Park and has begun to introduce the natural world to children in nearby South Side neighborhoods.

With obvious emotion Kymme concludes, “I think the ancestors who lived here before it was Milwaukee are happy now.” 

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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment