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Faded Glory

Washington Park still has striking beauty, but years have taken their toll

Last Updated: Sept. 8, 2003

Second of three parts

29822Washington Park
Washington Park band shell
Photo/William Meyer
Rust and dirt as well as graffiti stain the paint on the once-grand band shell in Washington Park.
Washington Park
Photo/Dale Guldan
Members of the Young Leaders Academy walk through Washington Park during a field trip. There is a $17 million plan for improving the park, but only $800,000 of work has been done.
By The Numbers
Staff at Washington Park in the 1970s, including six supervisors
Staff now, including just one manager.
Holding Its Own
Washington Park
Graphic/Journal Sentinel
About the Series
Most cities would kill to have even one park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary founder of landscape architecture in America. Milwaukee has three: Lake, Washington and Riverside. But that legacy is threatened by disrepair and an uncertain funding base.
Sunday: Lake Park, like the rest of the county's 15,000-acre park system, has had deferred maintenance for two decades and now faces an aggressive budget-cutting plan approved by County Executive Scott Walker that could make it even harder to keep up.
Monday: Washington Park remains a beautiful refuge despite problems - a crumbling band shell smeared with graffiti, a lagoon clogged with trash and a misperception that the park is a crime haven. Across town, Riverside Park looks very little like an Olmsted park anymore, but it still embodies his notion of the role of green space in a city.
Tuesday: Some parks advocates believe the Milwaukee County system is dying a slow death because of an overdependence on the property tax. But there is now talk of finding other ways to fund the parks, including a conservancy approach that revived New York's Central Park.

Robert Perkins, a laborer, has never heard of Frederick Law Olmsted, but he knows what he likes about one of Olmsted's creations, Milwaukee's Washington Park:

"The tranquility, the peacefulness is what draws you," says the 55-year-old Perkins as he reels in a bullhead from the lagoon off the park's Lloyd St. entrance.

Perkins' mother, Ophelia Perkins, 82, totes up the afternoon's catch - seven of the bewhiskered fish squirming in 3 inches of water at the bottom of a plastic pail - and offers her recipe for cooking them: "You gut 'em and fry 'em in cornmeal and black pepper sauce," she says.

Despite indignities suffered over the years - loss of its western edge to the construction of U.S. 41, lapses in maintenance from budget cuts, fears of crime that have scared people away - the park is still a beautiful refuge. Big, old trees dot the rolling hills. Sun dapples the lagoons. Walkways snake through the vast open spaces.

But it, like other county parks, is suffering from years of declining investment. And now a budget-cutting plan calling for layoffs in front-line parks staff threatens to make maintaining the county's park system all that much harder.

Park has changed

The Perkinses have been coming here longer than either can remember, and they have already seen the park change. "There's less activity than there used to be," Robert Perkins says. "They used to have paddleboats. There was more staff around to control the kids when they got out of hand. There was more playground equipment."

His mother recalls coming to the park's band shell in 1986 to hear B.B. King, the great blues guitarist. "You don't hear that kind of music here anymore," she says sadly. And she wishes someone would fix up the band shell - the Blatz Temple of Music, a deteriorating Art Deco relic from 1938 whose white surface is smeared with graffiti.

The lagoon, too, is in sad shape, its banks eroding from years of trampling by geese, its shallows clogged with trash. The water is so brown with sediment that, despite an occasional infusion of planted trout, only rough fish such as bullheads thrive.

Jerry Edwards, a 30-year county parks employee who manages Washington Park, concedes that it has seen better days. In the 1970s, the 135-acre green space had six supervisors and a staff of 50; today, there's just Edwards managing a staff of 20, all but six of them seasonal.

They do the best they can with what they have, he says.

The goose problem is finally under control. Pathways and lighting have been repaired in the first phase of a long-term renovation plan. There's a new tot lot and picnic shelter. Concerts are still going on in the decaying band shell. There's talk of bringing back paddleboats.

And trees and bushes have been trimmed. "There aren't so many places people can hide in," Edwards says, noting that the perception of crime is worse than the reality. "When crime happens in the neighborhood, Washington Park gets blamed."

Roger Quindel, a county supervisor who coaches soccer at the park, says the crime issue is also related to the way the park is laid out: Even with the vegetation trimmed back, the park's undulating landscape obstructs views of activity within the interior.

"The design is from a different era," Quindel says. "It doesn't work in an urban setting any more. You can literally send a kid to the bathroom and lose track of him."

Quindel's solution: Flatten out some of the hills and install more soccer fields.

Allyson Nemec winces at the thought.

"Parks - especially an Olmsted park - can't just be big soccer fields. You have to have a balance between active and passive recreation," says Nemec, a principal with Quorum Architects, which produced an ambitious revitalization plan for Washington Park in 2000 under contract with the county Parks Department.

The plan called for $17 million worth of improvements, from a new swimming pool and renovation of the band shell to better landscaping, a system of way-finding signs and restoration of some original Olmsted elements, such as an overlook. Because of the county's budget distress, only $800,000 worth of work has been done so far, most of it cosmetic.

Even if the needed money were suddenly to materialize, landscape architect Margarete Harvey isn't sure that it would be well-spent. Harvey, a student of Olmsted's parks in Milwaukee, says the revitalization plan's emphasis on structural improvements "gets further and further away from what Olmsted envisioned for this park" - a site for primarily passive recreation.

Still, Harvey concedes it's no easy task to maintain that vision in an age of soccer and skateboarding. The trick, she says, is to avoid permanently altering the park for "what might be shortsighted fads" and to keep natural areas intact.

The Olmsted firm's preliminary plan in 1893 for what was originally known as West Park shows a pastoral mix of densely wooded fringes encircling lagoons and wide-open spaces, some of which were later developed for tennis courts and a swimming pool. A serpentine carriage path looped through the site, bordered by narrower walkways for pedestrians.

A "deer paddock" in the southwest corner evolved into the Milwaukee County Zoo. The park was expanded in the early 20th century north to Lisbon Ave. and east to N. 40th St., but most of the carriage paths were lost in a 1941 revision, and many of the old walking paths were relocated. In 1959, the zoo was moved to its present site off I-94 and U.S. 45.

The most drastic change to the park occurred in 1962, when the construction of U.S. 41 lopped off the western edge of the site.

"There's hardly anything worse you could do to an Olmsted park than cut a freeway through it," says Marcia Coles, president of Lake Park Friends, the spirited support group for another of Milwaukee's Olmsted parks, which is nestled in a well-heeled corner of the east side.

Coles' organization has raised money for playground equipment and landscape restoration, sponsored concerts and bird and botany walks, cleaned out invasive species and promoted awareness of the park's history. The lack of such a group for Washington Park, located in a far less affluent setting, is often cited as a reason for the west side park's uphill battle to hold its own in the face of county budget cuts.

New Jersey success story

But a neighborhood doesn't have to have a lot of money to save an Olmsted park. A prime example is Weequahic County Park in Newark, N.J. Located in a low-income, mostly African-American area near the airport, the 311-acre park (pronounced We-QUAY-ic) was designed by Olmsted's firm in 1898 but had fallen on hard times in recent decades, thanks to budget cuts, crime, decaying infrastructure and litter.

Ten years ago, neighborhood residents who remembered the park's glory days launched a rescue effort. With federal and state grants and cooperation from an initially skeptical county government, the grass-roots Weequahic Park Association began restoring a silt-clogged lake and built a rubberized jogging path around it. They trained young people, some of them non-violent offenders, in tree-pruning and other horticultural work - skills that will earn them $40 an hour when they leave the program.

The transformation has been nothing short of miraculous, says Kevin Moore, the association's project director. "People of all ages, races and backgrounds come here to walk and jog and enjoy the scenery," Moore says. "And the more people who come, the safer it becomes."

For neighbors, part of the appeal was the Olmsted connection: The great landscape architect, though not a militant abolitionist, had written critically about slavery in the South and saw parks as inclusive, democratizing forces in cities, not elitist enclaves.

"It was his humanism that really had resonance here," Moore says. "And he was Malcolm X's favorite landscape architect. That really got people's attention."

The lesson for Milwaukee, he says, is that parks are "not just swings and basketball courts. They're natural resources, they're economic opportunities, and they're cultural anchors of the community."

From the Sept. 8, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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