ReciproCity — a mobile experimental culture project founded by Michael Carriere, Nicolas Lampert, and Paul Kjelland in 2012

ReciproCity — a mobile experimental culture project founded by Michael Carriere, Nicolas Lampert, and Paul Kjelland in 2012 — takes inspiration from the urban farming movement in Milwaukee and beyond.

ReciproCity: Redefining Development in Milwaukee

March 1, 2016

by Michael Carriere and Nicolas Lampert and Paul Kjelland

 

For much of the twentieth century, Milwaukee was the self-proclaimed “Machine Shop of the World,” a place where industrial opportunities provided the means for a variety of newcomers to carve out a stable home in the city. At its peak, Milwaukee was the second densest city in the United States — just behind New York — with real estate values that reflected such a reality. In response to these developments, the city undertook a massive annexation program, looking to purchase surrounding

communities in an attempt to give the city and its residents some room to grow.


This process was a top-down affair — with city officials together with private capital driving the development efforts. Also, similar to other urban renewal programs of the mid-twentieth century, they were incredibly large in scale. Development came to mean a wholesale reordering of the urban fabric. Entire neighborhoods were deemed obsolete and were often razed to make way for such “modern” signs of urban development as office parks, highways, and high-rise apartment complexes.


 In hindsight, it is easy to see how destructive these campaigns were, particularly for Milwaukee’s growing African-American population. On the city’s north side, "a highway was placed right through the heart of the densely-populated Bronzeville neighborhood — long the cultural and economic epicenter of the city's black community — while other neighborhoods of color saw thousands of homes, businesses, and social service agencies determined to be “blight” and torn down. In a city where development was defined through access to capital and the acquisition of property, such spaces were only impediments to further growth.


But then industrial production moved out of Milwaukee, a process that began in earnest as early as the late 1950s and reached its critical peak in the 1980s. Sadly, this process played out across the Midwest and in other manufacturing centers throughout the U.S. For the past thirty years, Milwaukee has been marked by rampant disinvestment, white flight, and the wholesale abandonment of large swaths of the region. Yet despite such realities, city leaders continue to cling to the belief that the good times will be back any day now. Wedded to a model of development suited for the twentieth century, such individuals fail to see that the twenty-first century calls for a transformed understanding of urban development. With their collective head in the sand, these city officials continue to hold out hope that private capital will rush into Milwaukee where it can once again fund large-scale projects. In fact, faith in this belief is so strong that many have called for vacant properties to remain vacant, as this abandoned state allows potential developers to see the “blank slates” that the city has to offer. Such a strategy privileges those who may come to Milwaukee; it does nothing for those that currently call the city home.

 

It is this exact scenario that demands different ways of viewing the city — ways that privilege creativity, community-based decision making, and environmental sustainability over the forces of capital and the market. Those community activists, urban farmers, educators, artists, and others, who create by doing rather than waiting for codes and regulations to catch up to them, have been at the forefront of this horizontal movement. 

 

In Milwaukee, inspiration for re-imagining urban spaces comes from many but one name stands out: Will Allen — a 2008 MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner who started the North side urban farm, Growing Power, in 1993. In short time, Allen and Growing Power gained international recognition for being at the forefront of the urban farming movement and for reclaiming vacant space to create sustainable community food systems.

ReciproCity — a mobile experimental culture project founded by Michael Carriere, Nicolas Lampert, and Paul Kjelland in 2012 — takes inspiration from the urban farming movement in Milwaukee and beyond. It strives to create various hub spaces for art, ecology, and community engagement that expose the broader public to ideas related to sustainable development, social justice, and the timely concept of re-imagining Milwaukee — transforming the rust belt into a green belt.


We strive to contribute to community movements already in progress and to add new ideas to a city that is attempting to become a key player in the urban sustainability movement. Here are the seeds of a new approach to urban development, one that draws upon a narrative of revived production (of healthy food) as it engages the community members left out of past and present models of urban economic growth. And it does all of this in a way that heals a landscape still suffering from the legacy of urban renewal.

 

More concretely, ReciproCity has pushed for the transformation of urban development through our efforts to create Peace Place, a park/community garden/performance space located on a series of vacant lots in Harambee, a neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee. This space will feature a series of raised bed gardens, a fruit orchard, a stage for community performances, an outdoor classroom for educational programming, and a market stand available for use by local vendors.
           

Peace Place, a recent RecproCity project, is in partnership with artist/activist/urban agriculture practitioner Fidel Verdin, whose past work includes turning empty lots into community gardens and initiating anti-violence campaigns via music shows and other events that work to create safe spaces for dialogue and community healing. The new park project will also feature a series of murals, done by Nicolas Lampert and Paul Kjelland, detailing the rich history of the Civil Rights Movement in Milwaukee and driving home the point that access to green spaces and fresh food should also be considered a civil right. 

 

Most importantly, all of the planning for this space has been led by those in the community: project partner HeartLove Place, a non-profit that offers programming for neighborhood youth, has provided direction during the planning process and has hosted a series of listening sessions for the project. Through such sessions, we have learned that the community favors edible plants over ornamental flowers, fears tall structures (as children may be tempted to climb such things), and doesn't want the park to counter established pedestrian walkways and flows.


Peace Place seeks to develop community resiliency and opportunity. The project participants question the standard relationship between property and development in ways that challenge both of these categories. Peace Place is neither dependent on private investment nor on the city itself. Instead, it seeks to harness, on a purposefully small scale, the collective passions and talents of nearby residents to utilize what many see as either an eyesore or a site of future development — vacant lots — and transform them into vibrant spaces of urban life.

 

 

Michael Carriere is an associate professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where he teaches courses on American history, public policy, political science, environmental studies, and urban design. He has written for publications including the Journal of Planning History, Perspectives on History, the Journal of Urban History, Cultural History, Reviews in American History, History News Network, Aggregate, Punk Planet, Pitchfork.com, and Salon.com. His first book, tentatively titled Between Being and Becoming: On Architecture, Student Protest, and the Aesthetics of Liberalism in Postwar America, is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press. His second book project, The City Creative: The Rise of Placemaking in Urban America (with David Schalliol), is under contract with the University of Chicago Press. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in American history.
 

Nicolas Lampert is a Milwaukee-based interdisciplinary artist and author whose work focuses on themes of social justice and ecology. His artwork is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, among others. Collectively, he works with two groups: the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative - a worker-owned printmaking cooperative of twenty-five artists in North America that formed in 2007 and ReciproCity – a mobile experimental cultural center that focuses on urban agricultural projects and community activism in Milwaukee and beyond. Lampert has collaborated as an artist on past activist campaigns with TAMMS Year Ten, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Voces de la Frontera, the Chicago chapter of the Rain Forest Action Network, and 350.org. His first book A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements was published by The New Press in 2013 and is part of the People’s History Series edited by Howard Zinn. Lampert is a full-time faculty member (academic staff appointment) in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a joint appointment in Printmaking and Writing and Critical Thinking.
 

Paul Kjelland is a Milwaukee-based visual artist and member of the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative. He is a co-founder of the Riverwest24, and is the co-founder of ReciproCITY – a mobile experimental cultural center that focuses on urban agricultural projects and community activism in Milwaukee and beyond. Paul is currently working at 371 Productions as the Engagement Director for Precious Lives; a 100 part radio series and engagement campaign addressing youth and gun violence. The series is airing weekly over two years and is being distributed both locally and nationally.