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Political Parks
Once indispensable, public squares are now slipping through the cracks.

Milwaukee has no shortage of public space (see: rolling lakeside parks) but an underwhelming complement of public squares. These tiny parks are an anachronism, hailing from a time when they acted as centers of civic life. Now, they are pushed to the margins, fighting for funding, if not survival.

Government bread for these quadrangles of common ground is unsurprisingly limited, and private-sector partnerships have had mixed results. After Marquette University poured $400,000 into nearby Norris Park under a lease brokered by Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman – tearing out old concrete and installing athlete-friendly turf – it also installed a tall security fence.

“It’s a big aesthetic improvement,” Bauman says. “It’s no longer an incubator for crime and disorder.” But is it still public? Sort of. “Students and nonstudents are allowed to use the space,” Bauman notes, “but only when Marquette gives permission.”

Here’s what resurrected town criers might sniffle, grin or outright bawl over in today’s Milwaukee.

BAD  Cathedral Square // 825 N. JEFFERSON ST.
Former Journal Sentinel architecture critic Whitney Gould says this Downtown square is “well-used but not well-designed.” Trampled repeatedly during summer festivals, Cathedral Square is in shoddy condition. Its central fountain is busted, its concrete walkways are badly cracked, and few barriers shield it from East Kilbourn Avenue. Even the grass is in retreat. “Jazz in the Park completely destroyed the lawn,” Bauman says. “It has a very hard time growing.” Sometime in the next year, the city will attempt to form a neighborhood improvement district that could, among other benefits, renovate the square.

GOOD  Broadway Street Pavilions // 200 BLOCK OF NORTH BROADWAY
Larry Witzling, a principal at GRAEF, a Milwaukee engineering and planning firm, points to the two pavilions dividing the Third Ward’s redone Broadway Street as the best public squares in the city. “They’re a little bit unexpected,” he says. “There’s a bit of disharmony that makes you pay attention. It’s one of the few streets where the pedestrians are fearless and the drivers are nervous.” The wooded rectangles, bookended by raised platforms, were paid for by a business improvement district, and Bauman calls them “a good example of how investment can pay off.”

UGLY  MacArthur Square // 841 N. JAMES LOVELL ST.
“It’s an absolutely disastrous space,” Gould says. “It’s totally overscaled and inaccessible, and you feel unsafe when you’re walking through.” Located directly east of the Milwaukee County Courthouse, this square is cut off from the city grid by its elevation. Witzling and GRAEF submitted a proposal to the city in 2009 highlighting ways to improve the space, including reconnecting it with Kilbourn Avenue, but the project was put on hold because of – bet you can’t guess – a lack of funding.

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