When two members of the Great Waters Group, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, offered to take me on a hike along Lincoln Creek near 35th Street I didn’t quite know what to expect. But I never would have expected to see a great blue heron. It is December 23, officially winter. The heron would have been a surprise even in summer here in Milwaukee’s 30th Street Industrial Corridor. It certainly doesn’t belong here now! I watch it rise, circle slowly over the neighborhood like a protective spirit, then slide silently off to the northeast, following the watercourse.
The appearance of the heron, although surprising in itself, represents something truly revelatory: sufficient natural habitat to sustain it in this unlikely setting. West of 35th Street the formerly channelized Lincoln Creek runs straight and narrow between rows of neighborhood houses. It’s easy to imagine the concrete that once controlled the flow of water. But we walk east — and north, where the creek bends and the greenway, now decked in wintry shades of ochre and rust, widens.
The land slopes into a shallow valley. We thread our way through tall thickets of Japanese knotweed, beautiful but invasive. Stands of trees rise on either side of the stream. When they leaf out again in spring they might even hide from view the line of black tank cars that frames the eastern horizon. The ever-present railroad still defines the industrial corridor, even as the factories have disappeared, leaving behind brownfields and blight.
This slender 20-acre slice of nature lies at the intersection of two great urban projects. One, the restoration of the formerly concrete-lined Lincoln Creek, was completed in 2001 by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. The other is the revitalization of the 30th Street Industrial Corridor, which once held the promise of family-supporting jobs for inner city residents. Years in the planning, this massive undertaking spearheaded by the Milwaukee Department of City Development will involve local, state and federal partners in an effort to reverse de-industrialization and rejuvenate what has become one of the most impoverished areas of the city.
Poverty can extend beyond economic considerations. It is no secret that distressed communities of color often have been subjected to shamefully unequal treatment when it comes to the environment. An example of this is having limited access to parks and the benefits of nature. Some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are also located farthest from the parks that make up Milwaukee County’s otherwise exemplary park system. This makes the Lincoln Creek Greenway all the more significant.
We bushwhack our way through brittle brown grasses and prickly, invasive teasel. No trails invite the neighbors to enjoy this island of nature. The Sierra Club, which has decided it needs to be more inviting, sees an opportunity here. The nation’s first conservation organization has not always been considered an ally by communities of color. To address their concern, the first environmental justice program was initiated in 1993. More recently, during the tenure of its first African American president, Aaron Mair, the Sierra Club created a Department of Equity, Inclusion, and Justice in order to transform the organization and “build a healthy, welcoming and sustainable community that celebrates people from all walks of life.”
In September 2017, the Great Waters Group received a grant from the national organization to begin a program called Nearby Nature. Milwaukee is one of just six cities to receive this funding. Nearby Nature is intended to promote renewal and repair of natural areas within underserved parts of the city as well as to encourage community ownership and enjoyment of these public lands. One of my guides, Veronica Bell, who lives in the neighborhood tells me that “people will not protect what they don’t think they own.”
Bell and I commiserate about a contemporary culture that seems far more alienated from nature than in earlier generations. She tells me that when she was young she was outdoors every day. “Kids don’t play outdoors anymore,” she says. I ask how the Sierra Club can hope to make a difference. She believes that cultural change has to begin in grade school. To that end, the Nearby Nature Project is working with the Urban Ecology Center and neighborhood elementary schools. The plan is to gradually expand a network of partnerships into a community-wide effort to raise awareness of the benefits to health and wellness of spending time outdoors in a natural setting.
In several places along our route beside the creek we spot coyote scat, some of it fresh, but no glimpse of this elusive and resilient denizen of the urban wilderness. Most likely this is because Bell’s large dog, Saint, is crashing loudly through the tall grass chasing sticks. Bell is convinced that a trail would encourage more of her neighbors to enjoy the greenway. Even without the Nearby Nature Project that may happen. Plans for the 30th Street Industrial Corridor include a bike path along the railroad that would stretch all the way from here to the Menomonee Valley.
Few places represent contemporary Milwaukee—its challenges, hopes and potential—better than this sliver of urban landscape. The 30th Street Industrial Corridor, the geographic center of the city, once expunged all traces of the natural environment in its effort to bring jobs and housing to the community. Now there is a promise of renewal. More jobs and security, certainly, but also a vision that includes nature nearby.
As we walk along the Lincoln Creek Greenway, resurrected from its concrete straightjacket, I reflect again on the great blue heron. Against all odds, out of place, untamed, and yet, here among us.