Creative Placemaking Bootcamp, Main Street Now, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (May 24, 2016)
It all started with an idea, and the idea wasn’t even ours — it was from a bunch of really smart people with the National Endowment for the Arts and leaders of other national arts organizations that convened in Washington, DC in November 2014. During their “Beyond the Building” meeting they identified national conferences for their potential to make creative placemaking contributions to host communities.
Once we heard that the National Main Street Center was having their Main Street Now conference in Milwaukee in May 2016, we had to put the creative placemaking idea to work. Quickly we identified local leaders already engaged in placemaking. We ran across NEWaukee by doing a quick Google search. This group of young professionals describes themselves as a “social architecture firm” that works hard “To Make Our City More Awesome!”
Quickly after making our first contact we put in a session proposal for the Creative Placemaking Bootcamp where we’d transform an actual physical space in Milwaukee and leave something behind. Soon thereafter we identified a location — Postman’s Park. Buck and Palmer in their Outdoor Sculpture in Milwaukee: A Cultural and Historical Guidebook wrote:
“The downtown Milwaukee site of the monument is correct in a historical sense, but unsuccessful in its public presence. Site considerations for the monument were overlooked and it stands on the small crowded triangle with annoying awkwardness.”
We sought to change that. Joining our team was the Greater Milwaukee Association of REALTORS and the National Association of REALTORS who provided valuable funding to assist with the project. Milwaukee designer Ryan Tretow took the lead on preparing initial designs and renderings for our work in the park. With such an impressive team we were on our way to make magic happen.
We found around 20 shipping pallets. Then we broke them down and carefully measured and assembled the pieces into kits. Thomas, my youngest son, made sure I had chalk.
While we were busy getting things ready in Kentucky, our partners with NEWaukee had already started the pre-build. Several of the activation elements were already built and in place – table, interpretive sign, and the mailbox for love letters to Milwaukee.
When we saw the park for the first time just before arriving for our conference, we weren’t exactly thrilled with the condition. There were visible signs of neglect. It was not a welcoming spot. Residents from the area mostly used it as a potty area for their dogs, and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, they left evidence of their handiwork behind. Honestly, the park was just gross.
What was encouraging to literally see the hand of the artist and his signature on the base of the Postman’s monument. Offner is hand written, lyrical, and full of personality. Maybe it was the lighting, but the figures in the sculpture also came to life. There was a wonderful ballet being orchestrated with their intertwined feet.
What gave me some hope were the yet to be fully painted installation pieces that Ryan Tretow designed. These various interventions from a table, to a mailbox for people to send love letters to Milwaukee, and a interpretive sign/viewfinder — signified a better future for Postman’s Park.
Hunter Gatherers Deliver
There were also features we found outside of our original scope, but that substantially added to the interest and value of the project. One of these was the call box. When the day of our session arrived we were ready to make some magic happen. After an early morning hardware run to get some supplies, we spent most of the morning on the lot preparing. While doing so we took time to interact with people as they passed by. One of the highlights was a gentleman bringing his dog out for a walk. Once we got started talking he opened up and shared how we worked with President Ronald Reagan. In addition to that, he was on the team that coined the phrase “Morning in America.” After asking him to write it down and leave his signature he left. Though the idea stuck with us.
Finally, the appointed hour and day for our session arrived. We were pleased to have several dozen people waiting for us and ready to go.
When we started the session, few knew what a history-making moment it was about to be. The reality of the situation began to sink in when we described that we’d all be walking to a park several blocks from the conference center.
Also see Livability.
Also see Livability Process.
Also see Livability Roles.
After a brief presentation we walked six blocks to Postman’s Park. On our way walking to the build location we met a street vendor whom we asked to join us. She had been doing fairly well in a shadeless spot in a large corporate office plaza a few blocks away. As we walked to Postman’s Park she willingly joined us. Throughout the course of our two-hour build she sold out nearly all of her product. This reminded us of how important food is for attracting people, and how events like ours can go a long way towards supporting entrepreneurs.
By the time we got to the build site it was controlled chaos. The designer Ryan Tretow gave an overview of the different elements. People listed respectfully, though it was clear that some organization and structure was going to be needed. Groups were split up to paint, some to assemble pallet chairs, and others to do whatever came up. Surprising group dynamics took hold and people began working once they had a specifically defined task.
Painting was a primary activity during the workshop. Having enough quality paintbrushes kept several members of our team busy for the first portion of the bootcamp.
Another highlight of the workshop was building eight pallet chairs. Given our tight time constraints we pre-cut the necessary pieces and assembled these in to kits that could be used to build each chair from. We were impressed how quickly participants took to the work — many of whom never built a chair like this before.
Throughout the process we encouraged collaboration among participants, sharing knowledge as they built chairs. At one point we even asked a pair of participants to help advise all the other teams on the final steps.
Some salvaged wood found on a nearby block and a little chalkboard paint made a sign to encourage hashtag use among participants. Play and fun made an appearance with hopscotch. Most importantly chalk was used to send a message that people should stop relieving their dogs in the park. The dog waste container was moved as far away from the center of the park to send a message – this is a place for people, so curb your dog.
A brief two hours after we first set foot on Postman’s Park our bootcamp was done. Cleanup and fine-tuning kept us on site a few hours more — during which it was fun to see and hear the feedback from passers-by. We also enjoyed having bootcamp participants circle back to see the finished results. We also encouraged participants to share their experience online using the hashtag #BetterMainStreet.
THE RESULTS – May 24, 2016
Overall the Creative Placemaking Bootcamp exceeded our wildest expectations. Milwaukee got a valuable upgrade to an important and historic park not far from their conference center. Participants in the bootcamp got valuable first-hand experience to give them useful knowledge and experiences to apply when they get back home. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for us was how work like this can be done at any conference or gathering where there is a place that motivated people want to make better. We look forward to taking these ideas on the road to other places and at other conferences.
And the project would not complete without leaving a gift, and an invitation to complete one unfinished chair. This marked handing off the park from the workshop facilitators to the City of Milwaukee.
RESULTS – JULY 12, 2016
Just over six weeks ago we worked with 100 volunteers to transform a park in Milwaukee in two hours for less than $6,000. You can read about our collaboration with leaders in Milwaukee to build a better Postman’s Park. Today was the dedication. And while we couldn’t be there for the festivities, here are a few snippets we were able to capture.
Our collaborator Jeremy Fojut kicked things off.
@JeremyLFojut kicking off the #PostmansPlot Ribbon Cutting w/ @MayorOfMKE!pic.twitter.com/IwcbxsJQm4
The United States Postal Service was appropriately represented, given the significance of the site commemorating establishment of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
Postmans Park has a great #MKE history!pic.twitter.com/JQYTBenaBp
"@NEWaukee has brought so much incredible energy to this community." -@MayorOfMKEpic.twitter.com/5RVf0Bp340
Then there was this ribbon cutting to mark a job well done.
Beautiful day for a ribbon cutting!pic.twitter.com/wugAYPsjG5
The online news source On Milwaukee has done a great job capturing the essence of this project. A lively discussion has emerged on the need and importance of placemaking — and the virtue of making incremental improvements to plant the seeds for bigger changes. Some articles highlighting the project follow:
- A visit to Postman's Plot
- Postman's Plot gets a facelift
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Postman Square, City's Newest Park
A special thank you to the National Main Street Center, the National Association of Realtors, the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, NEWaukee, and our over 100 volunteers and co-creators who helped to bring new life to this special small urban space.
RESULTS - JULY 7, 2017
A year later many of the activation elements were still intact.
RESULTS - JUNE 4, 2019
Iteration continued. New pavement was laid, the footprint of the park expanded, and new furniture installed. This includes a mobile card with a Postman's Park logo very near the sculpture. And, while the original activation elements have been iterated out, the park is in far better shape than when we first encountered it in 2016. This is proof how an iterative approach, if deployed successfully, can attract capital investment and achieve long-term change.
In 2022 when talking with a Wisconsonian, we heard that placemaking since our event has taken off in downtown Wisconsin. That makes the time and effort generously provided well worth it in the end.
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