Creative Placemaking to Transform a Park in Milwaukee and Build a #BetterMainStreet

Isaac Kremer/ May 6, 2016/ tactical urbanism/ 0 comments

Note: This story was originally published as the Main Street Story of the Week by the National Main Street Center and posted on May 6, 2016.

This is the story of how a National Endowment for the Arts gathering of national arts leaders in DC that was listened to by leaders of a small town in Appalachia inspired them to connect with leaders in Milwaukee to transform a neglected park. 

The National Endowment for the Arts at their “Beyond the Building” meeting in 2014 identified national conferences for their potential to make creative placemaking contributions to host communities. At that time Middlesboro, Kentucky, had adopted creative placemaking as a central strategy for transformation of this small mountain town. Two successful Better Block events, a pop-up shop to highlight Appalachian artisans and dozens of pallet chairs lining their Main Street, were just a few results. These efforts were followed by launch of an entrepreneurship training program for artists to sell their work online along with staging free concerts on a neglected public space that was transformed through winning the Levitt AMP [Your City] contest twice.

When placemaking leaders in Middlesboro reached out to their colleagues in Milwaukee with an idea about working together on a session for the Main Street Now conference, despite being separated by over 600 miles, the shared interest in creative placemaking created an instantaneous bond. The Creative Placemaking Bootcamp was born.

The Site

A few blocks away from the Main Street Now conference there is a small triangular lot with the Letter Carriers’ Monument by artist Elliot Offner. This was created in 1989 for the centennial of the National Association of Letter Carriers. 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.”

Enter NEWaukee. Since being founded in 2009, this self-described “social architecture firm” has worked tirelessly to change the way people connect. A core group of young professionals came together around creative interventions and signature events “To Make Our City More Awesome!” When given the opportunity to partner on a workshop at the Main Street conference – NEWaukee was quick to identify a site and line up resources.

Early on the Greater Milwaukee Association of REALTORS® signed on. With their participation they brought funding from their national organization to help turn Postmans’ Park around. The addition of award-winning Milwaukee designer Ryan Tretow to the team, helped to bring sophistication to the design interventions being proposed.

The Interventions

Postmans’ Park is designed as a social experiment for Milwaukee’s Westown Neighborhood. The design simultaneously responds to its historical significance and geographic location, sun angles, context, etc., while adapting to the requirements of the budget and the human experience. More specifically, the design utilizes a series of interventions that serve as a tool kit for social engagement.

Intervention 01: The first intervention is designed to respond to the needs of the existing community of office workers. This intervention takes the shape of a large, communal table to enjoy a lunch out in the park and support food truck programming. This large table is intentionally designed as a single, linear form that suggests conversation and the sharing of a meal. We believe this table can also be used by others as an outdoor classroom or impromptu outdoor meeting space for the community.

Intervention 02: This intervention serves as an implied stage and writable backdrop. This is the place where presenters can vocalize ideas to larger groups through poetry, music, and more. It also is a surface to project short films and functions as a chalkable writing surface for the community to leave messages and share ideas. Representative of change and the development of ideas over time, as the chalk washes away with each rain it makes room for others to share. The inclusion of several dozen chairs constructed from shipping pallets provides flexible seating at minimal cost and diverts waste from landfills.

Intervention 03: A super-sized mailbox will help community members to send letters to the city through NEWaukee. Through a hashtag #LettersToMilwaukee, NEWaukee will disseminate the letters so people can connect to the place through a virtual platform as well as in person.

Intervention 04: An abstracted viewfinder platform will denote the historical content of the park for visitors and keys them into the significant Letter Carriers’ Union building across Plankinton Ave. via a mailbox-profiled hole that aligns with coordinated signage at the site of the building. This intervention is also located closest to the statue and will serve as the informal ‘information center’ for those most curious about the park’s history and significance.

How to Get Involved

All that is missing to make the Creative Placemaking Bootcamp a great success is you! To help us get ready for the big event please complete this brief online survey here. You’ll be able to select a role and specific interventions to participate in. We’ll make sure you know appropriate clothing, have the equipment you need, and make sure that everyone has a great time.

Then please remember when you register for the Main Street Now conference, to pre-register for the Creative Placemaking Bootcamp. Working together we have the potential to not only build a better Postmans’ Park as a gift to our host city of Milwaukee, but also to give you knowledge, tools, and experience to build a #BetterMainStreet in your home town.

Isaac D. Kremer is Executive Director of Discover Downtown Middlesboro. He organized one of the first Better Block projects in the country while with the Oyster Bay Main Street Association in 2010. Since then he’s gone on to become a leading proponent of utilizing creative placemaking and tactical interventions to achieve downtown revitalization and historic preservation goals. He lives in Middlesboro with his wife Chrissy and two boys Edward and Thomas in a 1920s bungalow that they’re lovingly restoring. Note: Isaac continued to serve as Executive Director of Discover Downtown Middlesboro through September 2016 before taking a new position in Metuchen, New Jersey.

Also see Creative Placemaking Bootcamp.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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