Jason Biernat
Op-Ed

Towards a Greater Bay View

Neighborhoods west of I-94 need better connections to Bay View, which would improve entire area.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Jun 21st, 2016 12:00 pm
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Milwaukee’s 14th aldermanic district covers Bay View and portions of Lincoln Village, Polonia and Morgandale on the city’s South Side. These neighborhoods, traditionally rooted in manufacturing and parish life, underwent major transformations on diverging paths over the past 20 years. The forces shaping these neighborhoods parallel those facing Milwaukee, a tale of two neighborhoods within a tale of two cities.

The fortunes of Bay View could not look brighter. Bay View has strong organizations and associations promoting all aspects of neighborhood life.  Investments are pouring in, raising property values, creating new businesses and attracting highly educated and wealthier people. When Bay View talks, government snaps to it.

Lincoln Village, Polonia and Morgandale have remained closer to their traditional working-class roles but have seen great change nonetheless. Recent research has described the rapid growth of the Latino community in Milwaukee. As the Polish immigrant population integrated, aged and moved, Latinos have moved into these South Side neighborhoods. Like the Polish immigrants before them, Latinos are creating their own engine of economic mobility, albeit with 80- to 120-year-old parts. Day-to-day life is the paramount concern for these communities. It is harder for these residents to voice concern, and when they do, it is easier for government to ignore them.

My family moved to Polonia on S. 7th Street in the summer of 1995. The neighborhood was a mix of working and middle-class folks. It was not perfect, but it was a good place to grow up.Neighbors kept tabs on the block, collected each other’s mail while on vacation and helped out the elderly when the snow came. You could sit on your front porch and enjoy a summer’s sunset chatting with neighbors while the lightning bugs came out.

After graduation and landing a meager-paying job, I took a higher-paying job out of state in 2011. I would visit home several times each year, each time noticing the decline of the block. And the decline I saw was staggering.

A Google Maps view of 7th street from 2007.

A Google Maps view of 7th street from 2007.

Foreclosures hit the block hard and owner-occupied homes turned into rental properties. Even the lush tree canopy disappeared, leaving the block bleak and desolate. Once the Oak Leaf trail was constructed along the Kinnickinnic River, I would walk to the heart of Bay View where Lincoln, Howell and Kinnickinnic avenues meet. I was happy to see Bay View becoming so vibrant. However, walking back to my block highlighted the gulf between these once similar places.

I advised my parents to move. I argued that it was not worth investing in their house because there would be no return. Instead they decided to stay and continue making improvements to the house. I admire their steadfastness in not giving up on the block since further decline was inevitable without a major change.

One day, using the Google Map’s timeline tool, I looked at S. 7th St. using street view. From 2007 to 2015, I watched a time-lapse displaying the block’s physical decline. The most noticeable aspect was the destruction of the streets’ once brilliant tree canopy. I fired off dozens of emails to Alderman Tony Zielinski, other government representatives and directors of city departments. I expected nothing; instead I got a quick response from Alderman Zielinski and rapid-fire emails from the city’s forestry department late on the Friday afternoon before the Memorial Day weekend. Two trees were planted within a week. Trees are great and needed but larger, more painful problems loom.

A Google Maps view of 7th street from 2015. The city recently planted two new trees, after the author contacted Alderman Tony Zielinski and the city’s forestry department.

A Google Maps view of 7th street from 2015. The city recently planted two new trees, after the author contacted Alderman Tony Zielinski and the city’s forestry department.

That experience made me realize a major contributing factor between the diverging fortunes of Bay View and the neighborhoods in the 14th district west of I-94. Bay View’s neighborhood relationships not only continued, but became stronger and more sophisticated, while those same relationships west of I-94 declined and disintegrated. If we repair the connections between neighbors, businesses and government in Lincoln Village, Polonia and Morgandale, and collaborate with those in Bay View we can unite the fortunes and create a brighter future for all in Milwaukee’s 14th district.

I propose the following three-point action plan: apply existing city services; create a new community organization representing the 14th District neighborhoods west of I-94; and establish communication across the I-94 divide with existing Bay View organizations. This is how we unit the 14th District to improve safety and the quality of life for everyone.

First, we must apply existing city services in full force. This involves organizing among ourselves; join me at Southside+Bayview: Unite the 14th to continue the discussion. This group can serve as a forum if you need help with an issue. Download the City of Milwaukee’s Mobile Service Request App or go online to the Neighborhood Services web page to log neighborhood service requests. Conduct weekly or monthly neighborhood sweeps and monitor the progress here. We have a powerful tool to address problem landlords in the city’s Nuisance Ordinance; we must learn how to use it.  Finally, register to vote. Aldermanic job performance is measured at the polls.

Second, neighborhoods within the 14th District west of I-94 absolutely must organize. We have no voice and we endure the burden of crime, blight and disinvestment in silence. We will no longer suffer in silence; we will organize and let our voice be heard loudly. Our neighborhoods are at the cusp of spiraling into a negative feedback loop of disinvestment and decline. We must act now and in full force before it is too late. Once we establish our organization we will open lines of communication with our sister organizations in Bay View to align district goals, break down divisions, learn and benefit from each other.

Third, when Bay View speaks on district issues, Bay View must include the neighborhoods in the 14th District west of I-94. Bay View has a progressive, informed and educated population that is aware of problems facing society, especially inequality and social injustice. Here is the opportunity to put those progressive ideals into action. Reach out and include residents and business owners west of I-94 in the 14th District to your meetings and discussions. Tell folks the story of what it took to create the vibrant, successful Bay View of today.

We all want the same thing: safe streets and a brighter future. A stronger, safer western 14th District creates a stronger, safer Bay View. Let’s get started and do good work.

Jason Biernat, who grew up on S. 7th Street between Oklahoma Avenue and Manitoba, contrasts the state of the block, where his parents still live, with Bay View, which is also in the 14th aldermanic district.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

9 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Towards a Greater Bay View”

  1. Virginia says:

    Jason, your action plans all sound. Milwaukee will never thrive until it focuses on truly revitalizing more than a few hot neighborhoods.

    The tree canopy issue is especially troubling. The city reports a 98-percent replanting rate within a year of street trees being removed. It sounds like the decimated canopy may have been the result of a tree blight issue. Researchers say overnight canopy removal say that can contribute to a neighborhood’s decline and worsened public health. Two new trees do not represent a 98 percent rate of that block, and I’m guessing others were affected as well. It’s a sign of civic disinvestment in the neighborhood.

    Here’s a TED talk about the value of reforesting cities. http://www.wrlandconservancy.org/articles/2015/12/10/rich-cochran-ted-talk/

    The efforts of committed citizens can make a real impact.

  2. Ted Chisholm says:

    This is really an excellent piece.

  3. AG says:

    Jason, another modern day tool that has really helped some neighborhoods become more active is social media. The best neighborhoods have a thriving social media presence on facebook, the nextdoor app, or similar. It may not be for everyone, especially in neighborhoods with an aging population (not to stereo type though…) but it’s a great way to foster neighborhood relationships, collective action, safety and visibility, and a lot of other forces used to improve a neighborhood.

    Also, the city does indeed seem awfully eager to cut down trees but many times it seems like pulling teeth to get the replacements planted. I find the 98% statistic the city reports to be a bit suspect…

  4. Virginia says:

    It sounds like some squeaky wheels might help this neighborhood get some attention.This same story is played out in many neighborhoods throughout the city.

    I still can’t fathom how so many trees were removed and not replaced. There are now maps that show tree canopy by neighborhood. The fewer the trees usually the worse the negative stats.

  5. Hi all thanks for comments. I do have a Facebook group up and I’ve been in contact with dozens of community organizers and dedicated civil servants. I feel encouraged though a lot of work remains. I have a meeting with Alderman Zielinski this Friday. We developed an interesting catalytic project involving the Milwaukee County owned land that parrallels S 6 th st. Think High Line in NYC or the 606 trail in Chicago. There is great stuff happening in the Garden District. We just Need to bring that up to the KK River.

  6. Virginia Small says:

    Jason, it’s great to read of your being inspired by the High Line and 606 Trail. Please stay the course and keep sharing your vision and enthusiasm.

  7. Carrie says:

    This is an extremely condescending depiction of the neighborhoods west of Bayview. I’ve lived in Morgandale for 8+ years and I hardly think it’s in decline.. Have you attended any of our Ohio Park Neighborhood meetings or the Ohio Park Halloween event or our night out? Have you gone to the Garden District’s farmer’s market and community gardens? Have you shopped at Tower Chicken or had ice cream at the new place on 13th and Oklahoma? Have you gone to Zablocki elementary’s open house and seen their new gardens? I love living in here and I don’t think that every neighborhood has to be just like Bayview to be a great place to live.

  8. Ted Chisholm says:

    @Carrie: Those are great points and I agree with most of them. In many ways the neighborhoods west of “traditional” Bay View are equally, if not more, vibrant and character-infused. I greatly enjoyed canvassing them when working on an aldermanic campaign and interacting with the neighbors there. But that said, I don’t think these neighborhoods receive the same level of investment or attention as areas to the east. Not that they’re neglected, but there’s more effort that could be spent there.

  9. Jason says:

    @Carrie and @Ted Vibrant yes, Character yes. Anyone, even just passing through, cannot deny the urban energy and vibrant dynamics of our neighborhoods. Just the same, anyone traveling between Bay View and our neighborhoods cannot deny the economic differences, particularly over the past 5 years. Everyone will have a different perception of the neighborhood and there are differences block by block. Please keep an open mind to the experiences of others. I had no intention to come off as patronizing. I am also not arguing to turn our neighborhoods into Bay View. I am arguing for the fair and equitable distribution of city services and attention. My parents have decided not to move out of the neighborhood for the very reasons @Carrie mentioned. After 21 years of ups and downs, hope in the neighborhood remains. Hope remains even despite my parents living in fear of retaliation after confronting the drug activity head on by working with the Police. Hope remains because there are strong people facing big problems head on. Since writing this article, I’ve talked with dozens of people, elected officials and citizen leaders, and I am very encouraged. It starts when people work together to solves problems. Alderman Zielinski has heard us and others in the neighborhood. He met with my parents, attended Polonia’s neighborhood meeting, called our issues to the attention of DNS (inspectors within DNS were already aware of increasing issues in terms of code violations and problem landlords) and facilitated a meeting between my mom and a landlord whose tenants were drug dealers. Alderman Zielinksi has supported an upcoming public art mural at 6th and Oklahoma Ave. and pedestrian improvements at 10th and Oklahoma Ave. to make it safer for students to get to Zabolcki. Bay View folks have shown an incredible amount of interest in working together on shared community goals. I was surprised at the level of kinship. What I argued for in the article: 1. applying the full force of city services. 2. Organizing in the 14th west of I-94 and 3. Reaching out to Bay View are all happening and results are taking root.

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