By Raymond Johnson
Although the Park East freeway spur is not yet completely demolished, it is already beginning to be hard to remember exactly what it the spur itself was like. The area is brighter and less foreboding. And with the new McKinley Ave. taking shape, a sense of concreteness and inevitability envelops the project. It is really going to happen. Milwaukee really is going to return this area to productive use after decades on the public dole.
It is not too early then to ask (indeed, hopefully not too late), how will we remember this great wound inflicted on our city? As the scar slowly disappears, how will we memorialize those who sacrificed their homes and livelihoods for this freeway, those who stopped it short of the lake, and those who have pushed it back to Sixth Street? And finally, how will we teach our children what was done here, both so that they may learn from these mistakes and take inspiration from this battle to fight others looming on the horizon?
Thus far, such remembering seems to have been all but forgotten. The model presented last November at City Hall was mostly about healing and repairing. While this is important, we must also remember. For a while, maybe decades, this likely will not be necessary. The newness of it all, the new streets, new buildings, new businesses, and new residents will be a constant reminder of the wastefulness of what once stood. Before then, and probably for a least a decade, the open space waiting to be filled with all this newness will be a reminder. No, the remembering will not be truly needed until much later, perhaps after the first new building expires its term of usefulness and is torn down.
The piers: monolithic monuments to past mistakes.
How about a monument? A monument to the destruction and eventual rebuilding of our city, one that matches that which occurred. The piers that once held up the spur are such a natural choice. Their scale exactly matching that which existed, they would be a perfect reminder of the Park East Freeway spur. Unfortunately most of these piers have already been razed.
The third pier has an opportunity to be magical. It stands on the lot line of 3rd St., just north of the Sidney Hih building. Somehow the City needs to keep this pier to be reused within the structure of a new building or public space. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations. Perhaps these piers could become the eastern gate to a small new public square. Or part of the structure of a new commercial building. Or a portico with outdoor terrace seating of a new restaurant. Or the main entrance to a new soccer stadium.
It is unfortunate that all the piers were not left standing, to be reused in this way, left to individual architects to develop creative schemes for their reuse if possible, or raze them if necessary. How great would it have been to have a whole corridor of buildings reusing the structure of the freeway spur which they replaced — a constant reminder of what once stood, to be discovered and rediscovered continually for decades.
Not so strange, if you think about it.
This may seem a strange idea at first, until one makes the connection that all the warehouse loft conversions happening in our city are the exactly that; reusing outmoded infrastructure rather than tearing it down. In the US we tend limit this to warehouses and the occasional train station. Elsewhere there is more creativity, and fewer limits. In London, a cavernous old Underground tube station was turned into a pulsing dance club. In Paris an old elevated rail line has been converted into a linear park with artisans and shops below. Everywhere in Rome you see the present built literally on the past. Reusing old infrastructure shows history to be a process. It connects us to our past in a way memorials rarely do: inconspicuously, serenely, subtly.
Once the entire spur has come down, these piers, if left standing, will be so out of scale with their surroundings as to provide the perfect reminder of the alien nature of the spur itself. We will wonder how we ever let such a thing destroy so large a chunk of our city. Children passing these piers will ask their parents what they are for, why are they so big, and why did they do that, in the way that only children can.
And parents will have the opportunity to explain to their children the story of what once took place here. Of the good people with bad ideas, who took hundreds of homes and businesses from hardworking people to build a big, unnecessary freeway. Of the wise people with tremendous courage, who stopped that freeway from also ruining the lakefront. And the city people with astonishing persistence, who fought for a decade to demolish the freeway to allow hardworking people to rebuild homes and businesses. And maybe you can’t see much evidence of that anymore, but it all once happened right here. These piers are the proof.