Riverwest social action center becomes reality
Riverwest has long been Milwaukee’s hub for counter-cultural activity, a haven for artists and activists alike. As early as the mid-1960s, decidedly left-of-center groups like the Negative Movement, a society devoted to independent and avant garde films, began to call it their home.
In the 1970s, the hippies who’d previously inhabited the Brady Street area packed up and moved west across the river. In the 80s, underground venues sprang up as part of a much larger, national network of hardcore punk bands and fans taking it upon themselves to put out their own records and book their own tours, a trend which continues well into the 21st century.
It makes sense then, that Riverwest is where the Milwaukee Network for Social Change (mNSC) first banded together, and it is here where one of their longstanding dreams is coming to fruition, in the form of the Wright Street Resource Center.
A mere two blocks from the Riverwest Co-Op and the Cream City Collectives, the Wright Street Resource Center occupies a former tavern on the southeast corner of Bremen and Wright Streets. Inside, the sweet scent of sawdust still hangs in the air.
Despite the fact that today marks the center’s proposed opening date much work remains, but John Revord and Debbie Davis (founding members of the mNSC and the Milwaukee Area Time Exchange, respectively) say that the Resource Center is an absolute labor of love.
The mNSC started in Revord’s living room in 2006 as a “grassroots information distribution channel” in the anti-war movement. After hooking up with the Cream City Collectives, the mNSC helped set up Really, Really Free Markets–money-free commodity exchanges–which soon became the group’s main focus.
This dream made a significant push toward reality when Debbie Davis found mNSC. Davis, an MPS high school teacher, founded the Milwaukee Area Time Exchange last year after hearing about the idea on NPR and subsequently attending a conference in Madison, home of the world’s largest time bank.
What the mNSC does with goods and commodities, the Time Exchange does with services and labor. Within the year, the Time Exchange had over 200 members through Milwaukee County, with about a third of those in Riverwest. The members exchange services such as petsitting, lawncare, haircuts, electrical work, carpentry, etc. Davis and her fellow Time Exchangers quickly felt the need for an office, and they liked the idea of sharing the space with a like-minded group.
On her way to meet with the mNSC for the first time, Davis spotted the empty bar, a “For Rent” sign in the window. Representatives of both groups fell in love with the space. The lease was signed, and thanks to local fundraising and a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, rent was paid for a year. Soon thereafter, a group of friends, neighbors and Time Exchangers began renovating the space and discussing plans.
Construction materials and cleaning supplies were mostly donated through the networks set up over the last half-decade by mNSC. “We’ve got the goods,” Revord says, “and Debbie’s got all the labor.” He talks about the “collective energy” of the space: “You are standing on a floor that was rebuilt by a homeless carpenter; we have a wall that was built by a contractor [who] was not working but had skills to offer.”
In the midst of renovation and reconstruction, it still needs be decided just how to use the Resource Center. Issues of community are central, though Revord and Davis both promise that the Center’s placement in Riverwest will not stop them from reaching out across the river or past the highway. “We want to be a neighborhood resource center that doesn’t just serve the neighborhood,” Davis tells me. The groups hope to build bridges into Harambee and beyond, but readily admit that they need to start locally.
The Riverwest Health Initiative will operate a satellite office out of the Center, offering free screenings and consultations several days a week. The space will also offer a public computer lab for those without regular access. Another goal is to offer low-cost space to burgeoning non-profits, allowing individual groups to come in and out freely and act independently without worrying about money. Some interested groups are the Riverwest Neighborhood Alliance, Students for a Democratic Society and Trafficking Ends With Action, among others.
The center deliberately raises broader questions about society, the economy and the importance of counter-culture. The mNSC and the Time Exchange offer an alternative to capitalism, an economic model which has left many people behind. “It was a concern that the whole system would crash,” Davis says, “but frankly the system has already crashed, for so many people. Even those of us that are, you know, comfortable economically are still on some level socially isolated.”
Revord continues: “The underlying theme for everyone here is utilizing the social capital within communities which is inherently in abundance. Economic capital is not always available, but there is always social capital at multiple levels.”
Davis calls these models “parallel systems” and feels that they are workable substitutes if the market were to fail entirely. Revord admits their work is dependent on the scraps and excesses of capitalism, but “if you ceased all production within the capitalist system, there would still be enough goods for all.”
“Do I think it’s the answer? No, I don’t think it’s the overall answer. Do I know the answer? Also no. But for right now, we are working on something that for the meantime is better,” he says.
The Resource Center will open to the public in mid-September, but all the work will probably not be done by then. In October, the space will be used to celebrate the Time Exchange’s one year anniversary, an event which corresponds with 350.org’s day of action. Finally, in November, the Center will celebrate its official grand opening, though little planning has been put into the event, since so much work remains. And the kind of work that Revord and Davis have ahead of them is never really finished.
Luckily, they wouldn’t have it any other way.