Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Why We Lost the Marsupial Bridge Swings

The city hasn't allocated money to maintain them. Should the nearby Business Improvement District adopt them?

By - Oct 10th, 2013 10:26 am
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Wedding photos under the Marsupial Bridge. Photo by Michael Horne.

Wedding photos under the Marsupial Bridge. Photo by Michael Horne.

What once was swung is now unhung. As of Wednesday, October 9th, only two swings remain at the  south end of the Marsupial Bridge, while the issue of maintaining them goes back and forth between the swings’ creators and the city.

The swings were installed in September 2012 by a group of activists led by Keith Hayes. [See Urban Milwaukee: The Holton Bridge Swings.] They were hung from the underside of the Edward D. Holton Viaduct and immediately animated the space. In the ensuing year, the swings were used by families with children, young lovers and some particularly athletic gymnasts — people of all sorts, including many unaccustomed to hanging out under a bridge. There have been plays, dances, concerts, films and art performances regularly held there. Every bicyclist in town knows it.

It has been a popular destination for wedding photographs since satin gowns contrast so nicely with the vigor of Milwaukee Socialist bridge designs.

Yet on Saturday, October 5th, 2013, while not one but two wedding parties posed for photographs there, some wondered aloud, “Who took down the swings?”

It turns out some were taken down by the city, and others were removed, as a form of protest, by the people who installed them in the first place.

All this plays out against a backdrop of public use of public space versus the city’s obligation to maintain its infrastructure.

Might people, operating on their own initiative, add improvements to the city’s infrastructure and then expect the taxpayers to maintain them in perpetuity?

Is the city bureaucracy so inflexible that it cannot find a way to administer these impromptu improvements?

No swings? Photo by Michael Horne.

No swings? Photo by Michael Horne.

Who calls the shots here?

Over the course of several months the city removed some swings that were showing signs of disrepair. Hayes says Ghassan Korban, the city’s public works chief, told him the swings would be replaced and redesigned by his staff. But when they were not replaced, and as the number of them diminished, Hayes and his group decided to remove the final two last week, leaving behind a trapeze and a bench swing.

“The last two were removed [Friday, October 4th] by Willie Fields,” one of the volunteers in the Artery project, Hayes wrote.

“We were tired of them being in a state of disrepair after 10 months of them being the responsibility of the city. This was a gift. I am appalled by the city’s inability to avoid such an easy and inexpensive win. Willie himself had made a number of repairs on his own that we offered to keep doing, if the city would reimburse. They declined, claiming these would be replaced, but here we are, these are being stripped from the park a few at a time, not to be replaced.”

Funding is an issue. The city would not like to set a precedent that it be obliged to maintain all contraptions hung from its property. This is budget season, but there appears to be no line item for the maintenance of the swings. Nor can the Commissioner of Public Works unilaterally transfer funds from other purposes to maintain the swings.

It would also be a hard sell to the public to explain diverting taxpayer funds to the swings while much of the city’s infrastructure is in critical disrepair. The commissioner and the mayor have their hands full just keeping the city’s bridges from falling into the river, much less hanging swings from them.

But it’s foolish for the city to be intransigent in this matter, since the swings clearly are a draw to what was once a forbidding area, and it certainly can’t be terribly complicated to maintain swings. The city owns hundreds of them in its school playgrounds, with properly appropriated funds to maintain them.

Jeremy Fojut, the Chief Idea Officer of NEWaukee, says, “as the place-making movement continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly important that space activation be put in the hands of the community. It’s apparent that these swings need to be brought back sooner [rather] than later because the community demands it. NEWaukee is willing to assist in some of the funding needed for new safe swings.”

Julilly Kohler, whose 1993 vision for the Marsupial Bridge, a pedestrian passageway hung beneath the Holton Viaduct, became a reality in 2006, agrees. She feels the government should provide some funds for maintenance, to be released when matching funds are found. She suggests a non-profit organization could be created to accept donations.

Perhaps the easiest way to solve the complicated issue of private funding and maintenance of a public improvement would be to have a Business Improvement District be responsible. BID districts routinely invest in street furniture and other physical improvements.

However, the borders of the Brady Street Business Improvement District #11 do not encompass the Marsupial Bridge, but stop quite nearby.

Possibly the best solution would be to extend the district’s borders to incorporate businesses that have opened or revitalized since the BID was founded in 1991.

The district could easily run as far north as N. Water St at its intersection with N. Humboldt Ave. and E. Kane Place, and could incorporate such places as Trocadero Gastrobar, located immediately to the east of the swings, Brocach Irish Pub, Bel Air Cantina, Fink’s, and the Hamilton. The district could also extend across the river to take in Lakefront Brewery and future commercial development on N. Commerce St.

In the past I have mentioned the possibility of expanding the BID district with owners of all of the businesses mentioned above (with the exception of Brocach), and received a positive response.

But as it stands now, the city has a gift it didn’t ask for, and no money to take care of it. (The city has said it hopes to replace the swings but has given no timeline for this and no details.) Art for the people by the people is a noble idea, but there needs to be consensus and financing when these installations are expected to be permanent and actively used.

So where are the swings that Hayes and his group removed?

On Friday, October 4th, 2013, he wrote: “Those removed will be repaired and installed in Chicago tonight as part of a site specific experiment that will add a swing to 4 other states in the Midwest.”

Meet the Candidate Department

Laura Gramling Perez, Chief Court Commissioner. Photo by Michael Horne.

Laura Gramling Perez, Chief Court Commissioner. Photo by Michael Horne.

Name: Laura Gramling Perez

Office Sought: Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge, Branch 32

Election Date: April 1st, 2014

Court Commissioner Laura Gramling Perez [U Michigan Law School ‘96] hopes to become a full-fledged judge as she vies with fellow commissioner Cedric S. Cornwall [Marquette University Law School ‘86] to replace the retiring Judge Michael Guolee [Marquette ‘69], Wisconsin’s longest-serving jurist, who has been on the bench since January, 1976, some seven months before second-ranked Shirley Abrahamson [Indiana ‘56], the state’s chief justice. Perez is the daughter of retired municipal judge James A. Gramling, Jr. [UW ‘71] and his former wife, Susan Gramling [UW ‘96], both of whom attended their daughter’s campaign kickoff held Monday, October 7th, 2013 at Trinity Three Irish Pubs, 125 E. Juneau Ave.

Her campaign is co-chaired by Atty. Ann Jacobs [UW ‘92] (now in solo private practice) and political activist Jackie Boynton, who has long successfully cultivated female candidates for political offices.

Perez told her audience of about 75 that she hopes to run an “energetic, positive and winning campaign.”

She said, “the election is six months out — election day is April 1st. We hope to raise money for TV, radio, newspaper ads and mailings. We need volunteers’ time for yard signs and nomination papers. Maybe knock on a few doors.”

She was joined at the event by Chris Moews, a candidate for Milwaukee County Sheriff, whose primary election against David A. Clarke will be in the fall of 2014. Both campaigns are being run by Sachin Chheda, the chair of the Milwaukee County Democratic Party and his associate Jason Rae, in 2008 the youngest voting delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

Moews has been showing up at many events lately, and not just concealed carry lessons held in a tavern, like his opponent, the sheriff.

Rae says this is not the time to engage the sheriff, but rather to keep getting his candidate exposed to the voting public. This will give the campaign plenty of time for Clarke to say and do even more ridiculous things.

Among the attendees were Judge Rebecca Dallet, Rep. Jon Richards, Rep. Josh Zepnick (who knew Gramling from their days at King High School), former state Sen. Barb Notestein, Atty. Jeremy Levinson, retired police supervisors union head Bill Ward, Michele Goldstein, Barney H. Moore, and Edgar Perez, the candidate’s husband.

Another attendee was the candidate’s brother, Ben Gramling.

“Are you a judge, too,” he was asked. “Not yet,” he responded.

“Are you a lawyer?”

Gramling said, “No. I guess I better start working on that.”

He was interrupted by his father. “You know there are lots of municipal judge jobs in Wisconsin for non-attorneys. Half of them.”

Categories: Plenty of Horne

14 thoughts on “Plenty of Horne: Why We Lost the Marsupial Bridge Swings”

  1. This is a perfect story of how something organic revitalized an area for those without money. How about the cultural value this project brought to the neighborhood, is that ever discussed when the powers that be are sitting around worrying about lawsuits and liabilities (both of which, loopholes could be found I’m sure)? I’m hesitant to put something like this in the hands of bureaucrats and business owners because its just one more step to further gentrifying an area that had a rich industrial history. You start putting structure on something like this, this beautiful unsanctioned project, and then you start watering it down into something impure and generic.

    Embrace your artists, Milwaukee. Especially the ones that are working outside boundaries, they bring you the biggest cultural payoff. That’s who we are as a city. We’re not little Chicago, we’re Milwaukee. We’ve got our locals only flavor and we love every bit of it.

  2. Deeann says:

    I wonder if the decision to remove the swings was not as much about upkeep (which would obviously be minimal) as it was about liability? My friend’s son was hurt when he fell off one of the swings this summer. Given how stringently playgrounds are regulated (surface, proximity to hard/sharp/potentially dangerous structures or items, etc.), I frankly found it a little irresponsible for someone to put up swings capable of travelling to such heights, so close to hard structures with sharp corners and above a surface that was not intended to cushion an unintended fall. I am confident that should anyone, including the “families with children, young lovers and some particularly athletic gymnasts” had fallen and were injured, the full force of their attorneys would have been brought to bear against the City of Milwaukee for so “recklessly endangering the public”. Of course, the fact that the swings were put up without permission would have no bearing on their culpability and those who placed them without permission I am sure would be nowhere to be found. I suggest that if the under bridge area was intended to be a playground, it would have been designed as one and if people are going to modify public spaces ad hoc without any concern for liability and consequences, they should be willing to formally take on the responsibility for those consequences.

  3. Dave Reid says:

    @Deeann I’d say those who use the swings should take responsibility for their actions.

  4. Anon says:

    Swings: VERY dangerous things. Swing with caution. C’mon.

  5. If I decide to use the railings on the bridge as a balance beam and I fall off and crack my head, can I sue the city?

  6. Aytan says:

    Those swings were fun for sure, but Deeann has a point. Also, the concrete benches positioned under the swings have points…really hard ones. Hard enough to cause serious trauma to a body, or a skull. Maybe a long term plan would be to resurface the area to lessen the risk of death if someone lands on their head.

  7. I assumed the “No Lifeguard on Duty” sign would absolve anyone of any legal activities.

    It’s a shame that the city can spend x number of tax dollars removing graffiti every two days down there, but not funnel some of that into maintaining the swings, which have a positive impact on the community. Those swings animated that area.

    I bike through that area at least once a week and ever since the swings went up there was a significant increase in activity and community down there. It made me love my city even more. The city would be foolish to just let that disappear.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Little Tiny Fish I really do think we’ll see the swings return… When is the question.

  9. @ Little Tiny Fish: Sir if I could give you a thumbs up of some kind on this site I would.

    The city needs to rethink how it handles graffiti, in my opinion. These swings, they’re technically graffiti. If we’re picking and choosing what we’re allowing to keep up because its bringing more traction to an area perhaps its time to think a bit more how we deal with our city’s “graffiti problem”. What an unnecessary drain on our city’s budget that is, a budget that could be used to funnel this street art properly via maintenance and mural projects in lieu of a medieval campaign to protect property values and theoretically lower crime rates.

  10. Annie says:

    @Dave Reid, “I’d say those who use the swings should take responsibility for their actions.” We might wish that to be the case, but that’s probably not how a court is going to see it. And that matters.

  11. Anon MKE Citizen says:

    People always want to sue. If they trip and fall in a school, they want to sue the entire school district. If they burn their tongue on hot coffee, they sur Starbucks. If they become obese from fast food, they sue McDonald’s. We have to be more responsible and accountable for our actions.

  12. CityMom says:

    Gonna have to agree with Deeann here. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 20 years and really loved the swings. But I’ve also witnessed several accidents in which kids (including my own) got pretty banged up falling off the swings and onto the gravel below. Yeah, that’s what you get, I s’pose, but some of those falls were pretty bad and if someone got seriously hurt, you can be darn sure the artists who installed them anonymously (well, maybe not so anonymously now) wouldn’t claim any responsibility. When you install swings in a public place (and in a neighborhood with a dearth of playgrounds), you have to assume that some of the people using them WILL be children.

    I love the public art under the bridge. It would be great if there were a nonprofit entity, BID, or government department (whatever works!) to whom artists could reach out and discuss these things in advance, determining future maintenance, and liability issues.

    It’s also more than a little frustrating to encounter the attitude “I’ll take my toys and go home” if you don’t appreciate my art. The swings are/were very cool, but at a time when my kids can’t even get an art teacher in their public school or swings at their school (did you know that most public schools don’t have swings?? They all just have “play structures” now.) or roads and bridges are falling apart, it IS a hard sell to demand city maintenance of a gift – no matter how brilliant and wonderful – when such funds are already stretched to the breaking point. Neighborhood organizations could also be employed as well. I for one would support that!

  13. @CityMom , It’s refreshing to hear you comment positively about public street art. Write to your city government, tell them you want to see more of it. It can be frustrating for any artist with a vision to work within the boundaries of government. I don’t blame the designers for picking up their stuff and going. This is the one piece of work that gets accepted. Everything else that is appreciated can’t be climbed or jumped around on and it just takes one irate phone call or a regularly scheduled DPW cleanup to eliminate it.

  14. Eric J Droege says:

    What was the original agreement made with the city regarding the swings? The city is not involved too heavily in the park business. Many of the parks are maintained by the county; while playfields are under the jurisdiction of MPS. There are certainly little areas that fall under city control like Kazubes Park. By and large it seems like there may have been a better way to solidify future maintenance of this public attraction.

    I would not, however, be surprised if safety is part of the reason why DPW is slow to replace the swings. Whatever good intentions went into this venture, I have witnessed some fairly scary use of the these swings. Has there been any thought to who is covering the liability of this dangerous addition to the viaduct?

    I will leave you with this. There isn’t any money in this for an alderman/woman to seek a quick fix. There is no inherent advantage either way for any public official to try to move this along. If an organization greased the palms of the dist 3 or 6 alderperson, the benches would re-appear in a hurry. Preservation of public space is important, I don’t want to downplay that. As our little niche on the north end of downtown becomes large development after large development, we need spaces like this. I just don’t think that you can create a gift for government and expect some sort of reasonable follow-through. This is a task best left up to the neighborhood BID or local businesses. (Like Lowlands Group right across the street)

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