Why the Swing Park Failed
It became a comedy of errors, but raises serious questions about the city’s strategy for “creative placemaking.”
It was either an act of vandalism or creative place making, depending on your point of view. On September 9, 2012 an improv-architecture group called beintween, headed up by Keith Hayes, attached swings to the bottom of the Holton Street Bridge and over the “Media Garden,” the public space designed by La Dallman architects.
I am talking about the old fashioned swings, the kind that soar, then hurl you through the air to great heights or thrilling leaps when you jump off. All kinds of them. One swing looked like a raft Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn might have cobbled together, with a homespun solidity that just added to the fun.
People swarmed the place. Swings hypnotize kids and anyone else who needs a break from gravity. Have you ever seen a sad person on a swing?
Brady Street developer Julilly Kohler who spearheaded the creation of the marsupial bridge that connected to the space, was “tickled pink” by the changes, according to Hayes. East Side Alderman Nik Kovac approved. Mayor Tom Barrett’s kids joined the fun and used the swings.
Willie Fields, a retired contractor and member of beintween, oversaw the ongoing maintenance of what soon became known as the “Swing Park,” and documented the project. Beintween monitored their experiment for months to see how the space was being used and make design changes to make sure no one got hurt.
Lots of changes. Cables broke. Attachments had to be retooled to stand up to the stress. This was definitely a work in progress.
All of which created havoc for Ghassan Korban, the Director of Public Works for the city, who normally stays under the radar and fixes stuff like sewers and roads. Fun is not really part of his business.
The Media Garden was a public space, and there were safety concerns and procedures at issue. Someone had to be the adult at the party. Korban also felt the members of beintween hadn’t gone through the right channels, but then, there really aren’t any for this sort of thing.
And so DPW took down most of the swings over the course of several months in the summer of 2013. Korban says he made this decision without consulting the mayor, while mayoral spokesperson Jodie Tabak offers the vague explanation, “we were aware changes were underway, but were not immersed in the details.”
In reaction to DPW’s actions, beintween took down the rest of the swings as a protest.
All of which started an uproar. Websites and a Kickstarter campaign were created to save the “Swing Park.” By all accounts Kovac and Kohler led the charge. The people wanted swings.
Kovac told me there was no time to mess around with design professionals. He pushed a resolution to officially change the name to “Swing Park” though the Common Council. Kovac says he also leaned on DPW to fix this political situation.
Was the mayor consulted? Korban again says no, while Tabak says the mayor had that vague awareness. And at the ribbon cutting for the revival of the Swing Park, Barrett joined Kohler in heaping praise on the “wonderful guerrillas” of beintween. Korban declared, “We delivered on the wants of the neighborhood.”
Said Kovac: “It’s hard to plan for this kind of magic.”
In fact, there was no planning whatsoever. It was proof, it seemed, that everything doesn’t have to come from top down, the plodding old-fashioned way that starts with a plan developed by sanctioned professionals and goes through a formal design and approval process. Sara Daleiden, the point person for the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s creative place-making project who was brought in to work with DPW on the Swing Park, explained that it was an example of “iterative design” — an organic process that grows old and new at the same time.
Think of Hayes and beintween as the anti-Calatrava. Grassroots architecture starts from the bottom up. Rather than running a project through the city bureaucracy, a coalition of community groups made it happen. The result was a Swing Park of the community, by the community, for the community.
To appreciate just how different this process was, it might help to step back and review how the original Media Garden was created. Back when John Norquist was still mayor, Kohler had promoted the idea of building a marsupial bridge tucked under the Holton Street Bridge to connect Brady Street and the Beerline, the Lower East Side and Riverwest. Kohler was active with the Brady Street Business Improvement, which helped drive the project, and Norquist and city planner Peter Park also got involved. Some $3.5 million was spent on it, largely money that came through a federal grant. The La Dallman firm was chosen to design the whole thing.
The project was inherited by Barrett and wasn’t opened until 2006, but had been designed and largely created under Peter Park. The Marsupial Bridge and Media Garden, as it was called, was the culmination of the urban design ethos of its time and set a new standard for public infrastructure for Milwaukee.
In the daytime, the detailing of the bridge is arresting: a rich gradation of browns and grays pick up the nuances of daylight as it changes. Since the bridge is hung, it undulates naturally, like a landscape. The railings are a delicate weave of steel and wood that shows both materials off to their best advantage. The new bridge added counterpoint, a bit of domestic tranquility to the bold industrial forms underneath the Holton street bridge.
At night, light and shadow weave objects into the ether of a place that was “used” by every person who saw it when they went over the bridge or drove by on N. Water Street. The only other place in Milwaukee where illumination was precisely calibrated to clarify space was a $10 million project — the 600-foot long fountain in the Kiley Garden at the Milwaukee Art Museum before the lights went out a few years ago.
People loved the Marsupial Bridge and Media Garden. Wild Space Dance staged one of its site specific dances there. The project inspired Hayes to finish his education at the School of Architecture at UW-Milwaukee and study under La. It’s prominently featured in La Dallman’s lectures and on Grace La’s faculty page, and undoubtedly figured into her promotion to Harvard last year.
But the work slowly began to deteriorate, starting with the maintenance agreement between DPW and the Brady Street BID. The first thing to go was LaDallman’s down lighting, designed to be hidden so it would not illuminate the bottom of the Holton Street bridge. Eventually the DPW defaulted to the cheapest alternative and added sodium vapor lights, which turned a weightless ribbon of white light into a murky tunnel at night.
It was not a small change. Sodium vapor lights are never used for any outdoor leisure or sales activity — driving ranges, tennis courts, used car lots, or miniature golf courses for example. They were tried and rejected in factories because they depressed workers, lowering productivity. Sodium vapor lights create dead zones we tolerate only at low-value destinations or on the road going someplace else.
Curiously, Korban and Brady Street BID executive Steph Salvia both explained the change exactly the same way — the problem was that a “cherry picker,” an elevated platform on a crane, was needed to replace the bulbs hidden in the Holton Bridge. But they are frequently used by the city, though it takes a certain amount of labor to keep changing the bulbs.
Meanwhile, benches were scuffed up and graffitied. After nearly a decade of neglect the Media Garden needed a lot of work. To bring it back to its original condition would have also cost more money — for either the city or the BID.
Hayes and beintween, in short, were seeking to enliven not the original Media Garden but the version that had deteriorated. They certainly succeeded in doing that, and at very little cost — and no cost to the city or the BID. The materials were donated by Home Depot. But there were those safety concerns about the swings. And so the DPW took the swings down, and then replaced them after the community uproar with a quite different version of the Swing Park.
All without Hayes input. “You are not a park designer,” Korban said, according to Hayes. “We will take it from here. We are liable so we will take care of it.” Though it was a design project, the Department of City Development was kept out of the loop. No models or drawings of any changes were shared with the public.
All concerned say Korban is a nice guy. He seemed sincerely chagrined telling me the project had been “thrown in his lap without a budget.” There was no time to think or resources for testing or any other fail-safe procedure built into a normal design process. “We design and build at the same time,” Korban explains. “Do it as we go.”
That didn’t work out so well. Just a few weeks after the ribbon cutting celebrating the Swing Park’s reinstallation, some of the swings had broke and were removed. The DPW chose the wrong kind of brackets that attached the swings to the bottom of the bridge. Hayes had installed 11 swings, and now just five swings are are there.
Once again sodium vapor lighting was used, giving the park the kind of illumination you might find in an alley.
As for the ground cover, DPW used shredded tire bits, which are thematically related to some of the swings (built with tires) and have the virtue of being recycled. That sounds good in a press release, but makes little sense: a black ground cover in the shadow of a bridge results in too much darkness. Worse, the rubber has a magnetic attraction to shoes and clothes that transports the tire bits all over the neighborhood. It was a mess.
Finally, heavy chains were added to deaden the flight experience. High flying swingers were out of the question. Hayes’ original version used lighter materials so a child could swing as high as an adult. In retrospect, asking DPW to do a swing park was like asking the Army Corp of Engineers to do an opera house.
Weeks after the new Swing Park’s problems became apparent, Korban acknowledged that the lighting and ground cover are under review. The swings still have to be redesigned. “We are now in phase two of the project, Korban says. According to Kovac that is no big deal because it’s a “low ticket item … You go back to the hardware store and fix it.”
Except, of course, for the collateral damage caused by the park’s reinstallation: the destruction of the Media Garden, of Grace La’s nationally celebrated work.
It was like a death in the family. The day after the Media Garden was bulldozed, Korban had the unenviable duty of going to La Dallman’s studio with Daleiden to deliver the bad news. According to La, Barrett also called to express his condolences and say he didn’t know anything about it.
“How could you let this happen?” La asked Daleiden.
“I had too much on my plate, it was a battle I couldn’t win,” Daleiden replied, according to La.
Daleiden won’t exactly say who she was battling with other than that the Brady Street Bid and DPW were involved in the process. When I asked Salvia about this, she told me to talk to Kohler, who did not respond to several interview requests. Then through an intermediary Kohler suggested I talk with Daleiden who later told me, “I did not have a primary role in the decision process.”
Everyone says the intention was to preserve the integrity of La’s design. The best guess is that DPW was in a hurry, came with the wrong equipment, and there was a miscommunication. Hayes theorizes the DPW crew goofed, just “one in a series of big oops,” as he puts it, that plagued the project. “We didn’t have any leadership that looked at the plaza as an asset, Hayes says.”
In our second interview Korban fell on his sword and took “full responsibility” for the outcome. But he would not say who made the decision to bulldoze the benches. Public works projects like this are not supposed to be so mysterious. The demolition of city property, which in today’s dollars is worth $250,000 (as La and others have estimated), is not supposed to happen with no explanation.
By contrast, the stakes are much lower for the kind of “creative placemaking” done by Hayes’ group, because it costs so little. The original Swing Park cost the city nothing and when DPW did its radical redo, there were no architect or artist fees. DPW started with Hayes’s free, full-scale mock up of the Swing Park. There was no vetting process or fussing with details The project cost the city about $26,000, about one-tenth the original cost of the Media Garden.
Maybe the stakes were too low. A real design process would have found a way to integrate the swings into the plaza. La says she could have offered a much better solution in ten minutes if she had been asked. The Media Garden is a vast space. DPW might have had to move a couple of benches or extend some of the swings off to the side of bridge. There is also an undeveloped 200- foot slope to the river.
Or alternatively, the Swing Park might have been created somewhere else in the city. People love swings and the idea would work in many places. Recently an architecture firm in Boston installed a temporary and non-destructive version of Hayes’s swing park that created a “sensation in the Seaport District. People are flocking to the three-acre site adjacent to the Boston Convention and Exhibitors Center, with its set of 20 lighted oval swings.”
Sara Daleiden’s next project, administering the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s new $724,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation (on top of a $350,000 from ArtPlace America) to complete the Artery project, has the same cast of characters. Hayes and company are working with DPW on an abandoned railroad track just south of Capitol Drive.
That’s a big deal, the way public spaces are going to be made in the future. Milwaukee’s recent study, “Growing Prosperity: An Action Agenda for Economic Development,” explains that creative placemaking “transforms cities” while fostering “communication among all the groups needed to make that transformation happen,” including artists, engineers, elected officials, and civic groups.
Except this time around there was no communication between artists and engineers. Elected officials put political efficacy above quality. And civic groups were just window dressing. “The city crushed the process,” says Hayes.
Insiders worry the disconnect between DPW and the creatives will continue on the Artery. Not to mention sodium vapor lights are planned to be installed. If the city wants ideas to bubble up from the “creative class,” then we need genuine collaboration to bring projects to fruition.
Implementing ideas requires an old fashioned design process and a team leader with the authority to coordinate the moving parts. It needs a structure that insulates it from the immediacy of local politics, reaches out to other resources like DCD, and gives everyone more time to think. Especially if Milwaukee is not going to hire professionals, like those who did the High Line in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago.
After the dust settled I asked Korban what he learned working with creative placemakers on the Swing Park.“You don’t hang something from a bridge without permission,” Korban says. “That’s not the proper ways of doing things.”
Kovac offers a wryer version of the same thought: “We are not going to put out a call for people to vandalize public works and hope a transplant from Cleveland (Hayes’ home town) will show up.”
More accurately, you could say the city vandalized itself when it neglected and then destroyed the Media Garden. Hayes didn’t do anything other than have a good idea and execute it better than the city did when it took over the project. If creative placemaking is the future, Milwaukee needs a real design process instead of simply sending in the troops from DPW.
As Hayes puts it, “You don’t have to destroy it to have an authentic dialogue with the public.”