The Milwaukee County Grounds: Island of Hope

The following essay is from my book, which bears the same title. The book is a photo essay about the County Grounds. In addition to this essay, it includes a foreword by Nancy Aten and a brief history of the grounds.

Island of Hope

It never fails to lift my spirits. I step up the short slope that leads to the crest of the berm and I look out…at wide-open space. Below me is a broad marsh full of cattails and young poplars, their silvery leaves fluttering in the breeze. Beyond that is a forest and rolling hills—a remarkable view when I consider that I am in the center of the most densely populated region in the state of Wisconsin. But more than the view, it is the sense of space and light that overwhelms and inspires the imagination.

I feel incredibly blessed. I am just minutes from my house and the city has all but disappeared. I am surrounded by nature. That this landscape has been shaped with massive effort and enormous earthmoving equipment doesn’t dilute its impact, nor diminish its restorative effects. I often go out to stretch my legs and hours later find that I am still wandering trails that pass from shady woodland to open prairie, not out of restlessness but out of the calm that nature bequeaths.

This is my County Grounds. And yours.

Over a decade ago it was nearly destroyed. In 1997 then County Executive Thomas Ament, intending to offset a short-term budget deficit, announced a plan to sell the County Grounds for residential and commercial development.

I and many others who loved the land considered the announcement a call to arms. It turned out to be a watershed moment for me personally as well as for the Grounds. I set out to photograph the place, which was vast enough to contain widely diverse terrains and natural features. I wanted to truly see what would be lost, and I wanted to share it with as many people as possible, for you cannot love what you do not know.

Photography seemed the ideal medium for this task. Almost universally accessible, photography makes permanent the ephemeral present. Photographs can remind us of what is gone, they can celebrate what is here now, and they can illustrate a vision for the future. The photographs in this book are meant to do all three. In 1997 I began to photograph the County Grounds as a labor of love and a means for advocacy. I continue to this day, for that love has never flagged and the need for advocacy remains.

The initial crisis passed when the county government quickly backpedaled in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the proposed land sale. A huge, vocal constituency emerged that supported the preservation of green space. A land use commission recommended a compromise that would preserve most of the land. For the most part, their recommendations have been adopted.

As I write this in 2012, much has changed. Ownership and management of the County Grounds has been subdivided amongst a variety of public and private entities. The resulting parcels are identified in the various chapters of this book. Each chapter has a brief introduction that describes the unique qualities of that parcel. However, as Nancy Aten has explained, division is not the experience one takes away from a walk in the County Grounds. Quite the opposite: It is the integral wholeness of the landscape that makes the most profound impression, along with that sense of spaciousness.

No single part of the Grounds is spectacular. It is the size of the place, the remarkable views, and its natural character that make of the County Grounds an urban wonder. Most cities can only dream of parkland like this. We have an island of hope right here in the heart of the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

This book is intended to be a hopeful vision of what the future of the County Grounds can look like. We all need a place in nature where our spirits can breathe and our imaginations soar.

To view the County Grounds Island of Hope photo gallery click here.

To preview or order the book click here.

 

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Eddee Daniel - Fine Art Photography