County Grounds: Transformation

For most people the term landscape means the topological features of a particular place, often one that is being viewed, often with an emphasis on natural features.   But our definitions of landscape and of nature vary, and our understanding of the land comes with emotional strings attached.  This is very true of a particular place in heart of the metropolitan region of Milwaukee: officially called the Northeast Quadrant of the County Institutions, it is commonly called simply the County Grounds.  It has been a landscape in the heart of many people as well as geographically.  Today it is a landscape in transition that embodies numerous environmental and land-use issues facing communities everywhere; a place about which people harbor very strong feelings. 

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the 235-acre parcel is bounded roughly by Watertown Plank Rd., Hwy 45, Underwood Pkwy and Hoyt Park in Wauwatosa.  The entire institution grounds include the County Medical Complex and a recently developed Research Park.  The other quadrants have been intensively built up, leaving the Northeast Quadrant in conspicuous isolation as open land with a natural feel.  It retained this feeling despite a history of use.  It was once the site of a mental health facility and the county's poor farm.  It still holds a pauper's cemetery.  Until recently there were several soccer fields located there and large portions of it were used as community gardens and the county nursery.  It was interlaced with roads and trails. 

And yet its size and varied terrain allowed room for wildlife as well as nature-loving people.  I've seen coyotes, foxes, raccoons, possum, ground hogs, rabbits, turtles, frogs, snakes, mice, and plenty of deer.  Although I've never laid eyes on one, I've "detected" skunks.  The birds are too plentiful to enumerate.  Large stands of milkweed have attracted a stunning assembly of monarch butterflies during their fall migration. 

This was a cherished land, especially among dog-walkers, joggers, gardeners and day-dreamers.  Even for those who never left their cars to walk on it, driving over the hilltop along Swan Boulevard offered a breathtaking view of downtown Milwaukee that appeared to float above a sweeping landscape of gently rolling prairie surrounded by woodlands.  Few places in any urban environment can provide a comparable experience.

Today, the view is equally breathtaking, but for a different reason.  The rolling hills have been enlarged, made into mountainous mounds of bare dirt.  The fill used to create these mounds has been excavated from enormous pits that stretch away on both sides of Swan Boulevard like an open strip mine.  The changing nature of the landscape is dramatic and incontestable.  After the initial shock upon seeing this change for the first time, questions come begging: What values do we place on our landscapes?  How does nature fit in to an urban environment?  Can we reconstruct a natural habitat once it has been degraded?

Nature is an elusive concept.  Emerson, Romantic and transcendentalist, defined Nature (which he invariably capitalized) as the "essences unchanged by man."  His perspective, penned in 1836, that all of Mankind's efforts are insignificant in the big picture of the world, is hard to accept today.  In his wildest imagining Emerson could not have foreseen the profound transformations of the natural world that marked the twentieth century.  The momentous shift in our ability and willingness to reshape our planetary home may be one of the defining characteristics of the Modern period.  Today Post-modern ideas about the meaning of nature tend to be more nuanced even as environmental issues such as the loss of wildlife habitats have become more urgent. 

The concept of nature has always included "human nature."  The dichotomy between the natural and human environments was born when the earliest civilizations arose to distinguish themselves from the surrounding wilderness, but it has always been arbitrarily drawn.  With the power to reshape the earth on a continental scale and to alter the very atmosphere that makes life possible we can no longer afford to see ourselves as separate or even distinguishable from nature.  And we need what wilderness remains as much as we need civilization, in order to have wholeness and health.

The current period of transition at the County Grounds began in 1997, when the County Executive declared the land "surplus" and proposed selling it to developers.  This proposal caused an uproar from those who prized the open, natural character of the landscape.  I was among those people and I undertook a year-long project documenting the County Grounds in an effort to share with others the value it held for me.

Eight years later I have revisited the County Grounds.  It is hard to cherish what it looks like today.  The fragility of the land has been literally bared and its immediacy is unavoidable.  But, despite the barrenness of this intermediate stage, the plans that are being implemented are part of a compromise that promises to preserve the majority of the 235 acres as open green space.  The massive excavations are a major part of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District's comprehensive flood management efforts.  The landscape design includes habitat restoration and replacing invasive plant species with native ones. 

In 1998, one of the things that moved me most during my explorations of the grounds was their magnitude.  Even after repeated visits, I was frequently overwhelmed by the vastness of the landscape and the variability of its character.  Once again, it is the sheer size of the earthmoving project that is most striking about it, and which elicits the strongest emotional reactions.  It is not "natural" in the conventional sense.  But, for better or worse, nature (whether capitalized or not) can no longer be defined as "essences unchanged by man."  Even Emerson's famous compatriot, Thoreau, said "every part of nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making room for another." 

The changing landscape of the County Grounds represents human nature and a nature that is and must be managed by human effort.  Some decry the loss of a familiar and treasured place.  But as a natural area it was already compromised.  What we are witnessing is the birth of the next phase in the life of the land.  It's true that I am wary of the plans for the development of the hilltop areas, for I fear the loss of an unobstructed view from the lowlands more than the digging of detention basins.  And, as with any land-use planning, vigilance will always be needed within the community to see that public assets are maintained and the public's interests furthered. 

But, as I hope is clear from my photographs, my explorations around the fenced fringes of the County Grounds still result in discoveries of unexpected beauty.  I look forward to revisiting the County Grounds again in eight years.  Then I will discover if its new nature can provide the kind of satisfaction and joy that I found here before.


To view the County Grounds 2006 photo gallery click here.



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