Introduction: Ann Brummitt is the coordinator of the Milwaukee River Work Group(MRWG) which stands a chance to help Milwaukee win an internationally acclaimed Milwaukee River Greenway with the first wilderness “viewscape” in a great city in the U.S.A. She is also the main author of the document that electrified the environmental movements of Milwaukee and offers great assurance that short-sighted development interests will not tread on our cleansing and renewing river and river valley. This interview took place entirely on-line on Saturday and Sunday, November 17 & 18, 2007.
Ken Leinbach and Ann Brummitt
Godsil. Strawberry and Raspberry Fields in Our Central Park?
Brummitt. Are you thinking of community gardens like in the UK? In say, Gordon Park, Kern Park, Lincoln…etc. ? Well…that would be lovely, wouldn’t it? John Lennon would approve. Strawberry fields forever.
Godsil. Godshill City Farm Products and the Reclamation Society could make a demonstration project in the Mke River Central Park, Gordon Park, wherever, in 2008 without that much effort.
Brummitt. Let’s do it.
Godsil. [Sends Strawberry and Raspberry Fields in Our Central Park concept to Blueberry Pancake Moments Yahoo Group with Brummit’s “Let’s do it.”] Perhaps we might talk about this one of these Sunday mornings at the Blueberry Pancake Moments at Co-op or, if too crowded, at the fuel.
Sura Faraj. [Responds with post at Blueberry Pancake Yahoo Group] I would like to propose that we start using terminology that is less human-centric wording and more eco-centric. Central Park gives the impression of a place that exists for people’s pleasure and leisure, whereas the Milwaukee River Environmental Corridor, or something like that focuses more on the need for protection of the river and its immediate environment. Even the word “corridor” is being used these days in Milwaukee and many other cities to focus on bringing in new buildings. Perhaps we can focus on other facets of development, like protection and development of green space and gardens. Maybe “Milwaukee River Environmental Buffer Zone” (EBZ) is a better term, to remind us that we need more than just the river and its immediate and small designated “environmental corridor,” but a larger buffer that will allow for a healthier ecosystem that protects and enhances the natural flora and fauna, keeps rainwater/storm water runoff in check and elevates the treasure that we have in our midst to a wild and natural gem, something that other cities look to copy.
Gordon, Riverside, Lincoln and Kern parks are part of the Milwaukee River EBZ. Yes, to native, edible plantings there.
Brummitt. [Responds to Blueberry Pancake group] My feeling is that the Central Park moniker resonates with lots of people. It has been very productive in getting us attention. It may well help us pass this thing in council. I am not worried about it since at every turn we continue to advocate for environmentally wise decisions. And this advice is coming from neighbors and people who love the river most. No to bridges. No to asphalt. No to signs in the corridor unless they are wilderness type signs. So when it comes to meaningful advocacy we are all about environment, about corridor, about green way. If I hear of someone wanting to put in a carousel or a restaurant I will drop it in an instant. But I think the term is still very useful. When I give presentations I put the term Central Park up and explain that it means we have a tie to Olmstead. We have a tie in acreage. We have a point to make about the centrality of water to Milwaukee’s identity, sustainability, and future. But we don’t want buildings on the edge or amenities in the middle. I have yet to run into someone who seems confused by the name.
The most official title of the corridor is the Milwaukee River Greenway. A name we spent time on at a MRWG meeting last winter. That is not to say there may not be a better one. Worthy of a future discussion at MRWG and or as a moment in blueberry pancake time:)
Yes to buffers. Yes to storm water management. Yes to green building design within and beyond the overlay. Yes to the red zones! And gosh. Yes to Milwaukee being a model to other cities. That would be cool.
Godsil. I would very much like to feature you in an on-line interview
That would proceed very slowly
Over the next 38 years,
God and the Goddess,
And the patterns of chaos willing. :)
Have you ever read my interview of Ken Leinbach?
Ask him about it someday!
Brummitt. 38 years. Ok. That takes me to hmmm. Got to do the math. Ok. I’m in. Lets do that too.
Godsil. You mentioned that you were a French teacher until your involvement with the Milwaukee River Work Group. Might you share the story of your first memory of the group of people who became the Milwaukee River Work Group. How did you become part of that worthy work group?
Brummitt. I went to Ken Leinbach… Lynn Broaddus at Friends of Milwaukee Rivers… Peter McAvoy at 16th Street Community Health Clinic.. They all graciously accepted my inquiry to talk. I posed the question: Do you have any good ideas on how I get from point “Ak” to point “B”( point “A” being bored French teacher to point “B” being an environmentalist? They had ideas. Lots. Ken kept pitching projects to me, one, of course, was that the Milwaukee River corridor was threatened by development. Could I possibly research ways that Milwaukee could protect this wonderful resource. After Jewel Osco. After the dorms. Could we somehow draw a meaningful line in the sand once and for all before it is gone. That was the first step.
Godsil. “Coming Up in “Green Weekly Updates” Winter 2007/08: Ann Brummit Interview #One.” Might we consider this one place for our on-line interview? There are other venues, both at the Milwaukee Renaissance and elsewhere? What say?
Brummitt. Oh Godsil. I didn’t answer your question. So we convened a group. A list of names from Ken that frankly, at that time, didn’t mean a thing to me. Vince. Angie Tornes from nps. Will Warzyn from DNR. Lynn Broaddus and Cheryl Nenn from Friends of Milwuakee Rivers. John Clancy, lawyer and board member at Urban Ecology Center(UEC). . Kimberly Gleffe from rrf. A design professional from Madison. Peter McKeever from mccc. Ginger Duiven from UEC.. Pieter Godfrey. And we pitched the idea, the best tool we thought we had, of municipal protections, an overlay to the group. Everyone said yes…and we began. But that wasn’t really the beginning. Of course, the story goes back much further, but I was busy teaching school and raising kids. Not mine to tell. The story of Jewel Osco. Of the dorms. Of a small group of “river rats” that had been meeting informally for years. And people like Else Ankel, and Peter McMullen and Sura Faraj, to name a few, who have been loving and advocating for this river for years. Decades. And those before that.
Godsil. Very cool. I was one of the river rats from 1977 until 1998, when I sold my lovely English Cottage at 3354 N. Gordon Place and moved to a haunted house on Newberry. Vince and I organized some ice skating on the river one very cold winter. Vince skated from Locust St. up to a winter gathering of the Kern Park Country Club, at a time when there was an ice rink there with a generation or two tradition.
Did you convene a meeting with the people Ken suggested, meet some of them one by one, or …?Brummit. Well, first I spent time in my basement… on the computer…read plans.. made phone calls… tried to get the lay of the land. Then, yes, a meeting at UEC, upstairs. I think we first met in May of ‘06. It all seemed big and important, and I was honored to be there.
I’ve never skated on the river. I’m chicken.
Godsil.’‘’ What was the “feeling tone” of that first meeting? What were the first “actions” the group and you settled upon at that first meeting? Did anything happen at that meeting that was sufficiently disconcerting that you can remember worrying about it?
Brummitt. I remember cautious enthusiasm. Kind of a well…yeah, of course we want to protect the river…but this is kind of a big concept and this could cause a big fight. And I am sure everyone was wondering how this French teacher at the end of the table was going to help. Well I know I was wondering how a French teacher could possibly help with all of these smart, experienced people in the room. Two things at the get-go: prior to this meeting Will Warzyn introduced me to the term “viewshed.” First time I had heard it. When we introduced that term to the group-everyone understood immediately. Finally one word to describe what everyone was concerned about losing. Also prior to this meeting in a phone call, Angie Tornes was the first to name overlay as our tool. i had looked into everything from federal and state protections-realizing our urban rivers don’t stand a chance the way these protections get designated right now. Angie said to me quite succinctly. What you want is a conservation overlay. This i didn’t get right away. Yikes. Municipal zoning. Sounded daunting. Tedious. private property. I think I pestered Angie with a couple more phone calls on what this meant before I accepted that this might be the way to go. When we threw out the term overlay, people who knew about the EVA wars cringed in their seats. In spite of this, Ken asked at the end of the meeting, “Are you supportive of investigating these tools to protect the river? Will you come to the next meeting?” We went around the room and everyone said yes. John Stockham, a design consultant from Madison, agreed to help us craft a proposal for protection.
Godsil. What is a “conversation overlay?” Why was that the tool to seek? What were the EVA wars?
Brummit. No Godsil. Now a conversation overlay-that fuels the imagination. You should write a poem about that.
Godsil. I can’t promise but sometime over the next 38 years I’ll try.
Brummitt. A conservation overlay is a zoning tool that goes over the top of underlying zoning. Over. Under. The overlay is generally more restrictive than what lies underneath. and more consistent. This is true along the river. Right now if you look at the zoning map representing the areas along the river it’s quite pretty with all the colors, green, blue, yellow, red, purple, etc-each color representing a different set of zoning standards. The overlay goes over the top of all of those and provides uniformity, and more restrictions. Why was this the tool? Process of elimination. Federal protection? Can’t get it. Need an act of Congress and a pristine wilderness river. (Although for the really ambitious-I think we need an act of Congress to make it easier to get protections for the unpristine urban rivers-that’s another story State level? Mostly symbolic. But we will still pursue this thing called scenic urban river designation. Municipal zoning, unfortunately, for these urban rivers is the only level right now that has teeth. Not great. Consider what happened so fast in Glendale. Because we have to go city by city and work with each government, it takes a long time. And bad things happen fast. Like acres being clear cut. Or country clubs wanting nice views of the river in river hills. Even the “Journal” editorialized that we need a regional authority to protect the river from these selfish events.
The EVA war I discovered was the brouhaha that erupted in the East Village (“A” is for association) over a conservation overlay designed to protect the character of the neighborhood: small polish flats, bungalows, working class housing. At least in theory. There was a fracturing of the neighborhood association over the overlay. Accusations, neighbors not speaking to one another. Lawsuits. The NA has never really recovered. So the word overlay was a dirty word. Only spoken in hushed tones while checking your backside. I was told not to use the word. Euphemisms like a “special zoning district” were suggested. But we decided that transparency and honesty were the best policies and called it what it was: a conservation overlay. Yeah there were some bad reactions at first. The whaddya nuts variety? After a while people began to understand what it was and weren’t so threatened by it. I am proud that the Milwaukee River Work Group(MRWG) has tried to maintain an open and transparent process through and through.
Godsil. These are quite complex “social dramas” with high stakes! Looking back at your personal and professional evolution, were there signs when you were a young person that you would be right in the middle of a “movement” to make a once sewer-like, abandoned, and ignored river into a key part of the renaissance of a great American city?
Brummitt. Oh well talk to my mother. She will testify to the fact that I was a bit of an agitator as an adolescent. I just wasn’t sure what to agitate about. My dad was ultra conservative. We had Everett Dirkson lps at home at a couple of Barry Goldwater books on the shelves. But he loved the land, the woods, the mountains. He was always trying to get me to go on walks in the Kettle Moraine on weekends looking for cranes, or wildlife, or interesting animal skat. He liked the silent sports-canoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking. Ii think he helped me develop an environmental ethic.
And the first Earth Day in 1970 I think. I was 10. That made a huge impression on me. I really wanted to fix the world. I was terribly nervous about where we were heading even back then. It seemed pretty obvious that were taking a lot from the earth and not giving it back.
I am grateful to be in a spot where I can help the river reclaim its place as central and vital to our city. There are so many things that need to be reclaimed. Our rivers, our kids, our neighborhoods.
Godsil. Were you raised in Milwaukee? If yes, what was your favorite place to go in Milwuakee when you were young? If not, where were you raised and what was your favorite place to go when you were young?
to be continued, our hope…