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Celebrating a West Side Neighborhood

UWM Students present Washington Park’s oral histories

Oct. 18, 2016
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UW-Milwaukee’s This is Washington Park. This is Milwaukee., which ran for one weekend only, is the result of several years’ work and the collaborative efforts of students from different departments. The process began in 2014 when Arijit Sen’s architecture class, Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures (BLC), launched a field school, giving students the summer project of measuring the physical dimensions of homes in Milwaukee’s Washington Park neighborhood and recording residents’ oral histories. Theater students under Alvaro Saar Rios then devised a script using transcript from the many recorded interviews and the reflections of the students originally involved. “Once you tell the story of a place it’s hard to erase,” notes one of the performers and this sentiment certainly rings true, especially in light of the recent negative attention the area has received in the news. This show did much to offer an alternative, presenting the neighborhood in all its diversity, mundanity and dynamic history.

Production elements at Kenilworth Five-O-Eight were spare: a simple black box setup with the student performers all wearing the BLC T-shirt of the original interviewers and adding simple costume pieces to indicate changes of character. Song-and-dance numbers were incorporated with greater and lesser success; a strong opening piece featured a chant of all the major streets in Washington Park overlaid with the names of the area’s many community organizations.

Engaging narrative elements included the students’ reflections and experiences working in a part of the city that some viewed as dangerous or stigmatized. . Never heavy handedly, these passages suggested that “We’re often taught to fear something instead of learn about it” and that taking the plunge into unfamiliar waters is a very worthy use of one’s time. 

The strongest moments were the dramatizations of the residents themselves. Noah Gober was memorable as a patron of Washington Park Senior Center, Lois Luglio, who good naturedly discussed her decades in the area and laughed when asked if she was afraid to live in an “unsafe” part of town, saying “No! My husband and I lived in Peru for 10 years where there was guerilla warfare.” On a similar note, Laotian immigrant Yee Yang (sensitively portrayed by Olivia Mauseth) describes the country he left to come to Milwaukee: “You either escape or you die.”

After this interview, the students aptly reflect that “‘safe’ means different things to different people.” Todd Snethen as long-time resident Timothy Richardson was likewise striking for his calm portrayal of a life utterly transformed. In his interview, Richardson shared that he started life in Washington Park as a thief but gradually turned his life around and now works in the area as a victims’ assistant counselor, providing support to those in deepest grief, including family members of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims.

The result of many hands and many hours, This is Washington Park. This is Milwaukee. was a complex, sometimes unwieldy reflection with its heart absolutely in the right place. It is works like this that can best transform our city’s perception of itself by reminding us that all of our neighborhoods are vital. 

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