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Milwaukee: The City of Parks

Apr. 11, 2017
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Lake Park

Milwaukee County is home to more than 140 public parks and parkways. The total area of these spaces, more than 23 square miles, is about half the size of the entire city of Boston. The concept of local public parks is as old as the European settlement of Milwaukee itself. Public squares—open green spaces that were for all to enjoy—existed in Kilbourntown, Juneautown and Walker’s Point. One of these sites, the 1.2-acre plot at Michigan and Third streets now known as Zeidler Square, was officially dedicated as the City of Milwaukee’s first public park shortly after its incorporation.

Although the half-century that followed saw the city grow in population and size at a furious clip, public parks lagged behind. To fill the demand for outdoor recreation, a number of private parks opened on the city’s fringes and waterways. Beer gardens, amusement parks and swimming schools all offered fun and relaxation in a bucolic setting, but were also for-profit entities. As the working classes continued to pour into the city, and with many new homeowners with large families, a movement towards greater access to these spaces began.

In 1889, the City Park Commission was empowered by the state to buy land for public parks with money raised via bond sales. With the power now to buy up land before it had a chance to be developed, the commission took up the goal of “rescuing” this land, so that future generations would not lament its loss.

The board went on a veritable spree, buying dozens of lots and running up nearly a million dollars in debt. But the results of their early purchases gave Milwaukee what would become some of its most cherished public spaces: 124 acres near the Lakefront Pumping Station that would become Lake Park, 25 acres of South Side land from John Mitchell that would become his namesake park, and 46 wooded acres in Bay View that would become Humboldt Park. With these plots, as well as the land that would become Kosciuszko and Riverside parks, the grand vision of the City Park Commission became to create a series of green spaces that would surround the city, connected by handsome, tree-lined “parkway” boulevards.

Humboldt Park Lagoon

Although this vision was never entirely realized, remnants of it can be found all over the city. For example, Newberry Boulevard with its wide green median links Lake Park and Riverside Park, allowing one to walk between them without disconnecting entirely from the natural park setting. This concept was soon expanded to include space beyond the city proper. In 1891, the commission’s purchasing power was expanded to include all land within Milwaukee County. This allowed for the creation of Washington Park and Sherman Park (originally known as West and North parks, respectively)—both of which extended beyond what were then the city limits.

Washington Park Bandshell

In addition to their land acquisitions, the commission also oversaw a bevy of work being done inside their new parks. In 1892, it hired the firm of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose credits included New York City’s Central Park and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, to help design Milwaukee’s grand ring of parkland. Olmsted’s firm devised the layouts of Lake, Riverside and Washington parks. Bridges and walkways were made, lakes created, pavilions built and extensive grading and landscaping was done, creating an overall experience that can still be felt today.

In 1907, the Milwaukee County Park System was founded (all county and city parks would be incorporated into this system by the late 1930s) and Charles Whitnall was named parks commissioner. Whitnall was a trained horticulturist and member of the Socialist Party. As Milwaukee’s Socialists gained power, they made park development a key part of their platform, and Whitnall came to be known as the Father of the County Parks. Under the Socialists, the parks system paid particular attention to preserving land along the county’s waterways as park space. 

During the Great Depression, the park system stopped expanding, but thanks to federally funded New Deal projects, existing parks underwent significant improvements. Unemployed men and women found work in dozens of county parks—clearing roads, building benches, erecting fences and grading flat areas for playgrounds and athletic fields. New structures went up all over the county: swimming pools, recreation centers, public bathrooms and more. Civilian Conservation Corps camps also operated in many parks, working on dams and suspension bridges. With the dedicated work done during the Depression and the dutiful work of park advocates that had come before, Milwaukee emerged into the post-war period with one of the nation’s most highly regarded parks systems.

Perhaps the most visible legacy of Milwaukee’s parks can be seen from Lake Michigan. The city is a stunning sight from the water, largely due to the expansive parkland that lines the waterfront. This is not land merely preserved by the city and county but was created specifically to be parkland. Hundreds of acres of fill were dumped into the lake to create new lakefront spaces, much of which was dedicated as parkland. The most expansive example of this is Veterans Park, which comprises more than 100 acres. The park and the accompanying land that formed McKinley Marina, installed between 1959 and 1979, is one of the most impressive examples of reclaimed land usage in the area.

It’s not often that you can tell the story of a city through the history of its parks, but the Milwaukee story is woven firmly into its communal green spaces. Although the “green ring” of parkland was never realized, Milwaukee is still home to one of the nation’s finest collections of public parks. It is easy to take these beautiful spaces and the history behind them for granted. However, with nearly every resident of the city and county within a modest reach of a county park, it’s also easy to make them an everyday part of being a Milwaukeean.

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