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ReciproCITY Builds Community in Milwaukee

'Mobile collective' collaborates with other groups to curb violence, promote culture and increase awareness

Jul. 18, 2017
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A quartet of creative catalysts and activists is quietly making things happen in Milwaukee. Since its founding in 2012, ReciproCITY, a “mobile cultural collective,” has initiated many community-based projects that relate to cultural history, urban agriculture, curbing violence and promoting community. Sometimes their respective professional work intertwines with ReciproCITY projects. They collaborate with other individuals, grassroots groups and major institutions for specific ventures, including sustainability projects, exhibitions, permanent art installations and a neighborhood park. ReciproCITY’s initiatives frequently involve helping young people cultivate skills.

ReciproCITY’s latest effort was the block-long mural on Historic Mitchell Street just west of First Street. The Butters Fetting Company provided a building wall for the mural depicting events in the history of Milwaukee’s Latino immigrants. The project started in 2015 when Michael Carriere, Associate Professor of History at Milwaukee School of Engineering, led a team of undergraduates and high-school students in conducting oral histories for the project.

“We used the 50-year history of United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS) as an entry point into a broader story of the Latino civil rights movement in Milwaukee,” says Carriere. Those narratives then informed the mural’s imagery. Raoul Deal of the UW-Milwaukee’s Community Arts Program at Peck School of the Arts was the project’s lead artist. All interns were young people of color who were paid for their work through the nonprofit ArtWorks for Milwaukee.


‘Placemaking From the Bottom-Up’

Interns also learned about translating words into images and how to brainstorm design ideas and paint the mural’s final design. Carriere calls the UMOS mural project “placemaking from the bottom-up.” It was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council and with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, CDBG Milwaukee, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Manpower Group and the Partnership for the Arts & Humanities.

Carriere, an occasional writer for the Shepherd Express, also directs MSOE’s University Scholars Honors Program, and ReciproCITY often works with honors program students on community projects.

Carriere launched ReciproCITY in 2012 with Paul Kjelland and Nicolas Lampert. It began as an experimental cultural space located inside the Sweet Water Organics aquaponic farm “as a means of fostering collaboration between urban farmers, artists, activists and the greater community,” he says. Their early projects included designing and building a mobile farmstand and screen-printing unit with funding from the Wormfarm Institute’s Roadside Cultural Stands program. It’s now part of the Victory Garden Initiative’s Concordia Gardens in Harambee.

Lampert, a senior lecturer in UWM’s Peck School of the Arts’ Department of Art and Design, teaches seminars in art and ecology as well as art and social movements. He authored A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements. (The late Howard Zinn, author of The People’s History of America, was the series editor.)


Instigating Projects for Positive Change

Kjelland is a multimedia artist and “project instigator” who has worked on diverse ventures, including co-founding Climate Prints—a web space for artists and activists to share work for use in climate-justice movements. He co-founded the Riverwest24, “a community event combining bicycles, neighborhood organizing, barber’s choice haircuts, crowd-sourced projects and thousands of meals—all in 24 hours.” He served as engagement director for “Precious Lives,” a recently concluded 100-part, two-year radio, podcast and engagement series exploring the impact of gun violence in Milwaukee.

In 2013, ReciproCITY designed a crowd-sourced “bonus checkpoint” during Riverwest24 at the Career Youth Development (CYD) building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. ReciproCITY had previously worked with the CYD on building garden beds at the Victory Over Violence Park adjacent to their building. Bicycle riders helped complete a new rooftop garden by hauling buckets of dirt to the roof to fill 22 garden beds constructed the day before.

Community activist, educator and hip-hop artist Fidel Verdin joined ReciproCITY in 2014. He has organized “Summer of Peace” projects since 2002, citywide youth efforts to curb violence and recognize young people doing good things in the city. He worked with the City of Milwaukee to develop the Peace Park located at Locust and Fifth Streets before becoming involved with ReciproCITY. Verdin is currently co-executive director of True Skool, a nonprofit that uses hip-hop to engage young people and build community.

In late 2015, ReciproCITY, in collaboration with HeartLove Place, launched Peace Place, which transformed blighted lots into a community park in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood. HeartLove Place is an anchor institution in the neighborhood, providing family resources, child development center, culinary training program and other services. ReciproCITY members first contacted the City of Milwaukee with ambitious plans for two of the lots, which the city owns. They envisioned a green community space with food production and rainwater harvesting, as well as public art, a performance stage and other community amenities.

Officials in the Department of City Development were initially reluctant to use the land for a park because they wanted commercial development there, says Carriere. However, they eventually warmed to the project when HeartLove Place got on board to donate its adjoining lot for the park.


Working Together to Make it Happen

Una Van Duvall, HeartLove Place’s development director, says that when the nonprofit was approached about teaming up, its leaders decided, “We have some land; let’s work together to make something happen.” HeartLove, founded in 1995, had built a sizable headquarters across the street. They recently sold that building to Hope Christian Schools for its high school. (HeartLove is temporarily renting space at St. Francis of Assisi Church as they pursue plans for another building nearby.)

The City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office, the Partners for Places Initiative and HOME GR/OWN Initiative helped to install the sustainable urban-agriculture aspects, including 20 fruit trees, raised gardening beds and rainwater catchments. Groundwork Milwaukee, a nonprofit land trust, leases the land from the city on behalf of the project partners.

Carriere applauds city officials for being open to a new model of neighborhood development for the lots, which had been vacant for 22 years, and, according to Van Duvall, “sheer networking, communication and trust are what allowed this park to move forward,” adding, “our little project is a labor of love. This is what collaboration can accomplish.”

Verdin says Peace Place “is about, health, fitness, food and a safe green space that allows people to connect, learn and organize.” The park has since become a gathering place for many people. Van Duvall says a serpentine wooden bench near the street is a popular spot for transit users in all seasons. (Ray Chi, who teaches art at UWM, designed and built the bench as a project donation.) Students at nearby schools visit the park during recess and after school. The Wisconsin Bike Federation recently set up a free bicycle repair clinic at Peace Place for four days. True Skool conducts service-learning days there to engage young people in urban agriculture and art projects. Elementary school children helped design and build birdhouses for the park. HeartLove has held its annual fundraiser under a tent in the park for the past two summers. Last year’s Summer of Peace major rally was held in the park.


Remembering Milwaukee’s Urban History

One driving force for Peace Place involved creating a home for two massive murals Lampert and Kjelland created to honor the civil rights and housing marches held in Milwaukee starting in 1967. The murals are based on historic photos of the Milwaukee’s Commandos—NAACP Youth Council activists led by the late Father James Groppi. However, the project soon broadened through what Carriere says was an extensive community engagement process.

After enlisting a broad base of partners and gathering direct input from neighbors, UWM’s Community Design Solutions helped craft a master plan for the site. Walnut Way’s Blue Skies Landscaping consulted on removing existing nuisance trees and brush, as well as options for pathways and landscaping.

Current goals for the park include securing funding for an innovative installation that will serve as performance stage, outdoor classroom and fitness area. Jordan Nelson, who recently graduated from the UWM School of Architecture and Urban Planning, has donated the design. Verdin also would like the park to have Wi-Fi, solar-powered lighting and other amenities and to become a “world-class destination.”

Van Duvall appreciates how Peace Place is evolving as part of developing the Martin Luther King Drive corridor. She also enjoys working with ReciproCITY and True School as project partners. “Every four or five weeks we meet to talk about park stuff,” she says.

If you’re interested in donating to Peace Place, contact Una Van Duvall at 414-372-1550. HeartLove Place is the project’s fiscal agent.

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