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"The Downtown Milwaukee River ... Once a mighty stream of commerce, now seeks a new role in the life of the city."
So said a 1968 report by the Milwaukee River Technical Study Committee, a 10-member group of local officials – from the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County and the Municipal Port – that convened for five years to assess the state of the river, look back at its history and consider its future.
Launched by Mayor Henry Maier in July 1963, the committee published its 163-page report five years later. And the report makes for interesting reading nearly a half-century on.
The report opened with a bang in the form of a radical proposal that would create, "A new look for the Downtown river."
Among a list of possibilities for development and upgrades of the river in the heart of Downtown were posited promenade walks, outdoor cafes, new bridges, riverfront housing, fountains, lighting, plantings, amenities and facilities for pleasure boaters, tastefully designed signage (noted in a category dubbed, "Dignity").
"A lighting program for the Downtown river, its bridges and its bordering buildings could, in itself, make Milwaukee the Paris of the Middle West," the report said.
Pshaw. Who needs an Eiffel Tower, a Notre Dame or a Champs-Elysees?
We know the promenade walks ultimately arrived in the form of the RiverWalk, which hearkened back even further to a Downtown plan created by Alfred Clas at the dawn of the 20th century and has changed how we view the river.
But one thing that didn’t arrive as the "purely conceptual" plan suggested were lagoons.
"An imaginative proposal has been advanced for riverside parks, with lagoons and ornamental bridges, connecting with the main river," the report read. "This is an intriguing concept, and should be considered as major renewal plans progress, and as open spaces are sought."
The lagoons were 1960s-era Milwaukee’s attempt to rethink Downtown development. With blocks full of vacant and partially vacant buildings and many dilapidated structures, often cluttered with multiple advertising hoardings, this group of officials strove for a more attractive city center.
"Rivers, like the Milwaukee River, were once gentle flowing streams originating in the prairies to the west and quietly meandering towards the great lake," the report mused.
But in the 1960s the report writers saw only a fetid cesspool of waste runoff and ugly urban blight. The solution, perhaps, was to create an idealized, man-made version of the wetlands that once covered large chunks of what had become Downtown Milwaukee.
"As we built new settlements, we destroyed the original appearance and character of the river. But, the influence of this native scape has remained as a decisive motivating force in the creative arts of architecture, landscape gardening and city planning."
The future, according the report, was to erase the past century and return the land to nature. Well, man-made nature.
The plan – which offered some variations and options – suggested "the construction of an extensive water garden park. The proposed park includes a small waterfall and broad curvilinear paths of native stone which gently arch over a small foot bridge. There are also flower gardens for ever-changing seasonable exhibitions and several sitting circles for small groups to gather at. This park offers its guest a quiet and colorful intermission."
An adjacent water park would include a children’s zoo, restaurants, boating facilities and other amenities.
Because it’s the 1960s, the plan also suggests plentiful parking structures at the edge of the water parks.
What becomes clear when one unfurls the folded-in architectural rendering of the plan – drawn by Chicago’s Gerald Estes – is that the plan would erase all but one small corner of land from Water on the east to 6th Street on the west, Juneau to the north and State to the south.
Only the block bounded by 5th, 6th, Juneau and Highland would remain.
Turner Hall? Gone.
Usinger’s and Mader’s? Under water.
Plus, the entire block across the river from the new "music hall" (aka the Marcus Center for the Perfoming Arts) would be razed for inclusion in the plan, as would the Wisconsin Energy plant east of the river (including what is now The Rep's Powerhouse Theater) and maybe, depending on which option was selected, the Pabst Theater.
In the end, the only green space in this utopian (dystopian, perhaps, depending on your view) plan that is currently green, is that block across from the Marcus Center that is now Pere Marquette Park.
Demolition of that quadrilateral block of land seemed a given by the time the report was published. Indeed, Maier in his message at the front of the book wrote, "I see no reason to hold up the obviously necessary clearance of the block across from the site of the proposed music hall."
Folks who remember when Downtown seemed like one giant surface parking lot will be unsurprised by Maier’s next thought ...
"We do not think that it is necessary to establish a reuse at this time. If nothing else, the area could be put in parking until the proper reuse were established."
Milwaukee continued to refer to the report well into the 1970s when discussing water quality of the river, the condition of the bridges that spanned the river, development around the river Downtown and larger watershed issues, and it had an effect of drawing attention to many issues surrounding the river, including the need for better zoning laws and pollution controls.
Would this plan have made Milwaukee a more attractive place? Would it have drawn visitors at a time when the rusting industrial city could’ve used some tourism dollars and positive attention?
We can only offer conjecture, but what is certain is that an even greater quantity of Downtown’s historic buildings would’ve fallen to the bulldozers that cleared land for the Park East Freeway and I-794 and in the name of urban renewal.
And what about some of the ideas anted up in chapter 15, "Imaginative Proposals for the River"?
"An executive of a major retail store" wanted to see Venetian gondolas plying the river.
"A senior citizen, Mr. Oscar H. Runge of 707 E. Pleasant St., enthusiastically projected a pleasure land along the river banks," which would pair the "nostalgia of ‘Old Milwaukee’ with the expertise and attraction of a Milwaukee ‘Disneyland’ development."
Perhaps best – and most frightening – of all was the idea of Schlitz Brewing Co.’s chairman Erwin C. Uihlein, who proposed, "that the river be filled from a point below the North Avenue dam, to where it joins the Menomonee River."
Yes, in 1965 Uihlein suggested paving over the river, to create a parkway for cars; a parkway that would require a pair of massive mains to allow the river – as well as storm and sanitary sewers – to reach Lake Michigan.
Uihlein’s parkway would’ve continued north of the dam along the west bank of the river beyond Capitol Drive. All the bridges across the river south of the dam would be removed.
"It may be fairly said that, historically and economically, Milwaukee owes much to this waterway. Along its banks great plans were laid; great hopes were realized; great rivalries were fought out; and a city rose to industrial and commercial stature," the report mused.
"The changing uses and problems of the Milwaukee River reflects, as much as any other force, the atmosphere of development and adaptation which confronts Milwaukee. We must adapt a historic water to new standards and new uses, leaving for the history books, the exciting century in which the river left its indelible mark on our archives."
Thankfully, Uihlein’s absurd proposed adaptation made no mark anywhere beyond the archives.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.