Recently, I received this question from reader Lisa Koenigs:
“Once upon a time there was a thriving Urban Garden in Milwaukee on Appleton Avenue near Timmerman Field. Whatever happened to that? I'm sad to see that field go fallow.”
Koenigs also asked, more generally, if the city still has urban gardens and if abandoned lots can be turned into gardens.
“I am wondering if we can turn some of the abandoned city lots in Milwaukee ... (into) something of an edible city concept here.”
Starting with the latter questions, Milwaukee does have a number of urban gardens, including Alice’s Garden Urban Farm to Victory Garden Initiative and HOME GR/OWN Initiative, and beyond.
The City of Milwaukee also issues permits to residents who would like to green – for food or not – vacant lots adjacent to their homes and interested folks can visit this link for more information.
Additionally, there are places where community members can obtain plots, too, such as two sites run by the Urban Ecology Center in Three Bridges Park in the Menomonee Valley and at Riverside Park on the East Side.
Also, the UW-Madison Extension runs a number of community garden sites, including Common Home Garden, 58th and Forest Home, which has 60 gardens; Garden 18, at 15th and Rogers, with 47 plots; Garden 19 at Havenwoods State Forest, which has 24 gardens; UW-Extension Green Corridor Community Garden, 6th and Howard, with 165 plots; Cupertino Park Garden in Bay View, which has 30 garden beds; and the Kohl Farm Community Gardens, 84th and County Line., which has more than 1,000 garden plots.
The UW-Extension also runs the Timmerman Airport Gardens at 93rd and Appleton, which has been open for decades. Although the exact year it opened proved challenging to find, I did locate evidence that it dates at least as far back at 1976 and that the Extension garden program started in 1972.
While Koenig remembers the gardens as, “really thriving,” it appears that hasn’t been the situation for a while now, according to Martin Ventura, Urban Agriculture and Community Gardens Specialist at the Community Development Institute of the UW-Madison Division of Extension ‘s Community Food Systems Program.
The plot, which is around three acres is, says Ventura, “a funny little appendix of county-owned airport division land, that has been part of the Extension’s memorandum of understanding by which our program leases a substantial amount of land from the county.”
The garden is not technically closed, adds Ventura, though it’s also not exactly open.
“It has never formally closed or been sunsetted by our program,” he says, though the UW-Extension’s web listing of gardens from 2020 suggested that the Timmerman plots could close in 2021.
“There is one gardener who steadfastly chooses to grow up there,” says Venura, noting that the person is sort of grandfathered in and is experienced, basically requiring little to no help from the Extension staff.
But, says Ventura, demand for garden plots on Appleton Avenue has otherwise been close to nonexistent for a number of years now.
“We haven't been getting a lot of inquiries about gardening at Timmerman,” he says. “A few people have reached out, but nothing like the volume of folks who have inquired about many of our other garden sites.”
Compounding that relative lack of interest are other challenges, too, not least of which are Extension staffing issues and the fact that Ventura himself is just settling into his position after replacing longtime community gardens pioneer Dennis Lukaszewski, who passed away in January 2022, leaving some very, very large shoes to fill.
But it’s more than that.
“There are some technical challenges to our operating at that garden, too,” says Ventura, noting a rough combination of typically soggy, silty soil and big boulders.
“Our program has historically managed community garden plots by plowing in the fall and tilling in the spring and it's one of the most technically challenging sites to conduct that (kind of) plot preparation in," Ventura says.
"Over the years members of our staff have felt that it's not worth the very real risk of getting equipment stuck and even damaged, as has happened in the past, when implements strike some of the abundant large boulders that are in the soil matrix there.”
A lack of diversity of approaches to preparing garden soils has meant that Timmerman has suffered.
But Ventura would like to see more activity at Timmerman and it is on his list – along with the other gardens that Extension manages in the Milwaukee area – to get a closer look.
“We have a clear obligation to manage this space,” he says. “But the simultaneous pressure of limited demand for garden plots up at Timmerman and the technical hardships of getting equipment in there have meant that with very limited staff capacity since the passing of Dennis – and even before that – finding more adaptive, potentially more time- and thought-intensive solutions to that management hasn't been tenable.
“I'm coming in still quite new to this, and looking at a site like that I see a ton of latent potential. It's in a part of the city that is quite in need of green space and food access. So I am really interested and committed to – as things start to slow down, and as the management possibilities become a little bit more apparent – revising our management planning at that site and several others so that we're using these underutilized sites in ways that are ecologically responsible, cost effective for both our program and gardeners, and make meaningful differences in the amount of food security that they can provide the communities in which they're embedded.”
There’s no guarantee that Ventura and his team will overcome the challenges and return Timmerman Airport Gardens to their former glory, but it’s not entirely in their hands, either.
There must also be community demand for the garden plots at the site.
Otherwise the UW-Extension will, understandably, turn its limited resources to sites for which there is demand.
“We are not intentionally ignoring this piece of land,” Ventura says. “It is within the scope of our comprehensive strategic plan and we're trying to optimize the use of that space for community food security purposes within this complex suite of environmental and community based and administrative criteria.”
Gazing across Appleton Avenue for a metaphor, Ventura asks me to spread the word that, especially because he’s new, he wants and needs community input to help forge a path into the future for the site.
“I don’t have a clear view of the runway,” he says, “so I’m flying on instruments at the moment.”
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.