Milwaukee was built at the confluence of three rivers on the shore of Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic . At present there are 9 miles navigable by small craft before reaching the protected harbor. There is an additional 27 miles or so accessible by canoe or kayak up the Milwaukee River to the dam at Bridge Street in Grafton, Wisconsin.
The three rivers have been used for commerce and recreation for a long time.
When I first saw the three rivers commerce had dominated for enough time to have turned them into something just short of open sewers. This was in the mid 1960’s, when I moved here with my sister to finish high school and live at our father’s house. Buildings along the river fronts had their backs to the rivers, waste was dumped directly into them. The rivers stank much of the time. River front property was less valuable for being on the river.
Around 1967 I took a part time job at the Knickerbocker Hotel Pharmacy, just north of downtown. It was one of those opportunities to experience a very colorful side of Milwaukee. The notorious Sally’s Supper Club shared the ground floor of the hotel with the pharmacy. Working there cracked open a chink through which I saw a world that was slowly dying and I was intrigued and scared by its shadows. This was the last of a seamy Milwaukee of cheap hoods, organized crime, systematic exploitation and violence.
It was in this world that my boss, the owner of the pharmacy operated. I cannot remember his name now, so I’ll call him Mr. K. The straits he was in by the time I was hired were never fully known to me. His swollen face, stooped stance and scurrying gait though were signals of much that lay unseen. He must have been seriously indebted to someone and he had to hustle to stay afloat.
I felt sympathy for this over worked man. He was fair to his employees and never indulged in the exploitation the milieu he was immersed in would have found natural. As a matter of fact he would often give quiet warnings of traps to gingerly step around, such as gifts that were anything but what they seemed. There were times when it was best not to leave the drugstore counter, at least not until the big Cadillacs had left the street in front of Sally’s. Men in garrish suits would hang out in the soda fountain area around lunch time or on a lazy Sunday afternoon occasionaly making very sexist remarks about the waitress, sometimes bidding her to sit with them to discuss certain propositions. The drug store filled orders that I often delivered by dropping off inside a screen door, under no circumstances was I to knock. A young women’s residence was around the corner and on occasion I was told to deliver a couple of six packs of beer and “you don’t need to hurry back [wink, wink]” to one of the dorm rooms there . Mr. K. would get irate though about delivering boxes of condoms to another “apartment” in the neighborhood. Somehow he had a more mellow attitude about the daily delivery of a half pint of cheap brandy and a package of Depends to a resident of the hotel (that was a very quick delivery).
Maybe he sensed my nascent grasp of his predicament and maybe my naive sympathy. Maybe I was just a person that would listen. Whatever the reason he began to tell me about his youth and this reflection distracted him from the trap he was in. I was amazed to hear about the days he spent swimming in the Milwaukee River, about the majestic swimming pavilions and the boats that would be rowed on the river to lazy picnics along the bank.
Mr. K. also told of the farms 1/2 block from where I was living at the time. That land had been “developed” into housing quite awhile earlier and I had never thought of it as farmland. The contrast between that pastoral land and river of his memory and the city I lived in was astounding to me.
I worked at that drugstore a couple of years and moved on. I went to college at UWM and got a degree in independant film making. I travelled some, was part of a travelling film and dance production (1/2 of it to be exact) and eventually wound up living in an old log cabin just north of the city of Milwaukee for a couple of years.
I had always sailed on Lake Michigan. I moved back into the city, right into the heart of downtown, and my girlfriend (soon to be wife) and I bought an old wooden sailboat which we sailed around Lake Michigan, storing it in a boat yard up the Kinnickinnic River over the winters.
I had never forgotten Mr. K.’s stories about the rivers of his youth though, yet I found it hard to reconcile those stories with the rivers I saw up close from our boat. The waters were filthy, and even though you would see the occassional musk rat swimming, more often you were likely to see a dead animal floating downstream.
And this wasn’t necesarily the safest place to keep a boat. There were gangs that motored up the river and would steal anything of value from any and all boats tied up along the banks. A group of us boat owners, particularly owners of boats of a certain vintage tended to watch out for each other’s boats and would have small parties and cookouts along our makeshift docks. We were on a part of the river that could be described as a desolate industrial wasteland.
An aside: As a matter fact, it was few years earlier that I used that area as the scene for a series of photographs I took and submitted as a non-written term paper about the Italian film maker Michelangelo Antonioni. I was particularly interested in his early, neorealist work. You can get idea of what I’m talking about by seeing this screen shot from his film Il deserto rosso (1964).
I have always been an artist, besides dabbling in film and earning a living at furniture design, furniture making and carpentry. Twenty years ago Milwaukee held a celebration of the rivers that run through it. A celebration that, it was hoped, would change Milwaukee’s view of and attitude toward the rivers. I participated as a sculptor and created a floating sculpture for the event. It was an attempt to add a bit of “jewelry” to the rivers, honor and celebrate what could be. I created a pretty wild looking canoe form.
I set up a small display describing the project then floated up and down the Milwaukee River during the celebration in this canoe. It was a small effort, more of a gesture I guess, but it was part of the beginning of a major change in Milwaukee.
More to come in this series.