The Kinnickinnic River neighborhood Water Story
By Michael Timm
31 May 2019
The word Kinnickinnic comes from the Ojibwe language meaning "what is mixed." (The word referred to local plants mixed with tobacco to be smoked.) Today, the word aptly describes a new kind of mixture—a densely populated, ethnically diverse, and culturally rich neighborhood sharing as a common thread its namesake river: the KK. Instead of herbs and plants and bark, this mixture includes people of many ages, languages, and backgrounds—not just neighbors living next door to each other but members of a community finding new ways to care for one another, the land, and our water.
"We're packed," says Esperanza Gutierrez, a passionate member of the local neighborhood organization, the Kinnickinnic River Neighbors in Action. "It's the most dense neighborhood in the city, and it's the most youthful neighborhood. So we need to teach our young children self-respect, respect for their neighbors, and the respect for nature."
At the heart of this multiethnic, multilingual neighborhood stands Pulaski Park—the community crossroads where 16th Street meets the Kinnickinnic River as it bends to the east. In 2019 the park is undergoing transformation to include more shade trees, picnic benches, youth soccer fields, and the city's first dedicated futsal court. What drove the upgrades to the park is the dramatic transformation of the river itself.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is leading the ambitious, years-long effort to remove thousands of feet of concrete slabs that have armored the river's banks since the 1960s, when the prevailing engineering logic was to speed up the flow to get water out of the city as fast as possible. As the area surrounding the rivers was built up with hard surfaces, however, this led to increased flooding, dangerous flows, and degraded aquatic habitat. The 21st-century solution is to undo some of what was done, with homes removed from the floodplain and the channel widened to reduce flows and flood risk. Combined with work already done downstream of Sixth Street, and work yet to be done between Sixth and 16th streets, the newly widened river channel framed by inviting stone-terraced banks in Pulaski Park just west of 16th Street will help slow the water down. This reduces flood risk to nearby homes and businesses and helps to create aquatic habitat that brings back fish and other wildlife.
Guided by the perspective of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, whose leaders emphasize the value of clean water and public green space to community health, this flood management project is not just a civic engineering or environmental restoration project. Community members have embraced the transforming river and upgraded park as catalysts to spark a new generation of pride, engagement, and activity. The group KK River Neighbors in Action meets monthly at the park pavilion. Its volunteers are just neighbors dedicated to making the area a little bit better for their families, children, grandchildren, and those of their neighbors in the place they are proud to call home. They've helped to create colorful art benches in Pulaski Park, install Little Free Libraries along city streets, promote traffic calming devices protect kids and pedestrians, marshal river and neighborhood cleanups, build community garden plots, and even stand up against a potential liquor store that nearby neighbors didn't want. The KK River Neighbors in Action have also championed the illuminated Ñ WaterMarks marker to be installed by the river—all to share their sense of pride in the positive changes tied to a transformed river and a beautified park.
The letter Ñ was selected to reflect, celebrate, and recognize the Latinx community. Many KK River neighbors are bilingual. Some speak only English. Others speak only Spanish. When you see the illuminated Ñ, the KK River Neighbors in Action hope you share in their pride in a place that has welcomed hard-working immigrants from the days when the South Side was an ethnic Polish enclave to the present mix of Latinx and other ethnic groups whose water mythologies are celebrated on sumptuous works of public art just north of the river between 13th and 16th streets. A gravel path through this transitional green space (a few years ago dozens of houses stood here; and in a few more years this space will become part of the widened river channel) also reminds walkers that the neighborhood includes communities of life beyond human beings—colorful bird and bat houses provide roosts for flighted creatures, bioswales allow native plants to take root, and community garden plots provide fertile space for local produce.
"Taking a walk in a place that connects you with nature is healthy with us. It's healthy especially because nine months out of the year, we're in an incubator. The air is not healthy and sometimes our attitudes are not healthy towards each other," says Gutierrez. "So it is of utmost importance for our health and community."
Not long ago, the river was shunned, forgotten, neglected, denied: a drainage ditch, a forbidden space, a hardened artery. Rewind some 200 years, and the Kinnickinnic River would be almost unrecognizable: a winding stream drawing from roughly a dozen tributaries that flowed through wild-rice marshland before emptying into Lake Michigan near the end of what is today Greenfield Avenue. The Kinnickinnic River of the future will not be restored to what it was like before the city existed, but that is not the goal. The goal is to find a blended harmony that lets the river be a river again, but allows it to safely progress through the heart of the city—a shared amenity to turn towards rather than a liability to turn away. The people surrounding the river and living together in the Kinnickinnic River watershed will ultimately, through action or inaction, be its caretakers.