Alpine Village schedule

Game Changers

Inspiring locals who keep metro Milwaukee cultured, healthy, humane, progressive and fun

 Photo by Adam DeTour

BY LORI ACKEN, NICOLE KIEFERT, JEN KENT & NAN BIALEK  |   PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

The Arts

KEN-DAVID MASUR
Music Director, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

When Ken-David Masur set foot in Milwaukee for the first time in May 2018, he didn’t know that he’d actually, in a way, come home.

The multifaceted musician and conductor arrived as the guest of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO), leading an ambitious weeklong program that featured the works of Joseph Maurice Ravel, Aaron Copland, Ralph Vaughan Williams and contemporary composer Augusta Read Thomas. His visit proved prophetic — for Masur, for the MSO and for Milwaukee’s fine arts scene as a whole.

The German-born Masur and his wife spent time strolling the city, marveling at the German-influenced architecture and infusion of European culture. Masur found the same diversity in the orchestra, its renowned chorus and the organization’s overall approach to making symphonic music accessible to a broad audience.

“Rarely do you see four composers on a program these days,” says Masur, whose much admired stage presence and bold creative approach reflect his experiences conducting across America and all over the world. “To me, that was really a wonderful opportunity to see that the orchestra can really do anything, all these different styles, and that we were able to enjoy this exploration of the different musical languages of these composers, and get to the heart of them. That was a very special moment for me to have in the midst of all the things that I’d experienced walking around the city. … I felt quite at home in many ways.”

Masur (who met former MSO musical directors Lukas Foss and Zdeněk Mácal in his youth) returned to Milwaukee last September to open the MSO’s current season; the official offer to take up the baton as the MSO’s musical director came shortly after. He’ll assume full-time duties in the 2019-2020 season and is especially honored to lead the MSO when it opens its new performance space in Sept. 2020.

Music has always had a way of guiding Masur to places he could shine. The son of esteemed German conductor Kurt Masur and Japanese soprano Tomoko Sakurai, Masur grew up in a home filled with music and natural musicians, but he resisted the idea of making music his life’s work. The family followed Kurt’s career to America and Masur eventually enrolled as a liberal arts student at Columbia University where he dabbled — sometimes earnestly, sometimes less so — in virtually every musical realm other than conducting. “I studied voice, I studied composition and all these other things. Certainly though, I would not be a conductor,” Masur muses. “That was absolutely certain. What happened then was that the further I was trying to get away from being in music, the more music was pulling me towards it.”

Eventually Masur realized that conducting, too, was in his blood.

“On the podium, making the music seems natural. It seems like that’s the ultimate goal,” Masur explains. “But all the work that happens around it — being a teacher, being a mentor, being an administrator, being an initiator of partnerships, being an advocate in the community, talking to leaders, talking to politicians and making them understand that your community and your life and your city will be better through the arts, through music — this also ultimately is deeply moving and satisfying to me professionally and this is how I want to relate to the world as a human being.

“We imagine and feel and experience the world by wanting to feel affirmed, wanting to feel loved, wanting to feel valued,” concludes Masur, who lists commissioning new work and supporting local music education at the top of his to-do list. “Music can miraculously give us that feeling that something out there understands us in the midst of this world. We’re in the business of memory. When that kind of experience really hits you deep inside, that can never be taken away from you, and you’ll always want that feeling back. I grew up with my father saying, ‘If we can get the entire world into a concert hall for at least two hours, we would have peace.’” — Lori Acken


Disability Advocacy

MARK AND MARGARET FAIRBANKS
Co-Founders, Islands of Brilliance

A mighty change for Milwaukee’s autism community began with one tiny blue train.

Diagnosed on the autism spectrum, Harry Fairbanks’ favorite companion wasn’t his protective big brother Chris or his parents, Mark and Margaret Fairbanks, but rather the storybook locomotive Thomas the Tank Engine. So one day, desperate to connect with her son, Margaret stopped cajoling him to fit into their world and stepped into his instead. “I got down on the floor and I chugged around and pretended I was a train. And he looked at me,” she recalls.

The ah-ha moments kept coming, leading Harry’s parents to realize that he, too, was a born creative. A roll of fax paper that resembled like a train wheel inspired him to hold a crayon and draw, then write. When Harry grew fascinated with the Adobe Illustrator program his father used in his work as a creative director, the boy developed skills faster than Mark could teach them (and, to his parents’ delight, displayed a sly sense of humor, too). Soon, the Fairbankses observed their son maintaining lively online conversations about subjects he loved and realized that technology and the digital realm offered the sort of structure and controlled communication that people on the autism spectrum crave, without the pressure to read and respond to social cues. They wondered if that knowledge could benefit other families, too.

“We were like, what if we design something specifically around the strengths and interest of this population of kids?” Mark explains. “That’s where the idea for Islands of Brilliance came from.” The couple recruited volunteers from Milwaukee’s creative and STEM communities to join on, forming one-on-one mentorships with participants to draw out their own creative talents based on the things the youngsters obsessed over like Harry loved his trains.

In other words: the kids’ own particular Islands of Brilliance.

Participants flourished, with new families and more volunteers coming through the door in droves. Projects grew more advanced and were presented with end-of workshop “celebrations.” Competitions for the flashiest celebration turned funny and fierce. “It’s palpable when you come to a workshop,” says Margaret. “Kids want to be here. They know that they’re welcome and they know that they’re challenged — and we try to challenge them in a way that doesn’t change who they are.”

In the process, the volunteers — everyone from engineering and design students at UWM and MIAD to, says Mark, “creative directors at the highest level in the city”— gain fresh perspective on their own skills sets and become staunch advocates for more inclusive hiring practices, too. “Most of them leave rejuvenated because they’re working with these ‘subject matter experts’ who experience the world in a different way,” says Mark. “It makes them better. … And, again, this is a uniquely Milwaukee story. It’s every agency, every design firm, 5700 volunteer hours since we started, a lot of those, one-on-one.”

As the program evolves, the newest Islands of Brilliance projects are aimed at social and professional independence and marketable skills, including partnerships with the UWM media lab and Milwaukee area restaurants.

Though the Fairbankses offer workshops throughout the upper Midwest and on the West Coast, they know that they’ve captured lightning in a bottle right here in Milwaukee. “Something’s happening in Milwaukee for families with kids on the spectrum that I haven’t seen happening in other cities,” Mark says. “It’s this community now that didn’t exist before and it’s this overlapping community of our volunteers.” Adds Margaret,  “It’s why we get out of bed in the morning,” adds Margaret. “Because everybody tells us they believe in this and they want more of it and the community needs it.

And Harry? Harry, now a UWM junior in the Design and Visual Communication department, still loves trains, channeling his passion, says Mark, into “building amazing layouts and 3-D printing scenery.” All with an eye on his future. — Lori Acken


Social Justice

MARGARET ROZGA, PH.D
Poet Laureate and Social Justice Activist

Even as a young woman studying at Alverno College, Margaret Rozga would not avert her eyes.

The youthful Rozga was startled by what she was seeing on the nightly news — civil rights marchers in Birmingham, Ala., brutally attacked with fire hoses and police dogs. So when a group of Marquette University students came to Alverno to speak about their work on an Alabama voter registration project, Rozga volunteered to help. Needing a ride to Alabama, she recalls, “Someone knew Fr. (James) Groppi,” the activist Catholic priest whom she would marry.

After returning to Milwaukee, Rozga joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council, recognizing that racial discrimination and segregation were rampant in the North as well as the South. The Council began to march against discrimination in 1966. The Milwaukee NAACP headquarters was firebombed that same year; though nobody was hurt, the message was clear.

By August 1967, the push for fair and open housing in America was heating up. Rozga had graduated from college that spring and was teaching at North Division High School, located on the same block as St. Boniface parish where Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council organized demonstrations aimed at ending racial discrimination in housing. Tensions were sky-high when Groppi led a march of 200 youth council members, Rozga included, across the 16th Street Viaduct (now the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge) and toward Kosciuszko Park on Milwaukee’s mostly white South Side, where an estimated 5,000 angry counter-protesters were waiting to confront the marchers at the south end of the bridge. Both Rozga and Groppi grew up on the South Side, and, for Rozga, the encounter had “a visceral impact. It happened that first night,” she says. “It made a difference who my friends were.”

Milwaukee’s open housing marches continued for another 200 consecutive nights. Fair-housing legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law in April 1968, as part of the Civil Rights Act passed after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The Milwaukee Common Council quickly followed suit. And Rozga hasn’t stopped advocating for social justice, a commitment reflected in her writing. She penned a play, “March on Milwaukee: A Memoir of the Open Housing Protests,” in 2007, and multiple poetry books themed to peace
and equality.

In 2017, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fair-housing marches, Rozga convened a housing task force that focused on issues related to housing vouchers. “Most [people with vouchers] end up living in areas with high rates of poverty,” she says. “It was not legal to refuse to rent to people who are African-American, but it was legal to refuse to rent to people with vouchers.” Rozga is quick to credit Milwaukee County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic for listening to all sides before introducing the new law to the County Board, where it passed. In another project designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the marches, Rozga edited a book of poetry titled “Where I Want to Live: Poems for Fair and Affordable Housing.”

“We wanted that chapbook to ‘be’ that neighborhood we want to live in,” she says. “We made sure we had African-American poets, Latino poets, white poets, younger, older, LBGTQ and straight poets represented in this 30-page anthology.” The books sold out in four months. “What I love about it is it gets poetry into the hands of people who might not otherwise pick up a poetry book,” she notes.

Recently named the state’s new Poet Laureate by Wisconsin People & Ideas, Rozga says she plans to use social media to reach out to those who do not have poetry in their lives. She’ll also ask prominent people in Wisconsin to name their favorite poems, “so that claiming a poem as part of a conversation gets normalized.” Whatever she does — as an activist and as Poet Laureate — Rozga says, “I want to be sure that I’m reaching out and including others.”— Nan Bialek


Tourism

THERESA NEMETZ
CEO and Co-founder of Milwaukee City and Food Tours

Milwaukee native — and unabashed cheerleader — Theresa Nemetz spent her childhood frequenting Glorioso’s Italian Market and Peter Sciortino Bakery. So a walking tour of the Brady Street neighborhood she once fondly called home seemed like a natural first step for Milwaukee Food and City Tours, the company she co-founded with her husband, Wade. “We went on vacation and picked up a brochure for a food tour. … We went on that tour, and, a few minutes in, it was obvious to us that we should be doing this in Milwaukee,” Nemetz recalls. “Milwaukee’s got this great ethnic history and these great neighborhoods, and we wanted to be able to tell that story.”

What began as a weekend hobby 11 years ago has morphed into a year-round tourism business with nearly 30 employees, a fleet of four buses and 20 different walking and bus tours, as well as a Hop On Hop Off sightseeing bus that loops the city and stops at 11 downtown locations. Tour attendees requested group travel beyond Milwaukee, so Milwaukee Food and City Tours also offers international, regional and day trips, with plans to feature 20 trips annually.

Much of their success, Nemetz notes, stems from having great mentors, always listening to the customer, being innovative, and unfailingly doing their best to continuously provide a 10-star tour experience. “We want to be the innovators,” Theresa enthuses, adding that Milwaukee Food and City Tours most recently secured a partnership with downtown Milwaukee’s new streetcar, The Hop. “We want to show people Milwaukee in a different way, and we can do that via different modes of transportation, such as the streetcar.” The mother of two young children, Theresa says the most challenging aspect of entrepreneurship is knowing how to scale the business while juggling motherhood, in addition to learning how to own and maintain a fleet of vehicles and meet Department of Transportation compliance rules. “Those things take a lot of time to learn and understand and do the right way,” she adds. “And that’s important to us — to do it the right way, and to be as safe as possible so that our guests are having a great experience and a safe experience.” — Jen Kent


Neighborhood Development

JOAQUIN ALTORO
VP of Business Banking, Town Bank; VP, Walker’s Point Association Board of Directors

Walker’s Point is a Milwaukee original, and so is Joaquin Altoro.

As the melting-pot neighborhood just south of the Historic Third Ward and north of Bay View also evolves into an enclave for the creative class, Altoro has become an energetic proponent of its promising future. The all-volunteer Walker’s Point Association, where he serves as vice president and co-chair of the Business and Economic Development Committee, he says, is a “bullhorn” and uniter for the neighborhood, which he notes is in flux between raw spaces and the potential for rehabbing those spaces. “The question is, how do we protect the affordability and kitschiness of this neighborhood and, at the same time, allow for development? How do we plan for investment and still be respectful of people who live here? That’s the really difficult part.”

And something he has been working on for more than 25 years. When he first entered the banking industry, Altoro realized that not only did he see few other local bankers of color, but he had a hard time attracting clients too. At the same time, he discovered that the industry deeply misunderstood Milwaukee’s ethnic neighborhoods and communities, so he immersed himself in the city’s diverse cultures to grasp and embrace values, traditions and dreams. In addition to a thriving career, Altoro discovered a personal passion.

“If you’ve begun to intimately understand these communities, then you’re allowed to be a part of the strategic conversation and thought about their growth in Milwaukee,” he says. “It allows me really to speak with a louder, more passionate voice if I sit on a city planning commission, if I sit on certain loan committees, if I sit on neighborhood groups. ... I realized that if I took my time to work against the tide, it would create a particular value for me, but at the same time allow me to speak in a really exciting way about our city.”

Helping the city’s vibrant pockets of ethnicities thrive, Altoro says, “can build rich, cultural hubs in Milwaukee. ... [When they have] businesses to support them, you would start to see that we have healthier neighborhoods, even in areas where the income is lower. We collectively have to get out of this funk of segregation

“How do you work hard at supporting their culture so that you can see economic development within?” Altoro continues. “What I would say is for people to really have an open mind and to be curious. Have that active conversation.”— Nan Bialek and Lori Acken


City Government

EARNELL LUCAS
Milwaukee County Sheriff

Change has come to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office — which was precisely the point of Earnell Lucas’ campaign to lead the organization. Lucas, who entered the 2018 sheriff’s race before the abrupt resignation of former Sheriff David Clarke last August, is now in a position to make the transformations for which he advocated during that run.

Lucas brings an abundance of life experience to his new position. He grew up in Milwaukee’s Hillside housing project and lost his mother at a young age. He says his grandmother “sold everything she worked so hard to get” and moved to Milwaukee to care for the family. Lucas graduated from Rufus King High School and joined the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) at age 18. Rising through the ranks for 25 years, he also earned a degree from Marquette University, became captain of the Third District, and survived two bouts with cancer and a near-fatal gunshot wound to the face. Eventually, Bud Selig brought him into Major League Baseball to lead the security and investigations team, and Lucas served pro baseball and its fans for 15 years.

As Milwaukee County’s new sheriff, Lucas says he relishes the opportunity to inspire young boys and girls to do their best “regardless of their situation.” Perhaps especially the girls. Even before taking office, Sheriff Lucas announced that he would appoint women to senior positions, and he made good on that promise. He chose retired MPD deputy inspector Denita Ball as chief deputy — the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the department. Milwaukee County Assistant Corporation Counsel Molly Zillig was named chief legal and compliance officer, and Faithe Colas serves as director of public affairs and community engagement.

Speaking at the Milwaukee Press Club, the new sheriff outlined his ambitious agenda. “We’re going to tackle the hard things,” he insists. “We have problems in our parks, our freeways, our courtrooms and our jail.” Another major goal for Lucas and his team is to restore integrity and trust in the Sheriff’s Office, which faces a series of lawsuits stemming from alleged civil rights violations in the years preceding his election. The underlying reasons for the lawsuits, Lucas says, are “failure to train and failure to supervise” department staff. To that end, Lucas also says he is a “big supporter of bodycams. They are going to be the Miranda of the future.”

Lucas also plans to strengthen the department’s relationship with the city’s immigrant population and is adamant that he will not honor requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain people. “It’s a request, not an order from a judge, and it could be unconstitutional,” Lucas asserts. “I’m not going to drive wedges in our community.”

Overall, Lucas says, his Sheriff’s Office will be held to a high level of service, with the expectation that everyone is treated with dignity and respect. “We ought to be proud of that,” he insists. And he challenges all local residents to play an active role in keeping their neighborhoods safe.

“Milwaukee County, roll up your sleeves,” Lucas exclaims. “We’re going to get the job done.” — Nan Bialek


Public Health Education

DR. ALICE YAN, PH.D
Associate Professor at the UW-Milwaukee Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health

Trained in both medicine and public health, Dr. Alice Yan, Ph.D., knew she wanted to pursue multidisciplinary work, but it was not until her doctoral training at the University of Maryland that a specific research concentration — that of helping underserved populations — emerged.

“My first external grant as a graduate student was for examining the environmental influences on physical activity and obesity among adolescents in the city of Baltimore,” Yan explains. “... I not only worked with a team of experts in public health ... [but] I also started to realize how urban poverty can have a huge impact on individuals’ lives and their behaviors. The effect is particularly hard for underserved populations. … As my research progressed, the mission to help underserved populations became a major theme.”

Yan was recruited by UW-Milwaukee’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health in 2011, and has since focused on helping African-American women living with breast cancer in underserved areas of Milwaukee. Most recently, Yan and her team developed a documentary film showcasing the stories of young African-American breast cancer survivors. “We didn’t pay too much attention to [these women] in society, and they were facing a lot more psychological challenges than their elderly peers in terms of sexuality, their job (and) emotional support,” she says of the film and its overarching program, Sisters We Thrive, Stories We Tell. 

Through a partnership with Ex Fabula, the five women featured in the film were trained to tell their stories in an inspiring way, and those stories are combined with voiceovers from key stakeholders. The end-goal, says Yan, is to provide the film to local health care providers and nonprofits like Susan G. Komen Wisconsin and the American Cancer Society so they can share it with patients and supporters, encouraging them to get screened and actively seek help.

Producing the film was a multidisciplinary effort and, Yan says, an exercise in learning the language of various disciplines to best communicate with her peers — a challenge she encounters often and happily accepts. “The fun part is that, working as a team, we can develop something very innovative, and something extraordinary,” Yan adds. 

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Medicine is a science of uncertainty, and an art of probability.’ For me, doing what I do is combining science and art to help people. I get an opportunity to communicate with people — to listen to their stories, to work with them to solve their problems, and to translate the cutting-edge science and technology into the practical applications of real-life problem solving.”— Jen Kent


Advocacy

EMMY MYERS
Founder of Lacey’s Hope Project and Local Sex Trafficking Awareness Advocate

Emmy Myers was the all-American girl in high school. “I was in soccer, track, gymnastics — I did everything. I was friends with everybody,” she says. “But it still happened to me.

The “it” in question? Sex trafficking, a surprising epidemic throughout Wisconsin.

“[Sex trafficking victims] can be hiding in plain sight,” Myers continues. In fact, the local resident was introduced to her own trafficker through a trusted female friend, noting that he was an “incredibly charismatic individual, never disrespectful, [and] always nice.”

The trafficker patiently groomed the impressionable Myers, building her trust and, as she puts it, selling her “the American Dream” for months before she took him up on his offer to help her escape an abusive situation. That brief taste of freedom turned into a nightmarish prison when, shortly after “rescuing” her, the trafficker put a gun to her head and threatened her and her loved ones if she didn’t comply with his plans. The man put Myers on a web site that peddles women to predators and repeatedly sold her to the highest bidder — until a diligent family and a stroke of luck entailing the FBI saved her. Shortly after she was rescued from her trafficker, Myers was persuaded by her mom to attend an awareness event. When the moderator, himself an FBI agent, asked the crowd what a victim looked like, Myers was faced with a decision.

“I wasn’t really in my faith at that time, but I still asked [God] for a sign of whether I should stand up and say something,” Myers recalls. “There was a really long pause. So I stood up.” For herself. For her truth. And, soon enough, for other victims who might not get the same break she did.

The evening made Myers realize how imperative it is for the public to know that victims can be anyone from anywhere, either gender and all economic classes — and, she reiterates, often hiding in plain sight. Myers founded Lacey’s Hope Project, a local nonprofit aimed at raising awareness of the growing epidemic and educating the public to recognize victims of sex trafficking and how easy it is for trusting, impulsive young people to become one. At speaking engagements, Myers asks her audience what they would do if put in her situation. “It’s a rhetorical question,” she says. “If somebody has a gun to your head, of course you’re going to do what they say. It’s always easy for people to be like, ‘Oh, well I wouldn’t do that.’ But is that really the case?”

Statistics make it plainly clear that it isn’t.

“Sex trafficking cases have been reported in all 72 counties of Wisconsin, so there is no county that is immune,” Myers stresses, noting that the problem is, in fact, largely suburban.

Recognizing the impact of her words and her own cautionary story, Myers now appears at frequent speaking engagements — more than 52 in 2018 alone. She was also trained to identify traffickers and what to do if you suspect someone you know is part of the problem, topics she also covers when she speaks at events. To date, Myers has helped train nearly 4,500 local law enforcement members, first responders, community advocates and others how to spot both victim and abuser. Throughout 2018, Lacey’s Hope supporters helped fund eye-catching, impactful billboards in downtown Milwaukee and throughout the area, to help draw attention to the sex trafficking epidemic. One, Myers admits, can still upend her.

“I have my days,” she says. “I think we all do. … Maybe my faith in God, and wanting to change the world [helped me overcome the trauma]. I’ve always known that I was destined for bigger things. I just didn’t know what or when.”

To learn more about Myers, Lacey’s Hope Project and the sex trafficking epidemic, go to laceyshopeproject.org. — Nicole Kiefert


Environmentalism and Conservation

DONALD GALLO
Environmental Attorney, Axley Brynelson, LLP; President, Tall Pines Conservancy

Even a brief glance at Donald Gallo’s resume can intimidate.

Trained and esteemed as both an environmental engineer and attorney. Member or advisor to myriad state and local law and environmental organizations, and founder of several more. Instructor at multiple regional colleges. Spend a few minutes with Gallo, though, and you discover a warm, engaging fellow who’s genuinely delighted to have made a better quality of life for himself, his family and countless others by finding his career and his life’s passion, very literally, in nature.

“They merge,” Gallo says, his eyes twinkling, of his personal and professional interests. “I love that; it’s a joy to come to work.”

The Wooster, Ohio native earned his master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Akron, enthralled by the emerging field of environmental engineering. Energized, he applied to law school but opted to gain some work experience first, spending 13 years with CH2M Hill working as a process design engineer most frequently on environmental cleanups, including Superfund efforts, that took him all over the world. Dispatched to the Milwaukee office in the ’80s, Gallo fell in love with the area’s natural resources — and had an epiphany while working on a project for the city of Grand Rapids, MI. “The city attorney told me he wouldn’t build bridges if I didn’t write contracts,” Gallo recalls. “He was joking with me, but I said, ‘Maybe there’s an area there that I am missing.’ So I went to law school at Marquette.”

Soon came another epiphany, this time at the rein-clutching hands of the littlest Gallos who loved the pony rides at the Milwaukee County Zoo. “We decided to buy a pony,” Gallo chuckles. One pony led to 120, then some horses and then Gallo’s full-fledged investment in sustainable farming even as he facilitated efforts to clean up and revitalize contaminated parcels of land throughout Wisconsin.

Gallo steadily added to his land parcels in the shadow of Holy Hill, bringing aboard employees to assist in his efforts to explore and advance responsible, regenerative farming methods. His home and horse barns are heated with wood. Hay is preserved naturally with what is essentially vinegar to improve its quality and extend Wisconsin’s unpredictable window to produce and bale it. Carefully plotted cover crops take the place of chemicals and excessive tillage, slowing erosion and increasing soil health.

“We actually fly in cover crops before they harvest so that by the time they harvest the field, there’s a second crop already growing and it protects the soil,” says Gallo, who took inspiration from a book called “Dirt to Soil” and discussions with fellow members of his Lake Country farmers’ group. “It’s amazing. Some people have been doing this for maybe 15 years, but the majority are just getting into it.”

If you don’t suspect a “next step” from there, you haven’t been paying attention.

“I’ve expanded that to land conservation, farmland preservation and water-quality improvement,” Gallo says. “We have historically treated wastewater to be in compliance, but now we’re going beyond that into the watersheds and incorporating erosion control and improvements to water quality from the very head waters all the way through.”

A current project, the Oconomowoc River Watershed Improvement Program — a partnership of the City of Oconomowoc Wastewater Utility, Tall Pines Conservancy and other agencies — seeks to mitigate the high phosphorous content of the Rock and Oconomowoc Rivers, which contributes to weed and algae choked lakes and rivers from Oconomowoc north through Holy Hill and into Slinger. “We can improve erosion or prevent erosion, and then [employ] farming practices that reduce the organics that are getting into the streams,” Gallo explains. “The numbers are really impressive. For Oconomowoc to meet the phosphorous standard that they’re discharging, they’re estimating five to 10 million dollars if you used the old ways. We can probably comply with this for a million to two million. It’s called adaptive management, and this is one of the first projects in the state to be approved.”

Gallo also presides over Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful Inc. and Greening Milwaukee, nonprofits that engage inner city children and other volunteers in environmental educational and projects to clean up neighborhoods and plant trees throughout the city. “What’s really neat about the land conservation community, and also the environmental groups within the city, is they all work together,” Gallo says. “They don’t compete. Rockwell. Potawatomi. Honda. Waste Management. Johnson Controls. Sharp Legacy. Solo Cup. It’s really about preserving our quality of life. Enhancing our natural resources and leaving a legacy for our kids. It’s easy to buy into. We’re not economically hurting our businesses. This actually improves our productivity.” — Lori Acken


Land Management

LILITH FOWLER
Executive Director of Harbor District, Inc.

Twenty years ago, Lilith Fowler fell for a Milwaukee man and moved from sunny San Francisco to Cream City for what was supposed to be a five-year stint. The Fowlers are still here.

While Fowler was used to the urbanized waterfront in her hometown, Lake Michigan still attracted Harbor District, Inc.’s passionate executive director, who previously served as the first executive director of Menomonee Valley Partners. 

“I love cities and I care about people and I care about our natural environment and I love water, so I just look for ways to bring all those things into the work that I do,” Fowler says of her career path. Including, she adds, changing Milwaukeeans’ minds about the Harbor District, one of the city’s most neglected and misunderstood regions. Once a thriving region of the Lake Michigan waterfront, boasting a rice marsh and active fish and wildlife populations, the district has since fallen victim to pollution and abandonment, which Fowler and the nonprofit Harbor District, Inc. are actively working to reverse.

For now, the group channels its efforts into a few silos  — planning projects such as the much-anticipated River Walk and plaza; water management to ensure recreational watercraft users and commercial boat traffic can safely coexist; environmental restoration projects, including a partnership with the city and the DNR to restore the Grand Trunk Wetland; and what Fowler calls “super-small-scale restoration” projects including habitat hotels, basketlike havens for fish who are moving through the inner harbor.

Fowler admits she still pulls from her freewheeling West Coast sensibility to persuade her fellow Milwaukeeans to change their thinking about mixed land use. “We’ve just made assumptions about what kinds of things are possible in a place like this, that an industrial place is not a place for people and a natural place is not a place for industry,” she explains. “Those are operating assumptions that we’ve used, that have governed choices that we make in the city,” she explains. “I think you can look back at those assumptions and say that’s really not true. People love to see industry and big ships and huge silos. Those things are really cool looking, and you can create spaces for people within that kind of a place. Likewise, if you look at the Menomonee Valley, it’s pretty obvious to see that all those businesses love being in a place where there’s park space and there’s trails and a there’s a wonderful, healthy, natural environment all around.”

So Fowler and her colleagues welcome the coming addition of Komatsu Mining Corp.’s new headquarters and Michels Corp.’s River 1 development to the district, both of which will draw people and economic growth to the area.

“We do feel like when you look at this place, one of the things that makes it really cool and interesting is all the sorts of relics of former industry,” Fowler says. “They tell a special story about Milwaukee. I think it’s cool to have a city like this that has always made things and is still making things. This is a place where we have an opportunity to celebrate that, so we’ll want to be sure that the design and the creation of public spaces really does reflect the industrial history and the industrial future of the city.

“One thing that I felt like I really learned from the time that I spent working in the Menomonee Valley was that the way that a place gets to look, like the valley looked or like some parts of the harbor district look, in terms of just being abandoned and contaminated and the disinvestment and the just sort of derelict is that people don’t care about it. Because if you care about a place, you don’t let it get to be that way. And so reestablishing people’s connection to a place is really the best thing that we can do for it,” she notes. — Nicole Kiefert  MKE

 

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