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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Trailblazers aim to bring nature back to Milwaukee's 30th Street Corridor neighborhood

Part of the crew making way for Lincoln Creek trail. Left to right: Martina Patterson (Nearby Nature Milwaukee), Natalie Bantleon (Northwest Side CDC) and David Thomas (Nearby Nature Milwaukee).
Susan Bence
Part of the crew making way for Lincoln Creek trail. Left to right: Martina Patterson (Nearby Nature Milwaukee), Natalie Bantleon (Northwest Side CDC) and David Thomas (Nearby Nature Milwaukee).

There’s a piece of nature being spruced up in an unexpected spot in Milwaukee. Crews are creating a trail along Lincoln Creek at the northern edge of the 30th Street Corridor.

Once an industrial hub, the corridor has since suffered economic and environmental blight.

A group called Nearby Nature Milwaukee hopes the Lincoln Creek greenway project will signal renewal and community connection.

Cars barrel down Hopkins Street, but just where it meets Congress Street, there's a jumble of brush and trees. With every step into the green space, the din of traffic decreases and Lincoln Creek becomes visible.

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Nearby Nature Milwaukee
Left to right: Sarah Bregant (Northwest Side CDC), volunteer Helen Harris, and Raymond Monk (Northwest Side CDC) along the evolving Lincoln Creek traii.

A small crew was at work, including Jessica Wineberg with Milwaukee County Parks. “This is a cool thing, but this is not Milwaukee County land, I don’t want anybody to be confused,” Wineberg said.

Nearby Nature Milwaukee doesn’t own the land either, but is spearheading this project —the Lincoln Creek greenway project — within the tucked-away parcel.

Wineberg said she’s happy to pitch in. “'Nearby Nature' — the name says the whole concept. We all need nature right nearby,” she said.

Helen Harris is pitching in too. She raised her family nearby and said she had no idea these 20 acres existed.

“When they said there was all this land here and they were building a trail, I came out to find out about it," Harris said. "I was just amazed with the all the land and the river, and what their plans were. So when they said they were going to be starting on the trail today, I said I want to help.”

For decades, Lincoln Creek was lined with concrete, a method engineers used to think of as state-of-the-art stormwater management.

Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District started setting Lincoln Creek and other waterways free by removing the concrete and allowing a more natural flow to return.

A glimpse of the trail hikers will experience along Lincoln Creek

Nearby Nature Milwaukee program director Steven Hunter said neighbors didn’t notice the change.

“People didn’t think of it as a river — everyone thought it was a sewer runoff,” Hunter said.

Hunter said creative relationship building is changing that impression, starting with MMSD giving Nearby Nature Milwaukee permission to revitalize the adjacent land; along with progressive programming, such as last summer’s Lincoln Creek Bike and Hike event.

“I have a relationship with Milwaukee Water Commons, 'I said can you guys help with this?'" said Hunter. "We partnered [in a summer 2021 event] and we finished it with our pedal to paddle ride. We had about 30 people out in the water. And we’re looking to really get African Americans re-engaged in nature; so it’s like half and half. So we felt really good about that."

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Eddee Daniel
Steven Hunter is encouraged that half of the participants in a summer 2021 pedal and paddle event were African Amerians.

The new trail being built is a next step. “We want [the] community to come out to help. I’ve never built a trail. How many African Americans have? This is an example of what you have to offer counts,” Hunter said.

We hike deeper into the parcel to a breathtaking view of Lincoln Creek curving.

Nearby Nature Milwaukee project coordinator David Thomas points to the plant life around us.

“This is the favorite spot where we bring people. Even up until to two weeks ago, it was just bursting with Maximillian sunflower — just beautiful and the golden rod and purple aster were all in color and then bang! Everything is turning brown and gray — going into its winter clothing,” Thomas said.

Thomas quietly and persistently got the Nearby Nature Milwaukee environmental justice and equity ball rolling four years ago.

Susan Bence
Martina Patterson and Steven Hunter watch a large bird in flight within the Lincoln Creek parcel.

Artist and Nearby Nature Milwaukee educator Martina Patterson said the pandemic slowed her down temporarily, but she’s now introducing school children to nature.

“I want to be able to inspire children who have interests like I did, but there wasn’t adult support. So little girls who like worms, let’s get in soil and figure it out, instead of saying yuck,” Patterson said.

The Nearby Nature Milwaukee team seemed not to want to step out of what they call this little pocket of paradise. Their eyes turned to the sky and they tried to figure out if they were seeing a turkey vulture or an eagle in flight.

Martina Patterson had work to do as her first group of students were about to arrive at the evolving outdoor classroom.

“I hope to give them an idea of what it takes to rehabilitate this space into something more accessible and useful. I’m quite sure they’ve never been back here,” Patterson said.

But that’s about to change for many more students and families, if the Nearby Nature Milwaukee team has its way.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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