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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

New artistic touches highlight Milwaukee harbor district's continued rebirth

Not so long ago, Milwaukee’s Harbor District was a place you might rather avoid than explore.

But that’s changing. In recent years, its 1,000 watery acres have gradually sprung to life.

READ $200,000 Grant Helps Propel Revitalization of Milwaukee's Harbor

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Jim Wasley
James Stearns' team contributed to this installation. It captures rainwater from rooftop to create fountain at Freshwater Plaza at the corner of South1st St and East Greenfield Ave.

One sign is the celebration of Harbor Fest this weekend where East Greenfield Avenue bumps into the harbor. Floating art installations will parade along the estuary, baby sturgeon will be released and, of course, local food will be consumed.

Permanent art installations also signal the harbor’s renaissance.

READ New Mural Welcomes Visitors Into Milwaukee's Harbor District

A small architectural metalwork team in the city’s Harambee neighborhood is about to contribute a new creation to the district.

Susan Bence
How the harbor marker design looks on paper.

The creation started with a section of a shipping container. When it’s done, the 7-foot tall, 4-foot wide piece will resemble a shipping container anchored to a decorative concrete base. The team is creating four markers that will be placed throughout the Harbor District, announcing the neighborhood's edge.

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James Stearns

The project and the shop belong to James Stearns. The Milwaukee native grew up loving and sailing on Lake Michigan.

“I used to spend my summers teaching and sailing and weekends traveling and racing. Lake Michigan is a fantastic place to do it,” Stearns says.

So how did he end up designing and fabricating with steel and other materials?

Stearns studied art at UW-Milwaukee in the 1990s. He then “made” sculpture and worked as a welder at this very shop he would eventually buy.

But not before he returned to UW-Milwaukee university to earn a masters in architecture. “I went to school to do low-energy, low-income housing just when LEED was getting off the ground," Stearns says.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and it was developed to rate how “green” a building is.

“I was the sixth or seventh person in the state to have my LEED rating. I was charged up and ready to go,” Stearns says.

But Stearns became disenchanted when some people claimed to be LEED certified, when they were not.

His love of working with steel led him to this artistic pursuit: "The reason I like to work with steel is that it's the most highly recyclable material. It doesn't get down-cycled. It last forever," Stearns says.

And he loves working with his small team of craftsmen. Every project, he says, is a collaboration. “The designs are always collaborative with Troy,” Stearns says.

That’s Troy Divurgo, who’s about to weld what’s called corner castings onto the shipping container creation, “And this is the real thing, it came off a shipping container on Jones Island,” Divurgo says.

Divurgo also lent his vision to sculptural gates depicting fish native to Lake Michigan within the plaza where East Greenfield Ave ends at Milwaukee’s inner harbor.

Susan Bence
James Stearns and his team designed these three pieces featured at Harbor View Plaza at the east end of East Greenfield Avenue.

Susan Bence
James Stearns with the wooden framework in which concrete would be poured.

James Stearns loves their collaborative work, but doesn’t romanticize it, including the markers about to be installed in the harbor district.

“These signs aren’t saving the planet. You can argue that drawing people in, showing people this is the Harbor District and generating interest and participation and maybe that helps support their mission the harbor districts mission. And they might help support the mission, so in a very way, perhaps,” Stearns says.

One of Stearns fans, a respected architect in his own right, describes Stearns as a very creative sculptural metalsmith whose input has a profound impact.

Stearns’ likely self-effacing response, “Making metal stuff is fun,” he says simply.

In a matter of hours after you hear this story, Stearns and his team will begin installing the first of the four harbor district markers, including somewhere on Becher Street.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


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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