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A Doctor's Quiet Mission to Preserve Parcel on Milwaukee County Grounds

Stair at sunrise, the ravine

Dr. Marc Gorelick didn’t set out to make an environmental statement. He simply wants to set aside a few acres of green space for sick kids to find peace and quiet. 

Those acres just happen to be part of a contested piece of the Milwaukee County Grounds.

People have rallied behind different causes erupting around the public land.

Those causes have included saving the magnificent but crumbling structures that have lived there since 1912 to the Monarch butterflies that touch down there every year during their annual migration.

Credit S Bence
Gorelick says the pedestrian bridge (center white) spanning Watertown Plank Road provides easy access to the woods.

Gorelick steered clear of the muddle and did his job. He’s a pediatrician and chief operating officer at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Gorelick could see the halo of trees out his office window and would occasionally slip over for a bit of cool and quiet.

Then last June, an 10-year-old patient visited Gorelick.

“He and his mom came to see me in my office and James, the little boy, was talking to me and said when he comes to the hospital, he likes to come out here and walk, because it makes him feel like he’s getting away from the hospital."

Just days earlier, Gorelick’s young niece had died.

Credit S Bence
Marc Gorelick in the heart of the woods where remnants of the long-ago county asylum remain.

“She had been treated at another hospital – at Johns Hopkins on the east coast – but she had a similar experience of feeling like she needed to get away from the hospital. (It) made a big difference to her, when she was able to do that – so that really resonated – the idea that we had this property right across the street,” he says.

Gorelick immediately blogged, “James, who has spina bifida, has spent a lot of time at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. But he’s pretty unimpressed with our clinics and operating rooms. What gets him going is the park-like space across the street on the County Grounds.”

Gorelick received a speedy reaction. “Probably three or four people from the hospital contacted me afterwards and said ‘ that would be so cool! I want to help make that happen’ I said okay you’re on,” he says.

Credit Landscapes of Place, LLC

He figures there might be three to five acres to work with, but quickly adds “trails and real estate are not my area of expertise, but I’m learning a bit.”

The closest neighbor to the natural area is the Ronald McDonald House, and Gorelick says its leaders are keen about the idea.

He also knows of other hospitals around the country that have created scapes to feel natural.

“And we have that right here. We’ve got the large trees and we heard the ducks and the birds and here we are just a few hundred feet from Watertown Plank Road but you feel like you’re away from it all,” Gorelick says.

Credit S Bence
A view of the wooded parcel at the east end of the Milwaukee County Grounds.

He says much remains to be done and many questions are answered. Would Milwaukee County lease the land? Should Gorelick’s team create a nonprofit to manage it? Who would assume liability?

What he does know is that he’d like to leave the wooded lot as untouched as possible.

“I think we want to keep if very simple. Have it maintained and marked. Probably have some benches so that people can sit and rest, because they’ll need that; and at least some portion that is accessible for everybody,” he says.

Gorelick says the young patient’s words continue inspiring him.

“James was very articulate about how important it was for him in a nice place for him to feel better. He said this is one of his favorite spots,” Gorelick says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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