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The Artery: Breathing Life Into Abandoned Milwaukee Rail Corridor Creates Community Space

Keith Hayes was among the first to recognize the potential of a former rail corridor, where Milwaukee's Harambee and Riverwest neighborhoods intersect. The space, now called the artery, stretches from W. Keefe Avenue up to W. Capitol Drive.

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the artery

Hayes started an organization, called beintween, to adopt leftover places like this. "I think (the artery) is a really crucial one. It’s eight acres," he says. "It’s 100 feet wide, so it could be programmed with different kinds of park space. We’re hoping we can really get youth a safe place to play (because there) isn’t much park space in Harambee.”

Multiple individuals and organizations have taken on the neglected dumping ground northwest of the Beerline Trail. NEWaukee, the Kresge Foundation and the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s stewardship team have stepped up to the plate – just to name a few.

WUWM's Susan Bence met Keith Hayes at the artery’s trailhead at the corner of Keith Avenue and Richard Street. He was cheering on a team - armed with gloves and rakes - during a weekend clean up.

“My background is in architecture but I’m very much a cyclist, so I thought maybe we could extend the Beerline Trail and start doing something with people who care about doing something,” Hayes says.

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Volunteers at the Capitol Drive end of the artery during July 2015 service day. The evolving corridor stretches south.

As the workers set off along the urban landscape, Hayes smiles. “It feels crazy. This is the third summer we’ve come out and done this. Each year we’ve seen the numbers increase,” he says.

Last summer, he and a band of volunteers experimented with weekly events along the artery – open mic and film series, community barbecues and kids parades. Although neighbors joined in, Hayes acknowledges there’s still a long way to go before a sense of playfulness and safety are achieved.

“It’s still in a lot of people’s eyes a no man’s land, so beintween is really interested in anchoring into the community and in some ways to the businesses,” he says.

Momentum has been growing. Hayes connected with an architecture professor at UWM who got her students creatively engaged in the artery’s potential.

“Some of them are looking at how you might be able to introduce Wi-Fi to make this a 21st Century Smart Park. So there are all kinds of things beyond our imagination, capacity and rendering skills. It’s so great to see this coalescing,” he says.

Weeks and weeks later, Justin Hegarty stands at the other end of the artery, just off Capitol Drive. The environmental engineer is one of the founders of Reflo Sustainable Water Solutions.

"Reflo is a relatively new nonprofit, about two years old, that’s interested in sustainable water projects," Hegarty says.

The artery project incorporates a giant shipping container - the type used on ships.  “So this project is the greenhouse. And so what we’re doing is repurposing a shipping container to harvest rain water and then be used to grow agriculture in this vacant piece of property,” Hegarty says.

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When funding is complete, rain water will be harvested from the yet-to-be-constructed rooftop.

The container has been transformed inside to become a green house. Vegetable are flourishing within. When enough money has been raised, a special new rooftop will be added to harvest rainwater.

“It’s a perfect example of the kind of community-based projects that Reflo’s getting involved in. Our interest is green infrastructure and water sustainability,” Hegarty says.

All of Reflo’s members are volunteers. Hegarty says they squeeze projects in between their day jobs. ”So we get to do this stuff nights and weekends, which means that we all really love it and are willing to do it,” he says.

Vedale Hill is one of the creative forces behind the painting of the shipping container.

“We created some rain barrels. We stenciled out with tape and the whole idea is that you’re educating people about water and planting. What it does is give them a fun way to learn,” he says.

Each person was asked a question: such as, how did Lake Michigan get its name, questions about Milwaukee’s brewing history, and an occasional serious topic, such as poverty statistics.

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“So you answer a question correctly and you get either a balloon filled with paint or you get to fill a sprayer with the color you want. And what’s happening is we’re working together to create this beautiful mural,” Hill says.

Hill and his brother created the Jazale Art Studio on North Martin Luther King Drive a few years ago.

“My brother Darren Hill just graduated from UW-Milwaukee in educational policy and nonprofit management. I’m a graduate of MIAD in integrated studio arts,” Hill says.

Their vision was to create a space where not only artists can flourish, but kids as well.

“We’re an after school and summer program for kids. They can be around professional artists and learn about the entrepreneurial elements, from selling art work, budgets, planning,” he says. Jazale’s is located in the neighborhood where he and his brother grew up.

“We grew up pretty rough,” he explains.

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Mikal Floyd-Pruitt and Vedale Hill share a moment of joy after painting is completed.

Hill says when he was a kid, his family moved more than 50 times. He and his brother want to offer neighborhood kids inspiration. "Our whole idea was to give the kids an opportunity at stability,” he says.

Fellow artist Mikal Floyd-Pruitt watches as people of all ages gleefully fire paint-filled balloons and water guns onto the shipping container. Rainbows of color fill the air. Floyd-Pruitt came up with today’s art scheme.

“One of the things with collaborative art is that it’s really the experience of working with people and learning from each other, that’s the important part. So if you can simplify the process, but it still feels important, you can’t ask for a better event,” Floyd-Pruitt says.

He grew up in Milwaukee, went off to study filmmaking at Harvard, and later, found himself drawn back.

“I was working on music, skateboarding around the city, trying to figure out how I wanted to engage and I think a lot of my other peers are finding the ways we want to be involved and how we can make impact,” Floyd-Pruitt says.

Along the way, Floyd-Pruitt’s reconnected with his elementary school classmate Charlie Uihlein.

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Charlie Uihlein kicks off reflection on the community service day activity.

When Uihlein's not teaching, he leads an after-school and summer entrepreneurship program, called Teen Grow Greens.

Uihlein refuses to take full credit for pulling together this artery extravaganza that not only features art and water harvesting, but composting and yoga.

“I think it worked because we had Reflo, we have Mikal. That’s the way we found it works. Teens Grow Greens is good at certain things, but we’re not at everything it takes to make a community service day. So that’s the formula for today, and I thought it really worked,” Uihlein says.

Kayla Davis is left breathless, and a bit paint-splattered by her artery experience.

She’s community engagement coordinator for Riverworks Development Corporation. Davis says she simply asked Charlie Uihlein to help put together a clean the hood event.

“I didn’t expect all of this. Charlie said 'oh we’re going to do a composting workshop' and then it turned into this,” Davis says.

Her Americorps position at Riverworks ends at the end of August. Davis hopes to keep working in the Harambee neighborhood where she grew up.

“I love being involved. Seeing the neighborhood that I grew up in turn into something completely different where we can come out and have peaceful events, it’s a beautiful thing,” Davis says.

As you hear this story of many people nurturing community and restoring am urban space, the City of Milwaukee is laying a cement trail and landscaping that will ribbon through the artery.

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Kayla Davis grew up in the Harambee neighborhood and says she loves being involved in its future.

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.
Michelle was named WUWM's digital manager in August of 2021.