(Photos by Sue Vliet)
A new satellite facility of the Urban Ecology Center, to be built on the site of an old tavern on the 3700 block of W. Pierce Street, will offer neighborhood schoolchildren and residents a place to learn about the environment. On a recent weekday, dignitaries, children and local residents gathered for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Urban Ecology Center’s (UEC) Menomonee Valley Branch.
The center is the latest project reconnecting the valley to Silver City, its neighbor to the south. Though side-by-side, Silver City and the Menomonee Valley had long been cut off from each other. The valley, originally a wetland and home to several Native American tribes, became the industrial hub of a bustling Milwaukee in the mid- to late 1800s. Eventually, however, it became a vast, polluted brownfield, accessible to no one. Not anymore.
The center is part of a $26 million strategic plan to revitalize the Menomonee Valley. Already completed is the Hank Aaron State Bridge, one of three bridges that eventually will connect surrounding neighborhoods, including Clarke Square, to the valley.
The $2 million center, which was funded mainly by the Burke Foundation of Milwaukee, will be the UEC’s third facility in Milwaukee, joining the Washington Park and Riverside Park centers. The UEC is a neighborhood-based environmental education center specializing in teaching children, hands on, about the natural world that surrounds them.
Though the center will be in Silver City, most programs will take place outdoors, in a 24-acre park made of redeveloped brownspace in the valley.
“We will have neighborhood children here every day on field trips, learning about ecological science,” said Ken Leinbach, executive director.
Leinbach added that the branch would host free activities for adults and families on the weekends.
According to Mick Hatch, president of Menomonee Valley Partners Inc., the revitalization has already led to 33 businesses moving back to the area, creating 4,200 jobs.
Neighborhood residents are looking forward to having somewhere to take the kids.
“I have two grandsons, 10 and 13, that I plan to take there all the time,” said Debra Galarza, a 30-year Silver City resident.
The valley will be accessible through a small winding trail, which sits beside the site of the new center, a project that many hope will have a major impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
“Strategic investments in anchor foundations can become catalysts for changes in neighborhoods,” said Journey House CEO Michele Bria.
One of those changes could be more active neighborhood children.
Melissa Cook, trail manager of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, said that some kids can’t walk a quarter mile without stopping to catch their breath. Others are so out of tune with nature, they’re petrified of butterflies.
“We need to help kids feel more comfortable outdoors; it is a place of great refuge and happiness,” Cook said.
Beth Heller, senior director of education at the UEC, agrees and said that the park will be an ideal place to reconnect neighborhood youths to the environment.
“They can stay healthy by moving around while being engaged in science-based learning,” Heller said.
Heller added that the center also plans to start a Young Scientists Club there.
Leticia Cerda, a resident of Silver City, said that her daughter had talked about volunteering at another neighborhood organization, but then heard the UEC was moving into the neighborhood.
“She can come here now, to the park, instead of being in the streets.”