Arijit Sen | Milwaukee, WI
I lived in five different places before middle school. My parents decided I needed a more stable school life, so my mother and I lived with my grandparents while I attended middle school. But then we moved again. I never had one city, one place, one building, one house that I called home.
I went to my undergraduate school in Mumbai and completed a professional degree in architecture. I then moved to New Delhi and worked as an architect for a couple of years. In architecture school, you believe the dream that you are going to be a famous architect. You are going to build these fantastic buildings. I finished my architectural studies in the United States, the Iowa State University for my masters, and University of California for my Ph.D.
Looking back, I think my interest in architecture had to do with the way I grew up. Architecture is about place, and I was very interested in what place and identity mean. I was drawn to the social aspects of architecture and the everyday places where we live. I wanted to understand how people shape the spaces where they live and how the physical spaces we live in shape people.
When I started teaching at the University of Wisconsin, I brought this interest in the cultural aspects of our environment with me. Along with Anna Andrzejewski. I started a Ph.D. research area called, ‘Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures.’ We were very interested in vernacular architecture, meaning architecture that relies on the use of local materials and local knowledge to design and construct our built environment. Our goal is to look at the physical world and to include the stories and needs of people whose voices are not always heard or whose stories are not always told. So, it’s kind of architecture from the bottom up. If our students were going to learn how to design buildings and public spaces, we believed it was important for them to understand and engage with the people using those spaces.
We started the ‘field school,’ an outdoor classroom with a focus on community-based learning. In the field school, we take our students to work collaboratively with community members. The first few field schools were in Mineral Point, then we moved the field school to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
School usually teaches that you need to solve problems. We want our students to un-learn that and teach them not to rush to a solution. Students learn to do that by interviewing people and collecting their personal stories—doing oral histories. For example, when you look at a neighborhood you may see that there are big potholes there. And there’s a broken house, broken porch, lots of garbage, and you kind of know it might be unsafe. We all know that, we learned it. But that visual, that kind of obvious way of seeing, renders the humanity and the vibrancy of that space invisible.
The first Milwaukee field school we did was in the Thurston Woods neighborhood. There I met many community leaders who basically told me the same thing. “If you study a neighborhood you have to be there for a long period of time. You can’t do the university thing of going to one place and another place.” We took this advice to heart. Then in the Washington Park neighborhood, I met the artist Muneer Bahauddeen. I walked into his office and he looked at me and he said, “Are you one of those intellectual carpetbaggers? University researchers who come in, collect all the stuff, and disappears?” He was pretty clear about it: “If you want to do something with us in our neighborhood you’ve got to stay.” And so, we committed to three years of working in the neighborhood, and I’m still there. I stayed.
I had never been somewhere long enough to create roots, so this whole idea of rootedness and place is what made me get interested in staying in Milwaukee and really investing my energy in the community.
We started the field school in 2012, a six-week summer class. Students conducted a thorough survey of the Washington Park and Sherman Park neighborhoods, some of Milwaukee’s most overlooked neighborhoods. They interviewed community residents to collect their oral histories. They also learned the stories of the buildings—since buildings can teach us the social and economic history of a neighborhood. We had the students photograph, measure, and document the buildings, parks, and vacant areas. We helped create a community archive. By the end of the course, the students took this information they gathered and built something the neighborhood needs.
Our first project was a shed. Two students were carpenters and they wanted to build a shed as rain weather protection for an outdoor market. So, they built one in a makeshift manner because we didn’t have the funds for good materials. One end of the shed was not tethered to the ground; it was just tied to the chain-link fence. Also, the university lawyers wouldn’t allow us to build a permanent structure, so the students put the posts in buckets of concrete. So, we figured, okay, it’s going to fall in a week.
The shed shook in the breeze. It became something to watch and talk about. It became part of the local story; people in the neighborhood would come out to see if the UWM student shed had finally blown away. Today, if you go back to that spot, the shed is painted and still in use. The entire area is set up, has sculptures and other community art; it is full of life. Before Covid, it was a gathering space with a farmers’ market, jazz, blues and dance performances. The shed wasn’t the reason for all of this, but building the shed was a catalyst for people to come together, to connect with their imaginations and transform this once dead space.
In the following years, we built benches, art installations, and garden planters. We made a seat next to a bus stop because people didn’t have a place to sit. We didn’t have money, so we decided to use cheap materials but make it look really nice. The first winter it started to sag—it looked terrible—but it still sits there. So, we learned something about craftsmanship, about success and failures, and that we will need to spend money on good supplies to make these projects last. When we use cheap materials for objects designed for poor people, we reproduce a story of decline and devaluing.
An important part of our program is that we stick to one place. Our students have the opportunity to work with community leaders and experience their persistence and tenacity as they try to create their vision for the neighborhood. They spend years immersed in a neighborhood. Over the semesters, these relationships deepened and took directions we never planned for.
Cheri Fuqua is an important community leader who we work with closely. Across from Cheri’s house is United Orchard, a park she created from vacant lots. The students built a porch with planters and seats that we placed along the edge of the yard. Our plan was to next build a trellis for the orchard. This time we fundraised and bought $1,000 worth of materials. The students put a lot of effort into it; they developed the plan and laid the foundation.
Then someone died in the neighborhood, and out of respect, we stopped working. Then one of our partners lost her son. And then the pandemic started and the semester ended. So, all our materials, these pieces of wood, just sat there. And I thought that was the end of it; nothing was going to happen with the trellis. Well, a few months later, three of the students that had graduated called me. They said, “Can you give me Cheri’s number?” And that’s all they said. Before I knew it they were working with some of the neighborhood guys and they built the trellis. They told me, “We started a project, and we want to finish it.
Wisconsin Humanities funded some of the work I did in Milwaukee and that led to my connection with John Greenwood. He was part of a citizen group that formed to reimagine Merrill, the group was concerned about Merrill’s decreasing population and other struggles.
John was interested in bringing the type of community-based learning we were doing through the UW-Milwaukee field school to Merrill. I really wanted to bring the stories of Cheri Fuqua, Camille Mays, and the other neighborhood community leaders we work with to other parts of the state. The stories of the people in Milwaukee’s inner cities are not heard enough around the state. There are also a lot of misconceptions about what is happening in these neighborhoods. From my years working in Milwaukee neighborhoods, I know there is a great deal that other communities can learn from Milwaukee. So, when John called me, I listened.
John came down to Milwaukee and joined us on a Jane’s Walk, a neighborhood walking tour that brings people together to tell the stories of their neighborhood. The idea of these walks is to join community leaders as they point out important sites of history and culture in their neighborhood and discuss what the neighborhood needs to be a healthy community.
Camille Mays, the founder of Peace Gardens Milwaukee, organized the walk. After the walk, John said to me, “You know, the issues are quite similar between Merrill and Milwaukee.” The cities share issues of aging, young people involved in juvenile court, loneliness, and a sense of being left behind by the economy. So that really cemented it for me. I was curious. I wanted to see if the methods we developed and used in Milwaukee would work somewhere else.
In Merrill, we worked with local citizen groups that organized a series of workshops. The first one was about brainstorming ideas. People told stories of local history and heritage and we realized that these are common experiences that could bring the community together. We could “make history do work for us!” We sat around in small groups and drew our ideas on butcher paper. In two hours, we had compiled a short story map of some historic and cultural places in the area. The enthusiasm and excitement in the room was palpable.
The second workshop was around community-led walks. We asked the community members, “Take us to all the places of heritage, or things that matter to you.” That day it snowed a lot. Teams of intrepid citizens trudged through the snow, undeterred, to bring us a story of a place that matters to them. One example is the Nicholas Family Bridge. A historically important driver of industry in Merrill had been transportation, and from the bridge, you can see both the Wisconsin River and the railroad that used to service the city. Logs were floated down the river, and the railroad was important to the city for many years. Now that the railroad line is no longer in use, the tracks were pulled out and it serves as a bike and hiking trail.
Many things resulted from these walks in Merrill: a reimagined River Walk with interpretive signs to tell local stories, a new park downtown, and even a middle school curriculum designed to help young people understand and value their hometown. Like many small towns, Merrill wants to find a way to draw more young people to move and stay in the city.
Working with the people in Merrill was incredible. Their energy was infectious. A striking similarity I noticed doing this work in Milwaukee and Merrill is that this is collective work. In both cities, people are digging in and staying in their communities and I think this reflects human beings’ power and ability to make change in their world.
The people I have worked with have shown me that this ability to build and sustain resilient communities, this persistent ability to maintain connections is at the core of what makes us human. My students and I have learned so much from the neighborhood residents we worked with. People understand the problems their communities face, what their communities are at risk of losing, and they have ideas for solutions. Collaborating with community leaders in Sherman Park, Washington Park and Merrill reminds me of a quote from the author Grace Lee Boggs: “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.