Milwaukee County Parks. A vast collection of parcels of land which, once upon a time, served no purpose other than being parcels of land.

One of the earliest examples of building up a park little by little is the 1.2-acre plot of land that sits on Milwaukee’s south side, Clarke Square Park (2300 W. Vieau Pl.) Over time, neighborhood residents planted trees and flowers, and eventually a fountain was installed; the original plumbing system is still used for the splash pad that exists there today. Although it had been closed since before the pandemic, the Clarke Square Park splash pad is among those that Milwaukee County Parks are reopening for summer 2024.

Parks are not only communal spaces where people can gather and grill or have festivals and fundraisers, they’re tools to better the surrounding community. Friends Groups are community-based organizations that advocate for these parks by planning events and making sure the parks are utilized.

Weekly cleanups are one of the easiest events to pull off, and one that Friends Groups almost always organize. Tom Sudol, a parks worker, recently called me to say how all county parks workers appreciate the cleanups, how they make their jobs easier, and how they allow them to focus on other issues.

Although fundraising is not the main component of a Friends Group’s activities, it is integral to their success. According to The Park People, fiscal sponsorship of Friends Groups can provide:

• A Sound, Experienced Financial Partner
• Tax-Deductible Donations
• Donation Acknowledgements
• Project Financial Management
• Tax-Free Labor and Materials
• Quarterly Reports
• Annual Audit
• Raffle License
• Web Presence

The Milwaukee County Parks system has an Equity Index; parks that score higher are in more urgent need of resources and repairs. One of the main squeezes the parks feel is when roadways and parking lots have to be repaired, as they are massive undertakings when it comes to repaving, and when demands from neighbors are expressed. Apart from this, budget allocations are not sufficient to cover staff, maintenance, and improvements.

The south side is home to fairly large parks in the system, two of them being Jackson Park (3500 W. Forest Home Ave.) and Mitchell Park (524 S. Layton Blvd.) Even with all of the parks on the south side, the only Friends Group is for Walker Square (1031 S. 9th St.) Mitchell and Clarke are two parks that score high on the Equity Index, and although they are only six blocks apart, the neighborhoods are very different. A Friends Group would consist of residents from around the area, and different activities would create attention.

Mitchell Park

One example of a different activity is Optimist Theatre’s Shakespeare in the City, which has extended its outreach and is holding some events in south side parks, Clarke Square being one of them (June 22). Events like these make the parks more active, which means more eyes in the park, which means great things for the surrounding communities. The parks are a tool for public safety—Pulaski and Burnham parks have had massive upgrades in the last few years, and have seen a 43% drop in violent crime. More legitimate activity makes it harder for illegitimate activity to thrive.

When there is more activity and attention on a park, the conversation can move forward, and it is a lot easier to get money for capital projects and improvements. If you want a new playground, if you want more trash cans, if you want to see concerts like they have in Humboldt Park and Cathedral Square, talk to your neighbors. Start a Friends Group. Your community will ascend.

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About The Author

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Juan Miguel Martinez is a writer from the south side of Milwaukee. He only writes until he can land a role as the mechanic friend of the handsome lead in a telenovela. His favorite movie is Repo Man.