(Note: it's Tuesday night. I should have some shots of the park in overload after Thursday evening.)
It's obvious to anyone who's been there in the last few years: Jazz in the Park has outgrown its Cathedral Square home.
The weekly summertime event has become so popular that it's virtually impossible to move around in the park on Thursday evenings. I'm all for urban events that bring people together; large gatherings are part of the excitement of urban living. But in this case, there's a downside to this overwhelmingly dominant use of the park: namely, every other use of the park, every other day of the week.
Cathedral Square, as it currently stands, is definately not one of the world's great urban spaces. Heck, it's not even one of Milwaukee's finer urban moments. Oh, it's got potential, but it needs a complete makeover to reach it.
The park is not particularly inviting or friendly; it fails to provide the sense of enclosure and separation from the surrounding city that mark the best urban parks (see: Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Union Square Park in Manhattan, and the sadly-underutilized Zeidler Park in Milwaukee.) It's not a place that people seek out because it's special, but rather simply because it's convenient. On a fine lunchtime at noon, or after 5pm on a beautiful Friday, the park generally hosts only a handful of visitors. This has been my experience with the park every time I've been by it over the past six years. Unless you've got a kid on the tot lot, there's just not much reason to hang around there.
So what's the problem? At a glance, Cathedral Square Park has no internal destinations -- no central plaza, very little permanent seating, no designed space that draws people into it and invites them to linger, no sense of circulation that tempts you to wander. Even when I have taken a walk through the park, there's no sense of entry or arrival; I just reached the other side and went on my way. And it was not till I took a close look at the Jazz in the Park stage that I realized: there actually IS a fountain underneath there.
What an apt metaphor for the reduction of the park to this single use!
The walkways that do exist are shabby -- cheap and aging asphalt paths that clearly state that this is a space nobody cares about. Instead of wasting money installing special paving at intersections, why not do something like that here -- in a space that's made for pedestrians, where a fine scale of detail will actually be appreciated?
A random scattering of loose picnic tables completes the picture of Cathedral Square as a space that exists soley to serve Jazz in the Park, with all other uses being an incidental afterthought.
Cathedral Square was once Courthouse Square, a half-block plaza with the Milwaukee County Courthouse at its north end. The Courthouse was demolished long ago, but its imprint remains on the park, which was never re-designed to deal appropriately with its revised circumstances. Where the Courthouse once stood is now an undifferentiated field of grass, lined with a couple of walkways. It is neither a grand promenade, nor, with its north and east sides left open and undefined, a great lawn.
The park has a a front (the north side, along Kilbourn) and a back (the south, along E. Wells), and two sides, but it's oriented completely wrong. If there has to be a front -- and there really shouldn't be -- it should face the Cathedral. The park barely responds to the impressive Cream City brick spire, however; only the placement of the fountain seems to acknowledge it, and even it reads more like a coincidence than an intentional choice.
There should likewise be a strong response to the cluster of restaurants at the southwest corner. With its cluster of old-growth trees and outdoor restaurant seating right across the street, this is actually the nicest space in the park, but it's treated like the butt end:
The north end of the park begs for some sense of shelter and enclosure, some protection from the street parking and the rather brutal MSOE buildings across the street, which are too harsh to be cozy and yet too short to define the edge of the park's space. This edge needs shrubs, trees, half-walls, earthen enmbankments, something. The grass field doesn't have to go away; it just needs to have its borders reworked.
The point of all this is to make Cathedral Square a space that's so nice, so appealing, it becomes a destination in itself, not just a platform for an event that happens once a week for three months of the year. Such is the highest and best use of an urban park -- a place that is filled with people at all times of day, there for multiple reasons.
So where could Jazz in the Park go? My suggestions would be either nearby Veterans Park, which has no shortage of open space, or the long-languishing MacArthur Park in front of the current Milwaukee County Courthouse.
The problem with both suggestions is that the event is organized by the East Town Association, which has every reason in the world to keep it right where it is. The hordes which decend on the park every Thursday evening undoubtably bring a great deal of business to the restaurants that cluster near the park. Both of my alternative locations have almost no businesses nearby, and neither is likely to develop them any time soon.
But with Jazz in the Park regularly packed to bursting, and crushing the park under its weight, it's past time to consider options.