Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wandering Milwaukee

Cities are intrinsically cool. Why? Because there are people scurrying hither and yon who live there, amid tall buildings, traffic, energy, restaurants, and history. We relish dynamism and bigness, diversity, style, and the occult. Blade Runner and the Emerald City meet, and let’s face it, you’re not in Kansas anymore, not at work, but hoofing around in some glamorous place where deals are done, money is spent, drinks are drunk… Some effort has been made to beautify, generate an ethos, create an impression.

Glamorous? Milwaukee?

We went to find out.   

It’s hard to judge the size or “weight” of a city at first glance. Looking at Milwaukee, with its East and its West, I was immediately convinced that it’s bigger than Minneapolis. But that isn’t true. (I was surprised to read later, online, that Minneapolis ranks fifth in the US in skyscrapers, after New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and a few other towns… So much for the internet.)

What Milwaukee has that Minneapolis doesn’t have is wide, beautiful boulevards.  It also has a Great Lake to look out on. It has an intimate river snaking through it (unlike the mighty Mississippi) and a warehouse district (the historic Third Ward) that retains vestiges of its blue collar roots.

There is little point in pursuing a comparison between the two cities, which probably don’t have much in common, and don’t want to. The point is that if you’re from Minneapolis, you can have some fun wandering Milwaukee for a few hours.

We had the good fortune to book a room in the cozy County Clare Inn a few blocks west of the big lake, a few blocks north of the Milwaukee Art Museum. This room was considerably above our standard, with 13-foot ceilings and a whirlpool bath. But with two nights of camping and a Priceline motel deal behind us, we were still on budget. Throw in free parking and a breakfast omelet made by a mustachioed gentleman with a French accent, and who’s complaining?

After admiring the statue in Juneau Park and glancing down the hill at Lake Michigan and the striking metal “wings” in front of the art museum, we headed up Wisconsin Avenue.

This is a very fine street, hardly marred by the fact that the world’s ugliest building, The US Bank Building, faces it from the south.

This building was designed by the Bengali architect Fazlur Rahman Khan, the “father” of tubular construction—a  method that has made possible an entire generation of ugly but very tall buildings, including the Sears Tower in Chicago. Looking at the US Bank building reminds one of Filene’s Basement—cookie-cutter functional cross-bracing without a hint of aesthetic appeal. (The John Hancock Building ain’t so great, either.)

The nearby Wells Fargo building, though it carries a whiff of Phillip Johnson-esque pre-post-modern historical allusion, is fairly handsome, and to some natives it might even call to mind the 14-story Pabst “skyscraper” that previously stood on the same spot.

But the main thing about Wisconsin Avenue is how wonderfully wide it is. It’s almost a boulevard. It might even have flowering trees. There are other interesting buildings here and there, but the overall tone is historic and even genteel, rather than fast-paced or futuristic. It’s a nice street. One you want to walk down.

Then you come to the Milwaukee River, which has been made into a Riverwalk. It seems they’re still working on that. Construction everywhere. Many sidewalks and restaurants closed. But if you head south along the river and dip under the freeway, weaving and bobbing your way on foot, you’ll come at last to the Historic Third Ward, anchored by the Milwaukee Public Market.

This building houses a number of festive food stalls, which will remind some visitors of the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles or the West Side Market in Cleveland, though on a much smaller scale. It’s a great lunch stop—no doubt about that.

A few blocks west through some handsome warehouse structures will lead you to the river again, where half-empty tour boats take conventioneers downstream or upstream past breweries beyond number. It’s all in good fun.

We wandered upstream to the park where Father Jacques Marquette may have camped for four night in the early 1670’s.(If you've read the Jesuit Relations from the period, or even Francis Parkman's synopsis of the era, you'll know how far mosquito control has advanced since those times.) 

We were camping on the Rock River two nights earlier, just south of Horicon Marsh, where Indians had camps for countless generations. The frogs were peeping, and as we sat by the fire, Hilary spotted a great horned owl drop down into the trees on the far side of the river. It delivered its five-note hoot, and I could see its white necklace with binoculars in the dim evening light.

We should have gone into the elegant, triangular Wisconsin Historical Society building near the park, but we really didn’t want to look at exhibits. We were heading for the Turner Hall a few blocks away, past a street or two of slightly run-down German restaurants.

The Hall was closed, though we wandered upstairs as far as we could, and saw the famous beer stein collection through the glass in the bar. Such Old World associations are kind of corny, but they’re also cool, especially when you consider that the Public Market is brand new, and Pere Marquette Park was called Zeidler Union Square a mere fifty years ago. The Turner Hall has been going strong since 1883, and in various ways its gymnasium, beer hall, meeting rooms, and two-story ballroom continue to promote the Turner ideal of a sound mind and a sound body—through exercise, right reason, and beer.

After a restorative Starbucks coffee, we headed back down to the art museum on the waterfront. I found the Calatrava entry and foyer to be antiseptic—exactly what fine art shouldn’t be. I tried my best to get the receptionist to let us in on the strength of our Minneapolis Art Institute membership—reciprocity and all that—but she utterly failed to rise to the occasion. So we saved $34 and walked around the front of the building, then up the hill through the nice grass, then down the street to our lovely inn.

The evening light was golden. From the restaurant we watched people pass riding mountain bikes, carrying yoga mats. (Gone are the days of the boom-box, perhaps.) The corned beef and cabbage was far inferior to what my mother (nee McIlvenna) used to make, but it was good enough.

One last wander through the neighborhood. We're looking forward to a bike ride along the coast in the morning.        

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spring Warbler Migration - Wood Lake

For many birders, the arrival of the warblers every spring is the peak of the birding year. Colorful and diverse, but also tiny and often very active amid the higher branches, many warblers remain elusive, and often difficult to identify. They’re also fleeting. Their arrival is their departure, to a large degree. Many species are just passing through on their way to nesting grounds further north.

The myrtle warbler is the first to arrive, and they’ve been in the Twin Cities for several weeks now at least. It’s easy to admire the first three or four you see, but they soon become so numerous that the thrill palls. All the same, I saw one this morning that was dazzling; the light must have been just right.

This morning Hilary and I ventured down to Wood Lake Nature Preserve in Richfield, to see if the broader migration of warblers had gotten underway in earnest. It has.

We were hardly inside the gate when Hil spotted a black-and-white climbing zig-zag fashion up the thick bark of a cottonwood tree. Not long afterward we saw our first yellow warbler (pictured above). Bright yellow with beady black eye and subtle orange stripes on the chest. Yellow warblers tend to look youthful and energetic. I might even go so far as to call them “dashing.”

As we made our way around the north east end of the lake other species made their appearance one by one. They weren’t present in floods, like they are in some years. But one or two is plenty, especially if you get a good look. We came upon a common yellowthroat amid the cattails, redstarts here and there, and a chestnut-sided warbler off in the southeast corner of the park where the touch-and-smell trail for the seeing impaired used to be.  

I heard five or six northern parulas and spotted one high up in a poplar. Well, it wasn’t an exceptional sighting. Perhaps our most unusual sighting was of a Canada warbler, with his yellow chest and pale black necklace. The best sighting—fantastic bird, fantatic view—was of a magnolia warbler, which is a sort of super-myrtle, with yellow chest, mask, black necklace, broad white wing-bar, and white band on the underside of the trail.

Though the warblers were the main attraction, there were other new arrivals, too. The Baltimore orioles were everywhere, singing their honeyed songs. And we also got a very good look at a blue-headed vireo. We were approaching the visitors’ center on our way back to the car when I spotted a nondescript warbler-like bird poking around in the dirt on the side of the path. The coloration was obvious—green-gray back, grayish underside, faint line across the eye. But the name didn’t come. And then it did.

I don’t want to keep you guessing. It was a Tennessee warbler. In the gray morning light the colors were more vivid than normal, which had me fooled…and you don’t often see them on the ground.

On our little morning escapade we’d netted perhaps a fifth of the warblers we might possibly have seen. That’s not bad for an hour walk in the woods.

A brief visit to Hyland Park Reserve in early afternoon was quieter, though we did come upon three palm warblers on the path in front of the nature center. On our way home we pulled into the parking lot at Hyland Lake on a whim, and almost immediately came upon a beautiful Nashville warbler in a small tree at eye level. That perfect eye-ring! And a wonderful transition from greenish back to gray head, terminating abruptly at the white “chin.”

We took a short stroll along the lake, vowing to return on another occasion to explore the other side of the park, which is tucked up against the ski hills. We climbed to a ridge and on the way back down to the parking lot had one final surprise—a blue-gray gnatcatcher!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Finding Vivian Meiers

 Nearly everyone takes photographs. But they’re usually of the kids’ birthday parties, summer vacations at the lake, sunlit frost on the trees—and more recently, the Rueben sandwich you were served at the Modern Times CafĂ© yesterday. Vivian Meiers, a reclusive Chicago nanny, took roughly a roll of film every day for decades, though she developed very few of the negatives. They turned out to be more interesting.

In 2009, a young man named John Maloof bought a case of the recently deceased and entirely unknown woman’s negatives at auction for $384, hoping that the Chicago street scenes would be a useful complement to a local history he was writing. Taking a closer look, he became convinced that Vivian Meiers was a great photographer, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Atget, Carier-Bresson, Robert Frank, or Diane Arbus. He presents his case in the documentary Finding Vivian Meiers.  I, for one, am convinced.

The film consists of interviews with the various wealthy families that employed Meiers at one time or another, and the children (now adults) who were in her care. Famous photographers on the order of Joel Meyerowitz also receive extended screen time. Maloof tells us how he acquired the material, the steps he took to research Meier’s family and her years spent with relatives in France, and the difficulties he encountered interesting leading photography curators in Meier’s work.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are stills Meier took on the streets of Chicago, remarkable for their balance, oddness, handling of light and dark, and warmth. Meier isn’t trying to deliver a harsh critique of the alienation of modern urban life or take us beyond what photographers have done before. Rather, she’s picking up on the beauty and particularity of individual moments, individual lives.

As the film progresses, the talking points are several. Did Meiers know she was great? Did she care? Is that what we should worry ourselves about—her stature? Or is it enough to see life with renewed freshness through the eyes of an “unknown craftsman."?

Would she be happy to know she's finally getting a degree of recognition? Would she care? Or was it enough to see and admire and capture a thousand little moments, drawing out the flickers of genius in others many of whom were starring in their own little dramas, unknown to the world, unrecognized?

The Minneapolis Photo Center had a show of Vivian Meier's work recently, and it was so popular they now have a permanent exhibit of her work on display.