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A group gathered in the Lincoln Creek Greenway

Lincoln Creek: A Vital Summit and a Visual Tour

July 25, 2022  |  Topics: Places, Spotlight

By Eddee Daniel

I walk away from the busy road where my car is parked and down a freshly groomed earthen trail that threads along the top of a steep slope. At the bottom, now that I am away from the road, I hear water gurgling softly over stones in the creek. After a short hike in the shade of a tree canopy that arches over the trail, I emerge upon a hilltop overlooking a bucolic—and remarkably secluded—expanse of lush green meadowland dotted with bright yellow wildflowers. The creek winds away through the middle of it into the distance. A breathtaking vista of the natural world, so simple, so unexpected.

A panoramic view of Hopkins Hollow.

It is the quintessential urban wilderness experience—one that I have sought and described often in my effort to convey the wealth of nature in our metropolitan region, of which I never tire. But the real surprise in this case is finding it here in the heart of Milwaukee’s north side—a section of the city with the unfortunate distinction of having little immediate access to nature. The trail is new (see the story about the creation of the trail), as is an effort by Nearby Nature MKE to revitalize and transform the long-neglected, trash-strewn pocket into vibrant, accessible community parkland.

An aerial view of Hopkins Hollow, located between N. Hopkins St. (on the left) and the 30th Street Corridor rail yards (on the right). Lincoln Creek meanders through the middle.
A Nearby Nature MKE and Northwest Side Community Development Corp sponsored tour of Hopkins Hollow.

This 20-acre parcel, known (so far unofficially) as “Hopkins Hollow,” along with the larger watershed of Lincoln Creek, was the subject of a recent summit meeting entitled “Lincoln Creek Greenway” sponsored by Nearby Nature. It was held at Havenwoods State Forest, which was fitting because Lincoln Creek runs through the property. Eighteen stakeholder organizations were involved (see the Summit program booklet). Among the many distinguished presenters was WDNR Secretary Preston Cole, emblematic, it seems to me, of the importance of the initiative.

The Education Center (background) at Havenwoods State Forest is where the Lincoln Creek Summit was held.
A family of sandhill cranes at Havenwoods State Forest, which is indeed a haven for wildlife as well as people in the community who seek the solace of nature right in the heart of urban Milwaukee.

Plans for the Greenway are expected to follow, on a smaller scale, the model of the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition, including things like remediation projects, trail development and access improvement, wildlife habitat restoration, signage, and public and municipal policy issues. However, the one theme that clearly dominated the conversation during the Summit was community engagement. “The community benefits mentally, physically, and also spiritually when they connect with nature,” says Martina Patterson, Arts and Youth Educator for Nearby Nature MKE.

Drummer Jahmes Finlayson welcomes arriving participants to the Lincoln Creek Greenway Summit. Photo by Kimani
WIDNR Secretary Preston Cole cozies up to a resident (stuffed) bear at the Summit. Photo by Kimani Winfield.

It is an underserved community in great need of this connection, according to Summit organizers. “Nearby Nature focuses a lot of its efforts on the Lincoln Creek Greenway,” says Steven Hunter, Nearby Nature MKE Program Director, “which is located in predominantly African American neighborhoods, and the organization seeks to engage local residents in this natural area. Many are unaware of the creek and haven’t seen it since it’s been naturalized, and many don’t know that it’s a natural greenway, mistaking it as a sewer run off. Much of our work seeks to reconnect neighbors to this area and help people recognize it as a greenway with history behind it.”

Summit participants took a tour of Havenwoods State Forest. Here they observe tiny frogs and blooming pickerel weed in a pond outside the Education Center.
A Nearby Nature led tour of Havenwoods pauses at the Lincoln Creek bridge.

The Lincoln Creek Greenway is far larger than Hopkins Hollow and has a storied history. The creek drains a 21-square-mile completely urbanized watershed. Historic flooding problems led, first, to the channelization of the natural waterway. When the concrete channel proved to be an inadequate solution to flooding as well as a degradation of the natural environment, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District undertook a massive rehabilitation project. After years of planning, demolition and reconstruction, which involved moving over 2.1 million cubic yards of earth, the creek was re-naturalized with more open views, greater access, and improved security.

An aerial view of the west side of Havenwoods State Forest. Tree-lined Lincoln Creek can be seen meandering alongside three ponds, which function as flood-water detention basins during heavy storm rainfalls.
A re-naturalized section of Lincoln Creek near 60th Street. Before the restoration project this was a concrete channel.

In addition to enhancing the creek’s natural beauty, the project also improved water quality, helped restore, stabilize and protect eroding banks; and reestablished suitable habitats for fish, birds and other wildlife. With these significant physical improvements in place, the time was ripe for Nearby Nature and others to work towards greater community engagement.

Efforts to encourage greater community engagement include guided tours of the Greenway and…
…regular clean ups, not only to get rid of accumulated trash and debris but also instill a sense of pride and stewardship within the neighborhoods surrounding the greenway.

Among the strengths of the Lincoln Creek Summit, according to a number of participants, was the involvement of young people. In a follow-up email, Danitra Jones of the Northwest Side Community Development Corp told me, “The best part of the Summit was being able to interact with the youth from the Wild Indigo Youth Group. Hearing and understanding the importance of the youth perspective on environmental learning and talking about economic disparities that youth of color face when entering environmental spaces where people of color are the minority.” Seeing women of color represented during the presentations, she added, “got the youth excited about continuing their engagement and learning opportunities around land stewardship and environmental justice within their community.”

Interns in the Great Lakes Audubon – Wild indigo program liven up the event with their youthful energy.
Photo by Kimani Winfield.

Followers of The Natural Realm know that I am passionate about exploring and promoting nearby nature (uncapitalized). It is therefore a great treat to be involved with Nearby Nature (capitalized) in its efforts to bring long-overdue attention to the Lincoln Creek Corridor. Leah Holloway, Program Manager for Milwaukee Riverkeeper and a Summit participant, summed it up nicely: “The Greenway project will restore Lincoln Creek to its rightful place as an urban community treasure.”

Continuing the Visual Tour of Lincoln Creek

A community garden in vacant lots along a residential block backs up to Lincoln Creek at 64th Street.
For several blocks west of 35th Street the Lincoln Creek corridor is squeezed between the divided lanes of W. Congress Street, seen here from the 37th Street pedestrian bridge looking west.
Controlling invasive species such as this Japanese knotweed are among the challenges in the effort to manage a more vibrant greenway.
A short section of Lincoln Creek is already identified by Milwaukee County Parks with the term “Greenway.” It includes a spur of the Oak Leaf Trail, which terminates here at W. Cameron Avenue.
A very yellow Lincoln Creek Greenway near 25th Street.
Meaux Park is Lincoln Creek’s last stop before flowing into the Milwaukee River at Lincoln Park. Here a cricket match is underway in the park.
Paddlers head upstream near the confluence of Lincoln Creek with the Milwaukee River in Lincoln Park.

Related stories:

Lincoln Creek Greenway: Pocket of Paradise

Trailblazers aim to bring nature back to Milwaukee’s 30th Street Corridor neighborhood

WUWM 89.7: Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee is the result of ‘healing’ after a military past

Nearby Nature: Greenway Gratitude and Next Steps

For more information about Havenwoods State Forest go to our Find-a-Park page.

Notes about the photographs:

All images are mine except as noted. Following the Summit, I explored sections of Lincoln Creek that I hadn’t seen before and added images of the creek and greenway to my existing archive. The photos that accompany this story are a combination of new and older ones.

Photographer Kimani Winfield documented the Lincoln Creek Summit. You can see an album of his photos on the Nearby Nature Facebook page.

Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks.