Smack in the middle of Milwaukee, there is a 124-acre oasis designed by the architect who built Central Park in New York. There is a huge Art Deco bandshell and a sinuous lake, a vast swimming pool, a neat public library, and a giant bronze monument of two great German poets that is an exact copy of one in Weimar, not to mention the equestrian statue of General von Steuben. New Yorkers would be rollerblading through this park, lying half-dressed on its lawns and hauling poodles along its paths. Germans would open a beer garden under its oaks and bring Bach to the bandshell. But this is Milwaukee, and no one talks about Washington Park.
In Washington Park, you forget about 35th Street to the east, Highway 41 to the west, Vliet Street to the south, and North Avenue to the north. You are in an idyll untouched since the Ice Age. Then you notice the perfect curve of a hillside and the copse of trees cocked like a hat and you remember that every detail, every knoll and boulder, was placed just-so not by Mother Nature but by Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterful mind and a new machine called the steam shovel. This is a colossal example of what the Greeks called mimesis, the imitation of natural forms, which, to Plato, was the mother of art.
The sensual pleasures of the park haven’t faded since it opened in 1891. The breeze still moves in the treetops and ducks still scoot under the footbridge to the island in the lake. What’s missing is the people. True, the Washington Park Zoo is defunct, with Samson the Gorilla now a taxidermied curiosity in the Public Museum. The flock of deer donated by Gustav Pabst is gone, as is any trace of the bighorn sheep sent to Milwaukee by the Canadian government or the 5000-ton Lannon stone mountain that was their manmade home. A lot of things that made people come are gone — concerts are infrequent, and you won’t find one organ grinder or crackerjack vendor. Still, the sad decline of the neighborhood and — yes, dear online reader — the rise of the almighty Screen are the main reasons Washington Park is silent.
It seems square to write about a park. Parks are the sort of things real estate ladies use to sell a neighborhood to newcomers, like good public schools (what?) and fresh asphalt pavement. But this is Milwaukee, a city full of wormholes to odd corners of the world. Look a little deeper at Washington Park and you see not only the candy-striped, gilded-age America of Pollyanna and Benjamin Harrison but a funky, forgotten Milwaukee in its Germanic heyday.
In 1891, no one was particularly embarrassed to be German in Milwaukee, and a lot of Germans were here. Lutheran church steeples stuck up like bayonets from the industrial landscape and the Muttersprache droned out from pulpits and in classrooms. A newspaper called Germania, published on the banks of the Milwaukee River, had the largest circulation of any German-language paper in the world. At the Pabst Theater, imported Ruritanian madonnas sang Strauss. That would all change with the First World War, but in 1908, it was Goethe, the epic poet, and his younger contemporary J.C.F. von Schiller, the author of Ode to Joy, whom Milwaukeeans wanted to survey their park from a plinth overlooking the bandshell. These men and their works are as German as Luther and the Lutherbibel, and the citizens who planted them here may as well have been planting a flag.
When you stand near the statue today, you think of what a century has wrought. You appreciate the play of the poets’ hands over the laurels they lift together and grin at their heroic scowls, which now seem quaint. You contemplate the German quote tacked to the monument in recent decades by some thoughtful souls: “Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.” A loose translation: “What we inherit from our fathers, we must make our own, or it remains a mere appendage.” That, rather too appropriately, comes from Faust.