Last Friday evening I was able to step out of the office around 4:45pm, a little earlier than I usually do. It had been an exhausting, full week—the phone constantly ringing, coworkers needing me for this and that, new projects starting and old ones wrapping up. My job ebbs and flows with one day feeling very relaxed and the next feeling off-the-walls hectic. An issue will arise and in my line of work—where good people are faced with impossible circumstances compounded by a lack of housing—that issue usually needs to be handled immediately. So it was a week of immediate needs.
But when I finally got to lock the door of my office and step outside to the bus stop, I was met with a glorious sight: sunlight. Up here in the north, 95% of my workdays end in darkness, the sun having set by 5 or 5:10. On Friday, this was not the case. As I shuffled my feet fighting off the cold while I waited for the bus, I looked across the street at the hard concrete façade of the grand Rockwell Automation Headquarters and caught the sun gracing its corners at the most gorgeous angle. They don’t call it the “magic hour” for no reason. A layer of golden light seemed to have settled on the glass windows in a perfect, cascading arc. The neighborhood where I work, Walkers Point, is mostly industrial buildings and Rockwell is king of them all, so this massive representation of industry and mechanics looking beautiful was quite a sight to behold.
It reminded me that a change in perspective is sometimes exactly what we need in order to help us think about improving our cities.
One of the most basic examples of this is taking a walk. If you’ve never, for instance, walked to get your groceries, walked to work, or walked to drop your child off at school, it can be an utterly eye opening activity. Please try it. I guarantee you will find at least one building or view you’ve never noticed before. You might even run into a friend coming down the sidewalk. The differences between traveling from point A to point B in a car and walking to get from one place to another are numerous and significant. Biggest of all, you’re forced to interact with your city instead of viewing it from behind glass at high speeds (plus you get exercise and fresh air). You start to understand the delineations of neighborhoods, the need for green space and the history of the architecture around you. You start to comprehend what many of your neighbors go through every day if they cannot afford a car or choose not to use one for whatever reason. That change in perspective is invaluable.
For me, seeing that view of the sun hitting the Rockwell Automation building gave me a new perspective on all these hulking buildings, chain link fences and billowing smoke I am surrounded by in my office. They are, after all, a part of the city too, just as much as the trendy coffee shops in other neighborhoods. Historically, in towns across the country, residents and governments have tried to exile industrial buildings to the edge of their towns or put them outside the city limits altogether. That’s certainly why Rockwell is in this particular location on the south side of Milwaukee. However, this city has since grown up around the industrial zone so that now there are houses and schools just blocks away from auto-part factories and machine manufacturers.
Last week, that moment of sunlight made me I realize I kind of like this about Milwaukee. It’s not every city where you can actually see the industry that is helping your city run, the companies that your livelihood was built on—that generations of people have worked in to support their families. Most cities separate usage so strictly that you might never know where the factories in your town are, or if they exist at all. Now, obviously it’s no good to have toxic fumes wafting into schoolyards, but those fumes shouldn’t be permitted in any area of a city—no matter who’s is hanging around there. Ideally, parents who work in these factories can walk over and pick their kids up after school in a matter of minutes. How great is that?
Walkers Point has always been a solidly working class neighborhood, meaning that it is a neighborhood with jobs to do and affordable houses to live in. It is changing, no doubt; employment has moved overseas and upscale restaurants have begun to take advantage of the cheap, empty buildings in the neighborhood. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the neighborhood can grow without losing its history. Clearly, the Rockwell Automation Building isn’t going anywhere.
That’s a bit of a rambling way to say that a little sunlight can do a world of good in opening our eyes to the possibilities around us. And, as winter slowly fades, I know there’s more sunlight on the way.