Community Spotlight: Terry Witkowski and the Garden District

Located on Milwaukee’s far south side, lies the 13th Aldermanic District, fondly known as the Garden District. Serving as the city’s gateway from the airport and southern highways, it offers a distinct fusion of urban energy and natural serenity, shaping visitors’ first impressions of Milwaukee and Wisconsin. At the heart of the Garden District are two key features: ‘The Green Corridor,’ spanning three miles along South 6th St. from West Howard Ave. to West College Ave., and the community garden, situated at the north end of the corridor. These ambitious, eco-friendly projects enhance the area’s beauty while reinforcing its distinctive character. They also require the collaboration of individuals with foresight and commitment to bring them to fruition.

Enter Terry Witkowski, former 13th District Alderman and long-time district resident. Though not the sole architect of these efforts, Witkowski has significantly influenced the Garden District, elevating it into a symbol of community and sustainability. His leadership underscores the understanding that the success of the area is dependent on participation from a broad cross-section of the community. Read on to uncover the extent of Witkowski’s ongoing impact on the landscape of Milwaukee’s far south side.

“This was not a Terry Witkowski idea. This was basically Bryan Simon, and my only job was to recognize – here is a creative guy who wants to do something to improve the community, and I should back him in whatever way I can.”

Terry Witkowski

In 2008, then Alderman Witkowski, passed a resolution officially designating Milwaukee’s 13th Aldermanic District as the city’s Garden District. This rebrand fostered a heightened community spirit and attracted the active support of many local and national organizations, including the Garden District Neighborhood Association (GDNA), the Gateway to Milwaukee, Energy Exchange, several colleges, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD), Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, just to name a few. Vice Chairman of the GDNA, and local landscaping business owner, Bryan Simon proposed a bold plan to transform a portion of the district into a “green corridor.” His idea involved improving S. 6th St., creating a living laboratory to demonstrate how green technology and ingenuity are used to improve water quality, reduce stormwater runoff, save energy, and clean the air. Witkowski enthusiastically supported the proposal and authored the legislation to have the thoroughfare designated as the Green Corridor. The concept and execution were a true group effort. Witkowski emphasizes that the initiative wasn’t solely his, stating “This was not a Terry Witkowski idea. This was basically Bryan Simon, and my only job was to recognize – here is a creative guy who wants to do something to improve the community, and I should back him in whatever way I can.”

‘Green Corridor’ street signage sponsored by the Gateway to Milwaukee was installed along S 6th Street between Howard Ave and College Ave.

In 2011, the three-mile stretch of S. 6th St. from W. Howard Ave. south to W. College Ave. was officially designated “The Green Corridor” by the Milwaukee Common Council, as a bold showcase for sustainability, innovation, beautification, and community involvement. Today, the area is home to dozens of bioswales (featuring native plantings), permeable parking lots, bike lanes, green roofs, rain gardens, solar-powered bus shelters and signs, beekeeping, worm-casting operations, composting, solar flowers, an urban orchard, farmers market, community gardens, butterfly mounds and so much more. 

Situated at the furthest north point of the Green Corridor lies a parcel of county-owned land (3932-3998 S. 6th St). For years overgrown grass, weeds, and litter had turned the space into an eyesore, one that Witkowski himself candidly thought of as “the armpit of the district.” However, Simon and Witkowski recognized the space for what it could become, a key community asset. Fueled by a mix of private and public donations, GDNA support, and volunteer dedication, the duo’s ambitious vision of transforming a neglected space into a flourishing and environmentally friendly area was realized. Community members created raised garden beds and grants were secured to restore the stone/wood fence line, add a brick walkway, and install plantings along South 6th St. By 2012, brick and permeable concrete pavement was installed to create a 66-stall farmers market, which allows rainwater to flow through and enter the soil, keeping the water out of storm sewers. An urban orchard boasting 80 varieties of fruit trees, a 15,000 square foot permeable parking lot with a recycled rainwater system, and a solar flower to help provide electricity for the community gardens and farmer’s market were all completed in 2015.

Garden District Farmers Market and Permeable Pavement Parking Lot

Maintaining this renewed section of the corridor is no small feat, and for several years Witkowski took it upon himself to purchase a lawn mower and cut the grass. As GDNA chairman, he organized a neighborhood meeting to “Save the Gardens” in response to the community’s dwindling interest in maintenance. The support request was successful and sparked a neighborhood-led volunteer effort to revitalize the garden block. According to Witkowski they “now have a volunteer maintenance crew, two co-chairman and four teams of lawn cutters and trimmers.” The renewed dedication to the space brought about the multi-phase Garden Block Revitalization Project, which included replanting the gardens, constructing a large gazebo, installing butterfly mounds, and adding multiple sculptures and artistic site features. In May of 2024, the initiative was recognized with a ‘Mayor’s Design Award’ for creating an attractive, engaging, and meaningful community space for all to enjoy.

Terry Witkowski – Winter Wonderland Tree Lighting Event 2019

Utilized year-round, the Garden District community garden is a vibrant venue for hosting a multitude of community events. The farmers market, plant sales, ‘Movies in the Gardens,’ neighborhood clean-ups, rummage sales, trick-or-treating, ‘National Night Out,’ educational programs, and an array of performances are just a few of the many happenings that use the space throughout the year. One of the site’s most beloved initiatives, introduced and fostered by Witkowski, is the “Winter Wonderland” display and tree lighting event. Each winter, the community garden area is transformed into a magical landscape, complete with twinkling lights, festive decorations, and a range of activities that celebrate the season. What began as a way to repurpose unwanted Christmas lights and decorations has evolved into a must-see holiday experience. “The intent was to reuse the donated lights to make the annual tree lighting brighter, however, the response was so great that the neighborhood association decided to decorate as much of the block as possible,” Witkowski shared. “We started getting sponsorships, buying some new stuff, and I actually donated a whole bunch. I would go to every Stein’s I could find after Christmas. I couldn’t help myself, it’s fun,” he chuckled.

In tribute to his predecessor, current 13th District Alderman Scott Spiker initiated a resolution calling for the honorary naming of W. Norwich St. adjacent to the community garden. “Terry takes great pride in bringing people together to get things done for the betterment of the Garden District and for the City of Milwaukee as a whole,” said Spiker. “A lot of the work I do builds on the foundation he laid.” On March 19, 2024, the Common Council officially designated the one-block stretch as “Alderman Terry L. Witkowski” recognizing his significant impact and lasting legacy within the district.

“Terry takes great pride in bringing people together to get things done for the betterment of the Garden District and for the City of Milwaukee as a whole.”

13th District Alderman Scott SpikeR

The enduring success of the Green Corridor and the Garden District hinges on the spirit of volunteerism fostered by leaders like Witkowski. As he looks to the future, Witkowski emphasizes the importance of community involvement in preserving the district’s sustainable legacy. “The objective is to make it as Bryan [Simon] initially envisioned it – something that the community wanted and the community stays involved in,” Witkowski reflects. As it continues to evolve, the Garden District stands as proof of the transformative power of collective action and shared dedication to enhancing local communities. 

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