Dominic Inouye: On the art of community at Walnut Way’s Harvest Day
I certainly have had my share of summer festivals focused on music, art, and beer. The mid-September Harvest Day at Fondy Park and Market, however, stole the show – and there wasn’t even any beer.
Who needs beer when you have bumpy bitter melon and berry-like bitter eggplants, dahlias the size of a cantaloupe, poetry, dancing, and fearless black boys flying through the air in Lindsay Heights? My euphoric smile felt like the same one I sported when I unofficially rode a set of laps during this summer’s Riverwest 24. Something about both of these experiences prompted unexpected joy and warmth.
On September 14, the Walnut Way Conservation Corps celebrated its 19th annual festival on a sunny 75-degree summer afternoon. Everywhere I walked, organizers and supporters sported soccer shirts featuring the official poster image of four community members, young and old, leaping into the air in tops and bottoms patterned with a harvest of colorful eggplants, peppers, and carrots. A bounty of other fruits and vegetables rains down on the Fondy Park stage. Thankfully, the image’s cornucopia rain was the only one that Saturday.
The theme this year was “Celebrating the Art of Community,” and even though one could witness children and adults painting in two of the sponsors’ tents, the painted faces of children navigating the crowd or new murals being unveiled before installation at Walnut Way, Harvest Day created something even more transcendent than art: community.
For almost two decades, Walnut Way has envisioned a Lindsay Heights community of “successful businesses run by residents, parks filled with neighbors, bountiful gardens, festivals and art at a neighborhood scale.” It also asks us to imagine residents who “have access to quality education, health care, technical support and investment,” elders who are “remembered and consulted” and children who are “cherished and guided.” The annual Harvest Day evidences this vision in action.
Of course, the Fondy Market, running for over 100 years, is a shining example of a “bountiful garden” offering equitable access to healthy food. The late-summer harvest of tomatoes and potatoes, eggplants and beets, squash of all kinds and hefty bags of greens invited market guests to cook the dishes of their cultures – and to try out new ingredients. On my to-try list, for instance, are the bitter melons and eggplants. At the north end of the market, a pile of corn husks grew hour by hour as delighted customers added to it.
Walking up and down the aisles, it was hard to miss the joyful smile of That Salsa Lady (otherwise known as The Chip Chick – A.K.A. Angela Moragne) or the soothing voice of Venice Williams of Alice’s Garden, the more indulgent Rum Cakes by Paula or the Hmong fried spring rolls and noodle-stuffed chicken wings (I went back twice). Local vendors like these were joined by community health advocates like Children’s Hospital Community Health Plan, Community Care, and Perseverance’s health and wellness coaching.
In the park, booths included jewelry and accessories galore, books for kids and Black history books and art for adults, information on job opportunities at City Year, Milwaukee JobsWork, or the Census Bureau or pamphlets advertising services like snow removal or clown parties.
The City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO) – the artists behind Fondy Park – engaged visitors with a community-created list of characteristics that make neighborhood great, while representatives of Lindsay Heights invited visitors to upcoming community focus groups and the new Adopt-a-Storm Drain Block Party.
TBEY Arts Center represented, Kohl’s Art Generation long painting tent filled with young and old alike and 88Nine Radio Milwaukee brought a color-by-number Little Free Library – another perfect example of how a community can collaborate to serve itself.
Many visitors lounged and dined on the beautifully crafted benches by local artist Ray Chi, engraved with quotations by Lindsay Heights residents about community, connections, and sustainability.
And the steadily growing crowd was joined, too, by the dozens of anxious bees searching for the last drams of nectar carbs and pollen proteins before the fall. Strategically placed incense sticks and makeshift fans helped shoo the bees, sometimes accompanied by surprised squeals – fragrant and amusing ways to bring strangers together in a common pursuit.
Bees did not stop the community from enjoying MC Damion Thompson and DJ Kima Hamilton of 88Nine. While I was there, poet Ed Wingard spoke his word from the stage and the classically trained cross-genre singer Marcya Daneille led her band through jazz, soul and gospel, attracting dancers to the lawn, the top layer of a 22,000 dry vault which is itself one element in ECO’s sustainable stormwater masterpiece.
After ArtWorks for Milwaukee unveiled new murals painted this summer by its interns – featuring messages like “From drugs to hugs” and “respect your neighborhood” – the fearless Milwaukee Flyers dazzled a packed crowd with feats of acrobatics and positivity.
I cannot imagine a more perfect way to say our farewells to summer and welcome the next season, which, if Harvest Day was any indication, will be one where a multitude of artists will continue to come together to assure a healthy bounty for all in Lindsay Heights and beyond.
Dominic Inouye and Michael Snowden