Photo by Peter Di Antoni
Photo by Peter Di Antoni
Photo by Peter Di Antoni

It’s hard to talk about both urban agriculture and Riverwest without Jan Christensen’s name coming up. When I suggested that she be the Neighbor Spotlight, Jan looked at me quizzically, put her head on her desk, and laughed. But no one in the Currents office could deny that it did made sense to feature her for the urban agriculture issue. Despite her hesitation, I interviewed her and found that from urban agriculture, to community organizing, to the Riverwest Currents, Jan Christensen has a significant impact on the Riverwest community.

“Farming and raising food has always been a part of my life,” Jan explained. She grew up on a potato farm in Waupaca, Wisconsin where she worked alongside her Army Sergeant and co-op farmer father, part-time psychiatric nurse and full-time farm-wife mother, and two older siblings. After finishing college, she and her husband, Tom Masaros, managed the farm for nearly a decade. After that, she lived in an “intentional community” in Plymouth, Wisconsin. There, she worked on various organic farming endeavors while fellow community members “were experimenting with alternative ways to live, incorporating things like renewable energy and consensus process governance in their lives.”

Her route to Riverwest from Plymouth was anything but boring, taking her to Harvard Divinity School in Boston, as well as “communities including Dreamtime Village and Rhine Center Village in Wisconsin; Colorado Springs; San Gregorio, California; and Eugene, Oregon.” One day she found herself standing across from Fuel Café with her partner Dr. Dave happily proclaiming, “This is good. This is very good.” Since that fateful day, she has lived in Riverwest and advocated for urban agriculture through organizations like Milwaukee Urban Gardens, Milwaukee Urban Agriculture Network, and the Milwaukee Food Council as well as through collaborations with Will Allen, the Chief Executive Officer of Growing Power. In 2001, she and her partner Dr. Dave worked with local Riverwest youth to construct raised bed gardens, some of which can still be spotted in use around the neighborhood. But by far, her most notable urban agriculture project is the Kilbourn Park Community Garden. After Milwaukee Water Works converted the reservoir into a park, the head of Water Works casually suggested that the park would make a good home for a garden. Jan took this seriously, and in collaboration with COA Youth and Family Centers, the Riverwest Health Initiative and many others, the site has since flourished into the home of 141 beds as well as an internship program and the Young Farmers of Milwaukee that pays students to grow food through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Jan explains that urban agriculture is a relatively new idea in comparison to its prehistoric farming roots. While she acknowledges that it is easier to produce some agriculture – like meat and grains – in rural areas, she believes that a city and its people can reap benefits from producing their own food. For example, she points out that some foods, “especially those that are fragile, difficult to ship or that lose nutrition quickly – are best grown and distributed locally.” In addition, locally grown food has a positive impact environmentally – a tomato from your backyard has a much smaller carbon footprint than a tomato grown on a farm thousands of miles away in Florida. Jan believes that this new farming concept will continue to develop. “If we look at our needs to save fossil fuels associated with long-distance shipping and preservation of highest nutritional value, I think urban agriculture will play an increasingly important part in our food system.”

Although she graduated from Harvard Divinity School with her masters in theological studies, she is also “interested in how communities of people work and interact with each other, and the decision-making process that moves civilizations…and found a meaningful way to follow all those interests by working in community organizing.” She has worked as a community organizer in a position funded by Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) since 2001. Recently, this job has involved her with the policy side of agriculture through the Urban Agriculture Policy Group, whose work from the past few years produced the ordinances outlined in the special section in this issue of the Currents. Her achievements over the past fifteen years as a community organizer in Riverwest earned her recognition as a finalist for the 2014 MANDI Awards (Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation).

As part of her job as a community organizer, Jan helped write and design some of the first issues of the Riverwest Currents. After an unfair housing practices lawsuit led to a small grant, the paper grew from a newsletter to a tabloid-sized publication and the staff recruited enough advertisers to maintain it as the monthly newspaper it is today. Jan has worked, mostly on a volunteer basis, as editor of the paper since 2004, managing writers, artists, and photographers to create “the best record of our neighborhood we are able to produce.” It’s a job that she describes as “fascinating, infuriating, exhausting and very gratifying.”

When asked about Riverwest’s greatest strength, Jan confidently declares, “Without a doubt, the people.” Although the community isn’t perfect, she believes, “It’s real people who know each other in real ways. We don’t all love each other. We don’t even like each other sometimes. But we’re real about it. That’s not magical, but I think it might be rare.”