by Lee Gutowski
Remember the “polar vortex” of the winter of 2017/2018? Of course, Wisconsinites do, but for Kaytee Luke, who moved to Riverwest that February from California, the weather was especially disconcerting. “I thought, oh no, what have I done? I mean, Mount Shasta would get weather and storms, but nothing like the polar vortex,” Kaytee laughed as she recounted her story for this article.
Kaytee, who’s from the East Coast but has travelled so much that she considers herself from “everywhere, kind of,” came to Riverwest that winter with her husband, Darryl (who’s from here) and their kids after spending 8 years in Mount Shasta. “Darryl was homesteading for folks … and we were raising animals and gardens … it was cool, and I didn’t think we’d ever decide to leave.”
One August before Darryl and Kaytee moved to Riverwest, Darryl brought Kaytee here to visit. “I immediately thought this place had something special … I used to live on the lower east side of Manhattan, which had community gardens and squat buildings and all these people together being artistic and creating community. And after a while, it all got gentrified and I thought, ‘oh well, there’s nothing like that anymore’. But when we came here, there was the same vibe.”
James Melchior met Kaytee and Darryl not long after they moved into the neighborhood, “through mutual friends … just people at the same bar (the Bremen) who got into a conversation. We’ve been good friends for a few years now, sharing communal meals and camping with our families and friends.”
James is involved in a developing creative collective in the Riverworks area. He’s got a workshop and rehearsal studios under construction in an old factory building on the north end of the neighborhood. His “full time gig” is running Line Drive Construction – remodeling, mainly, but also doing other creative things like building food trucks and designing and building pieces using as much reclaimed material as possible.
James also lives within a block or two of the Bremen Community Garden, and “can run there in like 30 seconds in case of emergency.”
Getting their hands in it
Katie’s first summer in Riverwest, she saw the Riverwest Community Garden at the corner of Bremen and Center, and thought, “Man, this place is so cool — I hope I can get my hands in there sometime.” But she wasn’t ready to dive in yet, with her new job managing 22 people at Whole Foods in Wauwatosa as well as raising her kids and making a new home in a new city.
But by the next year, Jan Christensen and Dr. Dave Schemberger (the previous garden caretakers and founders of the RW Community Garden School) had relocated to Cortez, Colorado. Other folks were taking care of the garden, but they were travelers, too, and during Kaytee’s second year in Rivewest, she took over as garden caretaker.
James explained, “That’s kind of how I got involved, too. Kaytee and I were neighbors and had become friends, and Kaytee suggested that the garden really needed some help … so I started to volunteer and just get my hands dirty.”
Kaytee and James really started working together at the beginning of the pandemic. “It was like us and a few displaced bartenders and servers that had no work … we had a bunch of volunteers, and we would stagger our times for coming in here.”
James added, “During the pandemic, we were getting the cops called on us for gardening!” Kaytee recounted, “The cops would slow down right here and say, ‘You guys socially distancing?’ and we were like ‘Yep!’ It was total pandemic panic.”
People were seeing work being done in the garden (“and sure, maybe I’d have a beer in my hand, but I was covered in dirt and was trying to stay hydrated,” Kaytee laughed) and mistakenly thinking there was some partying and socializing going on that was inappropriate during that time of hard-line social distancing, masking and being super careful.
“When Katie and Daryl took over,” James explained, “it was about changing the culture here. There’s nothing wrong with being social – and we’re very social people – but it used to be maybe too social, with people crash-padding in the garden, general partying, etc. So that’s the reputation this place had when we first started – but we were just gardening with a beer in our hand!
“My thought was we’re in a pandemic — this is one of the places you should be treasuring and supporting and let’s make sure we got food just in case everything really goes to hell.”
Live music … and a sign
Although 2020 brought a host of challenges, the folks at the garden have kept plugging away, spearheading a rebranding effort and recreating the space.
The non-profit land trust organization Groundwork Milwaukee holds the garden’s permit, and the garden is no longer associated with the apartment building located on the same city lot. (The Riverwest Garden School used to have office space in that building and the original builders of the garden used to live in one of the upstairs apartments, but now the “culture” of the garden space has changed.)
Kaytee and James, with Groundwork’s blessing, were able to use the already existing stage in the garden space to host some live music. Voot Warnings, Mike Fredrickson’s Bristlehead and Jayke Orvis played shows there (among others), and James live-streamed the events. Neighborhood folks gathered – masked and keeping distant from each other – across the street outside the Bremen Café and enjoyed the music from sidewalk tables and lawn chairs. (Check out the Bremen Community Garden Facebook page for videos of these shows.)
Unfortunately, the City got squeamish and asked that the shows not be continued.
“I almost quit this whole shebang last year,” said Kaytee, “because there were all the protests, my job was hectic, civil unrest going down everywhere, there’s a pandemic, I’m homeschooling, I’m mad.” But she came to the garden one afternoon to find someone had left a big beautiful wooden sign there, painted with colorful flowers and blue sky. It also had the message, “BLM … they tried to bury us, they didn’t know we are seeds.” Kaytee’s spirit was renewed. James installed a post on the eastern border of the garden and put up the sign the next day.
–Irene and her mom Kaytee
A new culture for urban agriculture
Bremen Community Garden is developing into its own distinct entity. They are growing food to give away to the community and hoping to do free meals in the future with a food truck they just purchased and which James will transform.
A donation box has been constructed and mounted near the corner of Bremen and Clarke. Money is needed for things like the over $200 gas-powered water pump that they bought, and other infrastructure. Volunteers are necessary to help with weeding, toting water, and other chores — especially since both Kaytee and James have full-time jobs and families to tend to.
In parting, Kaytee and James stressed that “This is 100% a free food garden. But here’s where we have problems: we put the food out on a specific schedule, and post about it on our Facebook page (Bremen Community Garden) when we do. We are asking that people don’t come in and forage for themselves.” Kaytee’s employer, Whole Foods, donated sealed bins to put produce in. “We bring in ice and keep everything cool and fresh,” Kaytee continues. “But often when we can get here and harvest, things have been picked over if not completely raided by folks bringing in duffel bags and taking all of the cabbages, eggplant, or what have you.
“We want people to be able to glean stuff from outside the fence, and we’ll put other stuff out for you in the free bins, but if we’re really going to do a farm-to-fork thing (with the food truck), it completely depends on people not coming and raiding it for themselves.”
James also wanted to give a shout-out to Jordan Baumhardt and the Riverwest Street Hockey club. They put together a bonus checkpoint for the Riverwest24 at the garden, along with the Bremen Café, “because we have a very symbiotic relationship with the bar. Anyway, they raised $240 for the garden, which was more than we made at any of the music shows … because, go figure, we paid the musicians.”