When Riverwest Wins the Nobel Prize: James Godsil’s Vision of Milwaukee

April 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

In one of our first guest writer features, we bring you James Godsil, the co-founder of Sweet Water Organics, on how Milwaukee became an incubator for the nearing sustainable cities revolution.

Milwaukee Visions

My visions of Milwaukee’s evolution are  rooted in my 40 years experience in Riverwest, and my seven years in the Milwaukee food movement and its emerging industry, especially the Growing Power, Walnut Way, Sweet Water, Kilbourn Park, Alice’s Garden, and the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as glimpses derived from the “new Grand Avenue.”  My Milwaukee’s tomorrow is also informed from Doug Booth’s new book, The Coming Good Boom, which argues global warming and the end of cheap oil will inspire people to live more compactly and explore lives lived through green innovations, enabling us us to live more simply locally but also more mindfully and productively as global citizens. Finally, my projections of Milwaukee’s future evolution are rooted in a  life-long interest in the impact of technology on social life, with a focus on the bounty to come by virtue of our increased capacity to efficiently and evocatively communicate with one another.

The Advantages of the Riverwest Way

Godsil leading a tour for the young and old alike at Sweet Water Organics

The story of the past 40 years in Riverwest provides an inspiring glimpse of Milwaukee’s possibilities. In the 1970s, waves of young people from UWM and the “counter-culture” migrated from their parents homes into Riverwest. Visions of racial, social, and ecological justice, participatory politics, locally-powered economy, organic food, housing, and other kinds of co-ops gave rise to organizations and enterprises that still bless Riverwest and are spreading throughout the city. The East Side Housing Action Committee (ESHAC) was an important expression of the “new” Riverwest.  ESHAC was made up of students from the peace and civil rights movement, who now aimed community organizing to fill the void left by the diminution of traditional working class institutions in Riverwest, e.g. the Catholic Church, ethnic associations, labor unions, and the Democratic Party.  “Radical reform” was a guiding concept, with projects aiming to improve the lives of Riverwest residents, such as with health and housing services, as was developing grass roots political power, for instance, through sending busloads of young and old to City Hall to fight the demolition of Locust Street for a boulevard, or the designation of Riverwest as a “deteriorating neighborhood.”  The Locust Street Outpost Natural Food was  also something of a child of the new “organic culture” alchemizing in Riverwest, along with Lakefront Brewery, Peace Action, Community Roofing and Restoration, Riversedge Housing Coop, the “Shepherd Express,” and many more Riverwest experiments that comprise what I see as the seeds of the Milwaukee Renaissance.

Jump ahead to the 21st-century Riverwest, and you’ll find an authentic and diverse neighborhood of great bounty, amply documented by Riverwest Currents, our newspaper, and on full display at the Riverwest Co-op Cafe and the Public House co-op pub, with scores of start-up businesses and cottage industries, including the Kilbourn Community Garden, over 100 family food gardens, artisinal restaurants, projects to clean up Milwaukee River and protect River Forest, walking and biking and baby-sitting co-ops, festivals and community celebrations galore.  “Abundant Riverwest,” as Currents editor Jan Christensen has famously said.

What will be the implications for Milwaukee’s future if Riverwest becomes the first neighborhood to win a Nobel Prize?

When Riverwest Wins a Nobel Prize

Riverwest is well on it’s way
To becoming the first neighborhood of the planet
To win a nobel Peace Prize.

In the span of one generation
Riverwest has self-transformed
From a traumatized industrial working class community
To a hope-filled urban village of worker gentry activists.

Ghandi’s “determined spirits!”

Riverwest is sacred ground for high proportions
Of its pioneering sons and daughters,
Committed to the realization of Dr. King’s dreams.

The people of Riverwest have worked tirelessly
To build bridges across boundaries of race, class,
Religion, gender, and more.

The people of Riverwest have self-consciously experimented
In a myriad of projects to explore a political economy
Where people, community, nature, and spirit matter.

The people of Riverwest have been the vanguard
Re-spiriting Milwaukee, leading movements for
Peace, social justice, historic preservation,
Environmental stewardship, collective self-reliance.

The people of Riverwest are helping to
Save the Milwaukee River and
Transforming old worker homes into
Green habitats of great beauty.

They have been the original spark behind
The emergence of food co-ops and
Soon to be created edible playgrounds.

Riverwest is home to Timbuktu, the epicenter
For the convivial encounter of the races and classes
Breaking bread, dancing, and marking holy days with joy.

Riverwest is growing power
For the people, mindfulness
For Mother Earth.

Riverwest is harnessing the power of the internet
to advance co-evolutionary experiments.And inspiring other neighborhoods, especially Bay View,
to consider the Riverwest Way.


Riverwest Key to Growing Power and Sweet Water Story


It began in earnest when the kid from the hood,
Just 15 years old, shot in the stomach,
A fine Riverwest, gay, pub worker/owner,

A few weeks after an intemperate leader
Gay-bashed rogue cops

Rather than thoughtfully, powerfully,
Seize the reins of justice.


This outrageous shooting, plus
A rash of thuggery that summer, 2005,
Brought forth a community gathering,
Which I attended, at the Art Bar on Burleigh,
Across from old St. Mary’s,
Where the shooting had occurred.

I had the same sinking feeling in my stomach,
As during the 1970s and 1980s, when I and friends
Had done our best to inspire thought in things better
Than racist scapegoating at community meetings,
Following notorious crime events and moments
In struggling Milwaukee.


But when I arrived at the Art Bar, there was a
Spirit of graceful, powerful…resolve.

A succession of strong and warm people,
A polyglot, rainbow melange,

People with deep roots in the neighborhood
And the movements of our times,

Expressed thoughts and feelings aiming to heal and renew,
To draw upon our deepest imaginations and
Sources of resilient endurance…

To keep our eyes on the prize that
Ghandi and King, Rosa, John, and Bobby,
Mandela, Grace Lee Boggs, and many more,

Had blazed in great visions in our youth.

Having spent much time alive
In the dark, dank tombs of pharaohs,

While not witnessing manifestations of bestial hate
Aimed at minority “others”

I was overwhelmed by these
Bursts of warm light
Coming from everyday people.

I had to leave early,
Lest I lose my composure,

And while driving home
Along sacred city trails,

Alongside resurgent neighborhoods
And cleansing rivers,

The notion of finally meeting Big Will Allen,
The legendary urban farmer already renowned

In awakened circles for his avant-guard
Permaculture and urban agriculture innovations,

Innovations agricultural and “biological,” e.g. vermaculture,

Agriculture ecological, e.g. gloriously productive
Simulated indoor river valleys with sweet water
And fat, healthy, tasty fish,

Innovations social and cultural, e.g. farmer training youth programs.

And when I got out to Growing Power, on 55th and Silver Spring,
More than one incredibly exuberant persons,
Starting with Miss Karen, greeted me with a warmth and generosity
That continues to inspire, and even, startle me.

Later on I learned that I had experienced my first moment with…

Growing Power Magic!

That’s what Miss Karen calls it.

And it’s true!


I returned home to fine an e-mail
Sent from Harvey Taylor, Milwaukee poet and stevedore,
Which contained a song he’d just written
About Big Will Allen and Growing Power!

And then at my 60th birthday party,
Sally Leiser, whom I’d never met, showed up
At the Kern Park “country club,” out of the blue,
And shared the Growing Power story,
In perfect pitch!

Riverwest’s Diversity Is Strength Makes Milwaukee Holy

When Milwaukee becomes the Holy City of the Sweet Water Seas,
Perhaps only a generation or two from now,
Irish German Polish Italian Arab American families
Will bike from the western suburbs to the Juneteenth Day Celebration
On MLK, stopping on the way at the Amaranth Bakery and Cafe.

There they will meet up with Hmong African Original American families
For a feast of soups from the kitchens of the world,
With ingredients picked that morning in the Growing Power city farm across the street,
Where now stands an empty lot.

As they bike across Lisbon and Walnut
The sidewalks will be filled with families in their Sunday best
Walking a mile or two toward the festival,
Past family businesses and artist/artisan workshops that pay the bills.

At the LGBT Center the west and northwest throng
Will join some south and east side Mexican Cuban Jewish Bohemian American families
For last minute practice to prepare for the folk song, dance, and theatrical offerings
In honor of the day when freedom grew stronger, on Juneteenth Day,
Preparing the way for that great moment, when it dawned upon the people, that Milwaukee had made itself
The Holy City of the Sweet Water Seas.

And I, or my descendants, will not be judged chauvinistic for hoping that the dance choreographed
By the Kho Thi with the Trinity Dancers wins first prize!

To Be Continued

James Godsil, Co-founder of Sweet Water Organics, Inc.


Tagged: , , , ,


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading When Riverwest Wins the Nobel Prize: James Godsil’s Vision of Milwaukee at MIDWEST SUSTAINABLE CITIES SYMPOSIUM.


%d bloggers like this: