Bradford Beach was once a stretch of groomed, flat sand with two empty lifeguard chairs. The occasional dog-walker could be seen from the road, looking very small against Lake Michigan's infinite horizon. My dad used to windsurf on especially blustery, grey midwestern days. Long ago, he gave up this abandoned local beach, preferring the hour drive to smaller, more populated inland lakes.
This public beach is isolated, in some ways, from the downtown and eastside of Milwaukee. It lies at the bottom of a bluff, a rise in elevation important for preventing erosion and protecting the residential development of eastern Milwaukee. This topographical barrier physically and visually distances neighbors from easily accessing the beach. It is at least one half-mile walk between the nearest neighbor's home and the sandy shore. Standing at the water's edge, I can barely make out the edge of a roof from between far off maple trees.
While once obscured from Milwaukee's gaze, the beach, also a Milwaukee County Park
, has recently swelled with popularity. Driving along the lakefront can be fatal on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, when pedestrians peek out from parked cars and dodge on-coming traffic as they dash to the water. Dozens of beach volleyball nets are strung up on shore, available for pick-up and recreational league games, as well as AVP Next Beach Volleyball Series, a qualifying tournament for the national circuit. New restaurants and snack bars have opened, and I'm sure some beach visitors can be attributed to their liquor licenses. Live music has also found its way to the lake; this weekend is the seventh annual Bradford Beach Jam
with the Sports and Reggae Music Festival.
These days, once the thermometer hits 60 degrees, the beach is packed. Loud, celebratory nights turn into cool mornings when local exercisers take advantage of the brisk lake breeze. I've been wondering lately how this transformation has come about. What once seemed to be a forgotten or stigmatized area has become a local hangout joint.
One group deserving a lot of credit is the non-profit Friends of Bradford Beach
, an organization devoted to promoting the park. Its holistic vision states that, "Young and old, local residents and visitors visit Bradford Beach to socialize, be inspired, appreciate water as a resource, learn about conservation, celebrate special occasions, experience an outdoor classroom and just sit an enjoy a sunrise." Another organizing engine behind the beach is Bradford Beach Jam. I am still hazy on this group's origin and purpose, but they appear to sponsor events such as the concerts and tournaments. One commenter on the website says, "So much pride to have our beach back. Bradford is the new center of fun in Milwaukee during the summer." Apparently the community has embraced this improvement in the downtown area.
I am proud of Bradford Beach's success. It is a location to feel connected to the environment and to the ecosystem. The most inspiring phenomenon, however, is how this natural feature functions as a community focus. It is a destination, desirable not for prestige (it is free) or exclusivity (it is public), but for its communal forces. Families and friends meet there to play and relax among hundreds of other groups. In a time when we are attached to our media devices, it is refreshing to know that so many Milwaukeeans find pleasure in our Great Lake, and that so many people share a common interest and experience by spending time near it.