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Field trip! Ethnography of Kenosha

January 14, 2019

Editor’s Note: Shortly after Cameron Swallow joined her husband, President John Swallow, at Carthage in August 2017, she decided to get to know her new home. She kicked off a “Welcome Home Tour” and invited Carthage students, faculty, staff, and alumni to be her tour guides. She started a blog and traveled with Carthaginians to different spots in Kenosha, Racine, and beyond.

Now in year two of her husband’s presidency, Cameron is continuing the Welcome Home Tour in order to get to know Carthage — and its people and connections — even better.

• • •

I took my first city bus ride on Friday, Jan. 11, with a class studying the ethnography of Kenosha for J-Term 2019. Professor Katharine Keenan prepared all the students to observe the route rather than reading phones or talking to classmates, noticing how changing the medium of transportation changes the perception of environment. She asked us to note “what kinds of access the bus route encourages, and what kinds it makes impossible.”

In November, I had seen the poster advertising the J-Term course on the Ethnography of Kenosha, and I knew I wanted to be part of it. It seemed the perfect extension of my Welcome Home Tour from last year. I wrote a hopeful email to professors Keenan and Darwin Tsen, and they welcomed my participation graciously, inviting me to join the class for all the excursions into town and to complete as much of the reading for the course as I wished. I had already read one of their primary texts, The End of the Line, by Kathryn Dudley, a study of how Kenosha lived through the closing of the car manufacturing plants in the late 1980s, and I knew the excursions would take me to places I hadn’t seen in Kenosha as well as letting me see familiar places in new ways.

Students in the J-Term course Ethnography of Kenosha pose with faculty and Cameron Swallow for a ...Students in the J-Term course Ethnography of Kenosha pose with faculty and Cameron Swallow for a photo in front of Orson Welles' birthplace.On Friday, I met the class on the sidewalk in front of the David A. Straz Jr. Center to catch the Kenosha city bus #4 for a trip downtown. We were attentive to the route as requested, noticing when the neighborhoods changed, and who got on to go to which grocery store (Piggly Wiggly or Pick-n-Save). When we got to the main bus station, we all gathered on the sidewalk to get some orientation and to point out the endpoint of our exploration activity, the Common Grounds coffee shop. Then we cut through vacant lots and parking lots (“contravening the infrastructure” in the formal language of the course, which we all found amusing enough to repeat frequently) to reach the Kenosha Creative Space at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 57th Street.

There, Francisco Loyola spoke to us about the decades-long effort to bring business and animation back to downtown Kenosha, as the city worked to reinvent itself after the departure of the auto industry. Mr. Loyola described a project to fill vacant storefront windows with local art to avoid a sense of abandoned buildings. He also gave us the history of the Sculpture Walk by the harbor, and proudly reported that most vacant storefronts had been filled since he had moved to Kenosha. The ones that remain empty, we learned, are the old department stores, which are too large to easily repurpose in retail and difficult to convert into residential blocks.

From the Creative Space, we walked to Library Park, and saw Simmons Library and various monuments on the green surrounded by several civic buildings, churches, and a synagogue.

Our last stop together was at a private home near the park, the birthplace of actor/director Orson Welles.

The birthplace of Orson Welles, 6116 Seventh Ave. in Kenosha.The birthplace of Orson Welles, 6116 Seventh Ave. in Kenosha.

The students were then assigned to make their way back to Common Grounds using a different route of their own choosing, which they would observe in detail and map on paper for later discussion. The professors and I made our way back with two detour stops on Sixth Avenue: one at the Kenosha Theater, where recording and mixing projects were underway, and one at the Orpheum Theater, where we got an impromptu tour of the upstairs co-working space called “The O.” Carthage alumna Christine King, a member of the President’s Leadership Council, was just exiting the building where she works as a financial planner and adviser. I got to introduce her to the two professors, and she graciously chose to be a little late to her next appointment in order to take us upstairs to see The O. It was a thoroughly modern, well-lit, and pleasantly constructed space, with closed-door offices, open-air cubicles, and collaborative table settings for work. Jobs in the emerging economy are going to take many forms, and it was fascinating to see how many of them could be accommodated at The O.

We arrived at Common Grounds earlier than most of the students so that we could reserve seating and prepare the staff for a large order. Students arrived in small groups and compared notes, worked on their maps, and sipped their coffee before catching the 3:35 p.m. bus back to campus from the Wyndham Hotel next door. I finished my coffee in conversation with Katie and Darwin, then waved them into their weekend as I caught the 4:05 bus by myself. The bus ride back felt very different because I was a single traveler instead of being part of a tour group. I was not in a hurry, but I did feel a spark of something like frustration when the bus turned left before getting to Carthage. It made me think about the kinds of access that are encouraged and the kinds that are denied by standard bus routes. We retraced our earlier route, this time picking up people from the grocery stores who were headed home. Our driver kindly made an extra circuit of the grocery store parking lot in order to pick up a woman with more bags than she could carry.

I’ve always known that walking gives a different perspective on a place than driving, so I was not surprised to notice new details about the buildings around Library Park during our outing. But I was surprised by how different my view from a bus seat was from my typical streetscape view from my car window. Part of that was the company—being on a bus is different from the smile or passing hello you give a stranger on the street. You’re sharing a space for a span of time, and you have to choose to what degree you engage with others each time you enter that space. When I was part of a large group of students, I did not speak to new people on the bus or on the street. But when I was alone, I did. There are many ways to visit a place; even when I know all the neighborhoods in Kenosha, there will be new things to learn by visiting them on foot or by bus, in company or alone.

See for yourself

A look at the plaque in front of Orson Welles' birthplace home.A look at the plaque in front of Orson Welles' birthplace home.Orson Welles’ Birthplace
6116 Seventh Ave.
Kenosha, Wisconsin
Read more in Atlas Obscura

The O
5823 Sixth Ave.
Kenosha, Wisconsin
The O website

Harborside Common Grounds
5159 Sixth Ave.
Kenosha, Wisconsin
262-652-5111
Common Grounds Facebook page

Be a tour guide

Want to show Cameron Swallow your favorite part of Kenosha? Be a tour guide on the Welcome Home Tour.