The Journal Sentinel reported on Saturday that MacArthur Square – that two-block-long flat block of concrete-and-green space in the shadow of the Milwaukee County Courthouse and above a parking lot – was falling apart so much that the city couldn’t fill the reflecting pool and run the fountain at the east end, next to the Muni Court, this summer. Apparently, that’s part of the reason why the ceiling of the parking lot leaks on the hood of my car every other week in the spring and summer. Thus do our grandest traditions crumble under the weight of time and the crushing realities of civic plans gone awry.
There was a time when MacArthur Square served as a grand vista for the most cinematic of my lawyerly daydreams. Walking out of the Courthouse after a hard day of kicking ass on behalf of poor, disenfranchised alleged criminals (I said alleged!!), I would walk out of the Courthouse or the decrepit Safety Building (want to ride in the Safety Building elevators? You feeling lucky, punk?) out into the flat expanse looking east over the skyline, the Hyatt and City Hall and bounce around like Rocky. Top ‘o the world, Ma!
But MacArthur Square lost its pizzazz in direct proportion to its diminished access. Back when I was working at the Public Defender at the State Office Building in the early ‘90s, you could actually get from the Courthouse to the S.O.B. on 7th Street (alright: James Lovell) by walking across the plaza to the unnecessarily circular walkways. Alas, both curly-cues that brought you from the plaza to street level have crumbled and been removed. You can't get to James Lovell from the plaza anymore without walking to either side and walking down Wells or State.
More significantly, you can’t even get out of the Courthouse on the east side anymore due to the increased security in the building, caused by goddamn 9/11 and other uptight what-if-people-get-upset-in-family-court security measures. This all happened right around the time they sold the giant clock to the Brat Stop and a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was erected right outside the east doors, which you can no longer enter or exit, leaving Gandhi the loneliest excellent sculpture in town. Early in my career, I used to make a choice every morning whether to walk in to one of three doors on the east side of the Courthouse – for what it’s worth, I always chose the one labeled "justice" (as opposed to the more ominous concepts on doors labled "order" or "truth"). Now, you can’t get in or out of any of those doors. Justice denied, indeed.
According to the article, there is now talk of eliminating the Square altogether and replacing it with an extension of Kilbourn Avenue somehow. I’d like to know how that is going to work. Are they going to drive asphalt right through the parking lot and under the Courthouse to get to – where? 10th Street? The freeway? Will they bring Kilbourn up over the parking lot, only to do one of those damn circles and point traffic back down toward the Arena? How about plowing right through the Courthouse (losing the 00 through 04 courtrooms on each floor) and right over the freeway?
I’m no architect or civil engineer (Whitney Gould, where are you now that we need you?), but this all seems gross to me. I am all in favor of leaving our anachronisms in place, if only to remind us of a simpler, dumber time. Although we don’t seem to be in any hurry to develop the Park East corridor, I understand that every inch of downtown must be filled with some kind of goddamn functional purpose. But I don’t see the problem with the roof of the Courthouse/MATC/Museum parking lot being filled with empty space, grass, concrete, and a statue of Douglas MacArthur looking out over parading troops that aren’t there anymore. It seems a fitting tribute for us – and for him.