Alum working to improve Clarke Square area

Kevin Kuschel’s roots run deep on the south side of Milwaukee, making him a good fit for his new position as executive director of the Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative.

The UWM alum loves the area, he said, because it is vibrant and diverse.

“The residents here are beautiful, he said. “They really care about their neighborhood.”

Clarke Square is home to Journey House and a gateway to the south side of Milwaukee through the vibrant Hispanic businesses along Cesar E. Chavez Drive. The Mitchell Park Domes are just on the northern edge of the neighborhood.

It’s a neighborhood with challenges, but also with lots of opportunity for growth and change, Kuschel said.

“I love the houses. The housing stock is beautiful over here. It has some very serious issues, but the strength of the community is definitely incredible, and there are potential assets like Clarke Square Park.”

Kuschel, who earned his master’s degree in urban planning from UWM, grew up in Bay View and Sherman Park. He lives in Bay View in the family house he was born in. He has a deep love for Milwaukee, nurtured by both of his parents and his experiences in Milwaukee Public Schools.

His mother, who died last year, was from Honduras. She kept him in touch with his Hispanic heritage and culture, Kuschel said. In fact, Spanish was his first language. He spent summers with family in Honduras. His dad taught at South Division High School and would talk to him about the impact of disinvestment on the city, pointing out vacant lots and areas of deterioration while they were driving to and from school.

Milwaukee schools

Kuschel took advantage of the opportunity to attend Milwaukee’s French Immersion School, then went on to graduate from South Division High School.

“I think Milwaukee has given me so much that I have to be grateful for. I still speak French. You don’t get that type of public education almost anywhere else.” He appreciates the system’s multiple language schools, he added. “I think it’s incredibly special that we’ve put those resources into that type of public education.”

Because of his interest in buildings and architecture, he started out at UW-Madison in civil engineering, but soon found he was more interested in the context and history of cities and communities. He completed a history degree with a focus on Latin America.

After graduation, while figuring out what he wanted to do with his life, he signed up for the Peace Corps and did a stint in Bulgaria.

As a youngster, he’d enjoyed playing the SimCity game, creating cities and communities, and still enjoys it. His brother suggested that urban planning might be a good career for him and gave him a brochure about a scholarship for returning Peace Corps volunteers.

“My brother told me, ‘This is what you are always talking about. UWM has a great urban planning school.’”

UWM experience instrumental

After talking to Nancy Frank, then chair of urban planning, he decided the combination of the philosophy of urban planning and doing actual practice in the field was a perfect fit for him. He didn’t get the scholarship, but his experience at UWM was instrumental in his career, he said.

“I got off the bus and walked around campus and thought this is where I belong. It just all lined up. It was a phenomenal experience.”

An internship in Milwaukee’s city redevelopment office led to a position as an associate city planner, a job that he loved. Through that work, he became involved with a Latino employee group, and found he also liked event planning.

With those experiences, friends suggested he join the board of the Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative. When the executive director position opened up, Kuschel decided he was ready for new challenges.

‘’I wanted to do something where I felt like I was giving back to a community directly.”

Community buy-in is crucial

Now, a few months into the job, he’s focused on understanding what the community wants from the organization, so he’s reaching out through a series of monthly meetings. That was something he learned in the Peace Corps and in Urban Planning.

“You have to have community buy-in to any project. Otherwise, it could be the best designed project, but it’s not going to work if the community doesn’t buy in.”

One of the strengths of the Clarke Square neighborhood is its diversity. In addition to its Latino population, it has become a welcome mat for a variety of immigrant groups, Kuschel said.

“We work best when we have diverse opinions. I’ve seen incredible things people have done when the community comes together. Our differences are what make us stronger.”

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