Wednesday, May 7, 2008
An article recently Published about LAND by theJournal sentinal, the difficulties in doing communtiy based work.
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Original Story URL:http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=600869
Roots growing, bit by bit
Walnut Hill boosts homeownership rate, works on development
By ERICA PEREZeperez@journalsentinel.com
Posted: May 5, 2007
If you're looking for a symbol of growth in Milwaukee's Walnut Hill neighborhood, try Muneer Bahauddeen's studio on N. 30th and W. Brown streets. The studio is called Ogbe Meji, meaning "bit by bit" in Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria. For Walnut Hill, bit by bit is about right.
The neighborhood hit rock-bottom in the late 1980s and early '90s, riddled with crime and blight. Since then, it has seen improvements, including new developments on North Ave. and an increase in homeownership. But progress has been slow, frustratingly so, say some residents.
Lisbon Ave., for example, was targeted for improvements under a 2004 plan created by Washington Park Partners. But three years later, the neighborhood's central artery looks largely the same. "The problem is, nothing has been significant enough to change the face of Lisbon Avenue beyond a few projects. . . . It has not materialized into something larger," said David Boucher, a longtime resident who owns Amaranth Bakery & Café on Lisbon. Invested in the hood Paul Martinka started working at Kehr's Candies on Lisbon Ave. in 1983, when businesses were still thriving. By the late '80s, crime had peaked and longtime residents had escaped. "One garage would get broken into and six for sales signs would go up," said Martinka, who now owns Kehr's. "People put their tails between their legs and ran at the first sign of trouble." By 1990, only 9% of residents owned their homes. Now, 55% do, according to the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee. Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity has built 115 homes in the neighborhood in the last decade, said executive director Sara Kierzek. The Hmong community is sinking roots deep in Walnut Hill. Fong Chang purchased a duplex on N. 34th St. in 1996 for $22,000. Over the years, his relatives have bought about a dozen homes nearby. They've rehabbed their properties, cleaned up trash and started a neighborhood watch. That, say residents, is the kind of thing that explains rising property values. Last year, Chang bought a duplex for his son and his son's wife, for $55,000. Big plan, lots of work The 2004 Washington Park plan envisioned improvements for Lisbon Ave. in part of Walnut Hill, but those haven't happened yet. "You wonder: Wait a second, what's happening here? Is there a plan? Well there is, but nobody's working the plan," said Damon Dorsey, a developer who was formerly executive director of the North Avenue Community Development Corp. Several community organizations and non-profit developers are part of Washington Park Partners. Lisbon Avenue Neighborhood Development is the lead agency, while national non-profit Local Initiatives Support Corp. is charged with generating capital. It has spent about $550,000 on the greater Washington Park area since 2003, as well as hundreds of thousands more in predevelopment financing and construction loans, said program director Leo Ries. Ries and others involved with Washington Park Partners acknowledge that Lisbon development has moved slowly. But they point to several accomplishments and future developments. Dorsey's firm, the Dorsey Group, is working with Commonwealth Development Corp. to develop 24 units of affordable housing on W. Lisbon Ave. from N. 28th to N. 33rd streets. Nearby, the vacant St. Thomas Aquinas Church at W. Brown and N. 35th streets is scheduled for conversion to a family resource center that will offer mental health services, tutoring and other after-school programs. Lisbon Avenue Neighborhood Development is working with for-profit developer City Ventures on a proposed eight- or nine-unit development on the northwest corner of W. Galena and N. 35th streets. "Neighborhood development is by its nature incremental. We're just building momentum," Ries said.
Meanwhile, longtime residents and businesses soldier on. Boucher has lived in his home, the refurbished Villa Uhrig, for 11 years, operates the café on Lisbon and publishes the Washington Park Beat newspaper. "It's a really wonderful community," Boucher said. "My choice to live here is very mindful." St. Francis Children's Center executive director Gerry Coon and his partner have lived in their home, the restored Koenig House on N. 32nd St., for nearly 19 years.
Coon spends weekends picking up bags full of trash on his block. Sometimes windows get broken. Summer nights can be riotously loud. But the two have no plans to leave. "The whole concept of being an urban pioneer was real appealing to me," Coon said. "Honestly, in the past three or four years, I haven't seen a whole of change. But ultimately, it's going to come back as more and more people care about it." Artist Bahauddeen calls Walnut Hill one of Milwaukee's "last frontiers."
During the week, he works with students from the nearby Westside Academy II on crafting ceramic tiles. He asks them what they see in their neighborhood. "Kids say, 'I see garbage, I see prostitutes,' some say, 'I see gangbangers,' " he said. "But what I want them to start seeing is potential."