³WE MADE A WAY OUT OF NO WAY²
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, March 26-April 1–2006
During my recent visit to Northwest Milwaukee I toured a 30
block neighborhood not far from Will Allen¹s “Growing Power” farm. Bordered by Miller¹s brewery and Harley Davidson, this neighborhood was once a vibrant blue collar community where people watched out for one another and took pride in keeping up their homes. By 1998, however, hopelessness due to job losses had turned it into a hood of boarded-up houses and trash-filled vacant lots where crack and sex were sold openly on the streets and gunfire was heard sporadically.
That is when Sharon Adams, after working and raising her family for thirty years in other cities, decided to return to her childhood Milwaukee home.
Challenged by the deterioration in her old neighborhood, she
reached out and found partners, especially electrician and carpenter Larry Adams whom she met (and soon married) while looking for help to save a condemned turn-of the century house across the street from demolition. She also started walking through the neighborhood and calling out to others to join her.
The result has been the organization of the Walnut Way
Conservation Corp. which emerged from and sponsors a number of urban ecology-based initiatives, including planting and managing multiple, high-production community gardens; conducting profitable sales of garden produce; ongoing gardening and nutrition education programs for youth and
adults; installing rain gardens, rain barrels and other strategies to manage storm-water runoff at the neighborhood level; establishing a small shade-tree nursery to expand the urban tree canopy.
To make this work,² says soft-spoken Sharon Adams, ³you have to
live the truth from the heart. You have to maintain high expectations, convey to all whatever their race, culture or creed, that they are valued and cared for. Not everyone here is able for reasons of age, finance, circumstance to work full-time on the building of Walnut Way, but everybody can and should be improving their capacity to serve.²
I was especially moved by how ³ living the truth from the
heart² empowered Walnut Way residents to recruit young men, many of them recently returned convicted felons and other doomed for prison, to become community builders. While some have fallen away, many have reconstituted and reclaimed their lives in this process of building the houses, playgrounds,
urban and rain gardens of the community. The piece de resistance of their efforts is the magnificent three-story Walnut Way Community House that, less than two years ago, was a condemned, rotting crack house feared by all but
those who used and abused it. Today it is emerging completely remade, a masterpiece of carpentry, electricity, masonry all the skills required for top construction.
Just imagine how many people in our inner cities could be spared the pain and suffering of drug abuse and prison if our children and young people were engaged in this kind of community building as a normal/natural part of the curriculum from K-12.
Living this truth from the heart has also empowered Walnut Way residents to establish working partnerships with other community entities, e.g. Growing Power, Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, City of Milwaukee Economic Development Corp,, Department of City Development, U-Wisconsin-Extension,
The gun fire, drug trafficking and prostitution have virtually
disappeared. Homes have been or are being restored. Sixty-five new homes have been constructed and occupied construction is planned for 54 more new homes. People enjoy their neighborhood, meet and greet on the street (even at night!), work and play together, and watch out for one another.
Listening to Sharon and Larry Adams describe how this miracle
was achieved, I was reminded of Jimmy Boggs¹ stories of how his little Alabama community survived the Great Depression. ³We made a way out of no way,² he said.