Milwaukee program turns vacant sites into green spaces on city's north side
A small orchard with apple and peach trees occupies a once vacant lot at the corner of N. 5th and W. Wright streets.
Facing the orchard is a message written in bold black text on the sidewalk: "Each moment is absolute, alive and significant."
Nick Montezon said the quote stood out to him after seeing the site for the first time. Montezon is a field operations manager at Groundwork Milwaukee, which has collaborated with The Green Team and the City of Milwaukee to revive blighted areas in the Harambee neighborhood via the Healing Spaces Initiative.
The City of Milwaukee’s Healing Spaces Initiative has added little free libraries, benches, gardens, pathways, meditation areas and more to the sites. Residents and volunteers have attended the initiative’s visioning sessions, where they communicate to organizers what they’d like to bring to the neighborhood.
Bradley Blaeser, founder and president at The Green Team of Wisconsin, said it’s been a nice exchange of people listening and giving feedback.
"What we're trying to do is to honor the orchard and really work within it so that there's a path and a sitting area and benches so that they can really be in and celebrate the space and embrace it," Blaeser said. "What we find over time is the more people are using the space positively, the more positively that energy flows out into the neighborhood and gets used in that same way."
The final visioning session for 2022 was held on July 8 at the Northcott Neighborhood House. Event attendees asked for an ADA accessible pathway, benches and a sign that depicts a poem or calming message. Developers will aim to create a natural look for the space using crushed granite for the pathway, which will curve through the orchard and lead visitors to a patio area.
Elizabeth Coggs, director of operations and Juneteenth at the Northcott Neighborhood House, said the initiative is about more than improving the neighborhood’s aesthetics.
"It's about healing people," said Coggs. "It's about healing neighborhoods and communities and our city. I love this initiative because it helps people empower each other. Neighbors come together, youth come together with elders, churches come together with residents, nonprofits like ourselves — being able to reach out and just build our community back."
At some of the visioning sessions, neighbors have offered to help tend gardens so they and the other residents can share the crops. Coggs said these spaces could have a profound impact on future generations of all people, but especially for African Americans.
"For people to be able to work in the ground and for our young people to understand that we eat from the land," she said. "We hear all of this ‘farm to table,’ but for African Americans, that's how we made it through slavery. Whether it was planning our own food or eating the scraps of what the slave owners threw away, we know how to fish, and we know how to hunt and grow our own food. Somewhere down the line, we have to keep that legacy going with our youth."
Volunteer Lurella Shead said the space will be a place for people to reflect and relax.
"To me, it would be real nice," said Shead. "It would give us something to do with each other. We can just go and we can just sit. We can share our thoughts and maybe help somebody else heal from what they're going through."
The program has developed eight city-owned vacant lots, with five more in the works. In 2021, Bader Philanthropies provided $70,000 to fund the project. This year’s efforts are funded through a city-allocated budget of $50,000. The city hopes to continue the Healing Spaces Initiative next year through future partnerships, grants and other funding sources.