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Neighbors Come Together to Revitalize Park on Milwaukee's North Side

Johnsons Park holds the distinction of being one of the most neglected green spaces in the Milwaukee County system.

On Tuesday, the Rotary Club of Milwaukee and the Zilber Family Foundation announced they will extend a hand to the park located on West Fond du Lac Avenue. The grants will help pay for improvements - sports fields, new park lighting and tree-lined pathways.

Credit The Center for Resilient Cities
Proposed renovation plan for the 13.2 acre park.

Liz Drame decided to move to Johnsons Park neighborhood more than a decade ago. "A lot of times people look in and see a lot of negative, but not that’s what we’re seeing," Drame says.

Drame says she and her husband chose this pocket of the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, when they moved from her native Chicago.

“We heard about the Lindsay Heights neighborhood and all of the development going on. And so we came and walked around here, I talked with Dr. Hamilton and he said ‘oh this lot right next to us; it needs to be built out – we would love you as neighbors' and that convinced us," Dame says. "It just felt like a very open community where people knew each other. And that’s the kind of community I always wanted to live in; I’d never lived in a community like that.”

Credit Susan Bence
Vera Graves-Davis (left) and Liz Drame are Johnsons Park neighbors.

Drame doesn’t sugarcoat the stark realities. Forty percent of Lindsay Heights residents live in poverty. Drame says this neighborhood has the largest percentage of foreclosed homes and it has a significant number of board-ups and vacant lots.

The park has come to symbolize rebirth, Drame says. “We have this park, it should be the hub of all kinds of activities, and yet it’s not being utilized," she says.

The playground posed a safety hazard - even after a light rainstorm. “Not even a downpour, but because of the lack of drainage, there could be a puddle ranging from one to five inches and actually a little kid could drown in that. So kids couldn’t depend on playing in the playground on a regular basis; and maintenance was an issue,” Drame says.

A park's friends group took shape and paved the way for rebuilding the play area.

Credit Susan Bence
Annushka Peck's sculpture stands north of the new playground at Johnsons Park.

A small urban garden, called Alice's Garden, is just across the street from Johnsons Park. Drame says the Center for Resilient Cities organization helped neighbors plan how the two spaces - Johnsons Park and Alice's Garden - could become a hub for socialization and activities.

Milwaukee native, Vera Graves-Davis lives down the block. Her grandparents moved to this neighborhood in the 1920s and she put down roots here, after working for a time in Washington D.C.

Graves-Davis celebrates the evolving urban park but wants her neighborhood to aim higher.

The neighborhood held its second concert in the park last summer. "It was a wonderful event; very safe. We have kite-flying activities; art in the park, we had an exercise group," Graves-Davis says. "But again, living in Washington, our parks had movies in the park. I think you can bring activities like family movies in the park to urban areas, but the place has to be welcoming."

Neighbor Liz Drame remains anxious about getting children and adults safely onto the grounds. Fond du Lac Avenue is a busy thoroughfare. Drame says fasts cars travel on adjacent streets, as well.

Credit Susan Bence
Alice's Garden is a part of Johnsons Park, but is located across 20th Street.

“The last thing I want to see is a child who’s trying to run to the park or ride their bike to the park and they get hit..," Drame says. "We haven’t been able to get support to get some kind of traffic calming at 18th and Brown, which would allow children to be able to cross safely into the park, which is the entrance to Johnsons Park proper."

Both women says they’re willing to convene as many meetings as it takes to bring safe activity into their park. Drame says neighborhood-building is already paying off for her two children.

“Just know that there is an outside to their home; that they don’t have to just go from their house to their car and leave the neighborhood to do different things,” Drame says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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