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A Sign of Commercial Revitalization in Milwaukee's Walnut Way Neighborhood

S Bence

Last week, a vacant lot at 16th & North Avenue overflowed with people for a symbolic groundbreaking - signaling the birth of The Innovations and Wellness Commons.

The project is part of a multi-million dollar, years long effort to reinvigorate the Walnut Way neighborhood.


Tanya Holly decided to check it out. She’s not a Walnut Way resident, but lives nearby and picked up news of the event on Facebook.

Holly is 35, a mom and trying to finish an associate degree while also working as a home health care worker.

“This place has been vacant for many years," Holly says. "A lot of places in Milwaukee are just closed up and they could be used for something useful. They’re talking about opening up a business for jobs and teaching for good health. I have five children and they will need a safe place, you know. So I’m all for improving – in my life and the community. So I’m here."

Sharon Adams is one of the best tellers of the Walnut Way story. She grew up here, a block north of the empty lot.

She says during her childhood, the neighborhood hummed with life. If college was her or her friends’ goal, they were able to reach it. That’s just what Adams did. But when she returned in the late '90s, the old neighborhood was decaying and infested with drugs.

Credit S Bence
Leonard V. Brady shared in the celebration. "In a matter of months, I will be a nonagenarian. I was born here and I swam in the natatorium where you are standing right now. I taught swimming and I can imagine the thousands of people who have gone on to other parts of life and death. We're part of history as we stand here."

She is now one of the leaders of Walnut Way’s renaissance.

Restoration of the building at 16th and North Avenue in Milwaukee is phase one of the commons project.

“The vintage building that will be restored was a social club and restaurant, owned and operated by four black men on a handshake agreement for over 30 years," Adams says. "On the ground that you are standing on, a library and natatorium stood. Unfortunately for over 40 years it has been an empty lot."

"When businesses and social assets close, so did opportunity, jobs vanished and the social fiber of this neighborhood unraveled," she says. "Odds of finding work, owning a business diminished. However, the odds of owning a business are changing again."

The ambitious project has attracted public and private financial partners. Construction on phase one is slated to begin soon, and to be completed late in 2015.

Sharon Adams says its will create more than 20 jobs, and the building will contain a commercial kitchen for people who want to create products from neighborhood gardens and bee hives. Outpost Foods will also occupy a small space, along with a juice bar restaurant.

Dwayne Bost personifies the energy and commitment around revitalizing the corridor.

Bost is a retired tool and die worker who spent his career working for General Motors. He could have moved away, but Bost decided to build and live just west of Walnut Way. He believes the Innovations and Wellness Commons, “will be great for the area. It will help revitalize the area. I know we’ve had some down years for the last couple of decades, but I think it’ll help turn things around."

Thursday’s was not your run of the mill groundbreaking. The customary heap of dirt was piled in the center of the crowd. Some people tossed sunflower seeds into the soil; others scattered soil on top.

Credit S Bence
Growing Power founder Will Allen (left) participated in Walnut Way event.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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