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Milwaukee Vacant Lot Transformed, More Pocket Parks on the Way

Until a short time ago, the empty lot at 14th and North Avenue was an eye sore, and for years and years before, attracted dumping and troublesome activity.

Now named Sunshine Park, the parcel is dotted with dozens of freshly-planted bushes and fruit trees adjust to their new surroundings. 

Limestone pavers slice a path for walkers. Soon crews will add benches and a grill.

Credit City of Milwaukee

It took a lot of maneuvering to align city departments and coordinate funding, including from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and a Bloomberg Award, to re-imagine and revive this once-vacant lot. A grant-matching program, called Partners for Places, played a pivotal role in creating not only Sunshine Park but more than 20 projects that will transform pockets of potential  into urban orchards and parks around Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and other dignitaries beam under the hot summer sun as Sunshine Park was unveiled.

“We want to make sure this is grassroots, so having the communities engaged in this is very important to us,” Barrett says.

Credit S Bence
Will Allen at Sunshine Park celebration. Allen was pivotal to the park and orchard initiative. Thousands of trees were donated to Growing Power. Allen offered to partner with the City of Milwaukee to make the most of the resource.

Growing Power founder Will Allen added accolades to neighborhood leaders.

“I’ve been working with Larry Adams and Sharon Adams who’ve really lead this whole community here. I think the number one ingredient is their passion and they really wanted to see change. And that change doesn’t come from outside, doesn’t come from government or corporations. It comes from the people who live in this place,” Allen says.

Sharon Adams, co-founder of Walnut Way Conservation Corp., thinks back fifteen years. “It was before we really had our gardens up and running,” she says.

Adams says the lot was a dumping ground for debris, and more disturbingly, a site for drug deals and prostitution.

Credit S Bence
Louise Wilhite built her home when most of the lots around her were vacant.

Louise Wilhite says it wasn’t the only one. “There were a lot of empty lots. This lot was empty and about 4 or 5 empty lots on 14th Street on both sides of the street,” Wilhite says.

Wilhite built her house one block south of the transformed parcel.

“Not too nice things were happening down there, that I didn’t know about when I chose this lot...Yeah and I didn’t care for that corner, so I would drive around to come to my house,” she says.

Now Wilhite sees the property through a new lens. “To know there’s a beautiful park at the end of the street, that my friends and I can go over and sit on a bench or just walk around and look at the flowers,” she says.

Credit T McCollow
Walnut Way's Blue Skies landscaping crew at work as Sunshine Park evolved.

Wilhite says the park represents another big step in Walnut Way’s rebirth.

Fifteen years ago, residents began to slowly transform the neighborhood, planting gardens and orchards. Later Walnut Way launched a landscaping training program – called Blue Skies. Its crew transformed the barren turf into the new pocket park.

A member of Walnut Way’s teen internship program , Benjamin Johnson points out a nearby vacant lot, that’s yet to see such a renewal.

Credit S Bence
Members of Walnut Way Gardens to Market teen internship program.

“Comparing, it looked a little bit worse than that before. So taking land like that – and we do a lot of that at Walnut Way, all of the gardens on campus literally looked like that, they’re empty lots. So we’re good at taking vacant things and turning them into something, so something like this is a huge deal for the community,’ Johnson says.

It didn’t come quickly or easily, however. It took more than a decade to rally funding and municipal support for Sunshine Park.

That doesn’t bother homeowner Louise Wilhite a bit. She’s proud of the impression the pristine pocket park makes.

“People passing through our neighborhood can see that this is a valued neighborhood. I feel very proud of the park and that I’m here to see it,” Wilhite says.

Walnut Way’s Blue Skies landscaping team will be working next to install five additional parks in other neighborhoods around Milwaukee.

With so many vacant lots across the city, Milwaukee is about to launch a pilot- called the Vacant Lot Challenge -  to encourage residents to come up with creative ideas to transform such eyesores. The winning teams will receive up to $10,000 to bring their vision to life. The city says resident involvement will be the key to winning.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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