Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
There’s a subtle shimmer hovering over the hot pavement on North 17th Street as I pull up to Thelma Sias’ Lindsay Heights home. It’s caramel with cream trim, a new construction, subtle but relatively massive at just more than 3,500 square feet. It would fit perfectly in any upscale suburb, but its owners are deeply committed to their Johnsons Park community, and so it stands, proudly, here. Sias, 58 years old, greets me at the front door in a dress suit and heels, a short shock of salt-and-pepper hair worn natural, her carved chin held high, her long purple nails deftly gripping the door frame. She’s striking. I instinctively straighten my spine.
She ushers me in and I follow, her smart pumps echoing across the plywood-covered floor. The house is temporarily torn up, cleared of all furniture and draped in plastic tarp. A construction crew has been steadily working on a build-out so that Sias will have more space for entertaining high-profile guests, people such as Jill Biden and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore. She leads me to a sunny front room, empty, save for sawdust and a card table cloaked in black linen. Remarkably, it’s set with china service, crystal goblets and silver. Contemporary jazz pipes over the clanging and banging as Sias spoons some of Will Allen’s fresh berries onto my plate, then slides a slice of quiche in front of me.
“My husband, Stephen Adams, is an excellent cook. He loves to show off his style, so I promised him I was gonna,” she grins. “He’s my best friend, a great supporter, the love of my life, and the reason why I’m in Milwaukee.”
Sias leans back in her chair and begins to speak about her childhood, about growing up in rural, civil rights-era Mississippi. She talks of Atlanta and Martin Luther King Jr., of her work on presidential campaigns from Carter to Obama, of a little Southern country girl growing up to rub elbows with the likes of Usher and Oprah. She tells of her unlikely journey to Wisconsin and her current position as vice president of local affairs for WE Energies. She speaks of the challenges facing Milwaukee – urban unemployment, foreclosure, education, a yawning racial chasm – in the city she has come to know and love deeply since she first arrived some 30 years ago. Her accent shifts, depending on the subject matter. At times, she’s commanding, poised and brutally articulate. Other times, she slides into a mischievous Southern lilt, her voice rising into something quicker and livelier, more irreverent, almost lyrical.
“I’m always amazed when people come to the house and say, ‘Your house doesn’t look like a house that should be in the central city,’” says Sias, who built her home in the second wave of the 140-unit Lindsay Heights redevelopment project in 2004. “I say, ‘OK, thanks. What does that mean?’ There are hardworking people that are holding the fire of the central city community together. It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with them?’ Invest. Make good things happen. Because we can bring about change when we invest.”
Most of the time, she speaks softly, despite the racket clamoring from the other room, and I have to lean in close to hear. She doesn’t try to compete with the construction noise. She’s the kind of person who’s used to people lowering their hammers to listen.