Agents of Change

Sharon & Larry Adams are into their second decade of rehabbing houses, planting gardens, raising bees and helping families. As they inch toward retirement, they’ve doubled down on plans to transform one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

It’s a beautiful sunny day in July, and folks gather at the corner of North 14th Street and West North Avenue, all dressed up for the dedication of Sunshine Park, a small pocket park in the Walnut Way neighborhood. Hostas, shrubs and three plum trees have been planted, and a winding path and large rocks fit for sitting have been installed, creating a small retreat from the noisy traffic that whizzes by on North Avenue.

For years, the lot sat vacant, a convenient hooking-up spot for prostitutes and their customers. “But neighbors decided to create a presence and change the culture,” says Sharon Adams, who, with husband Larry and their neighbors, started the Walnut Way Conservation Corp., one of the park’s sponsors. “They turned it into a little market. In good weather, they would bring chairs and grill corn. They called it Sunshine Park because there were no trees.”

Standing in the park near the young plum trees, Mayor Tom Barrett, Ald. Russell Stamper, Will Allen of Growing Power, and officials from the Northwestern Mutual Life Foundation are on hand to dedicate Sunshine Park, the first of 21 pocket parks to be constructed on some of the city’s many vacant lots. Alongside the mayor is Larry Adams, wearing his Blue Skies Landscaping hat and vest. Adams’ crews built the park, one of the landscaping jobs that put people to work in this struggling neighborhood.

Taking the podium, Larry talks about “the spirit of transformation” that the park represents. “Take a moment and think of a transformative moment in your life,” he says in a reverential tone. “Then leave it in this space.”

Transformation and transition. That’s the story today of the Adamses’ and Walnut Way Conservation Corp., the nonprofit organization they co-founded nearly 16 years ago that’s become one of the most innovative community development projects in the city. Working one small plot, one house, one block at a time, they have revitalized the impoverished neighborhood.

In a neighborhood where more than 40 percent of its residents live in poverty, Walnut Way focuses on a panoply of critical issues: health and wellness, access to healthy food, sustainability, housing, jobs, youth, leadership and economic development. That’s meant turning 20-plus vacant lots into vegetable gardens and orchards of peaches and pears, raising bees, rehabbing houses, nutrition and wellness programs, peace projects, installing rain gardens, rainwater cisterns and green projects to divert stormwater.

Visitors from all over the country and as far as China have toured Walnut Way to see what’s been done. And the Adamses and others from Walnut Way recently visited Cuba. They were among 30 groups chosen from around the country by the Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, a nonprofit that fosters cooperation between the two countries in the area of public health.

But now the organization is making a leap into business development with a $6.3 million project, the Innovation and Wellness Commons. Located two blocks from Sunshine Park at 16th Street and North Avenue, it’s a two-staged project that could bring businesses to the area. So far, in the project’s first phase, a 100–year-old tavern has been renovated into a commercial kitchen. An Outpost Natural Foods pop-up store was scheduled to open in early October.

The Walnut Way neighborhood is bounded by 12th Street, North Avenue, Fond du Lac Avenue and Walnut Street, and it’s nestled within the larger Lindsay Heights neighborhood. The Walnut Way Conservation Corp. is expanding. It’s also a time of transition for Sharon and Larry Adams, a dynamic couple widely admired for the passion, patience and tenacity they have brought to their poor and neglected neighborhood. Both soft-spoken and deliberate in choosing their words, they much prefer to talk about their work and others than themselves. But they explain that they are charting a new course in the coming new year, stepping away from their leadership roles at Walnut Way.

“It’s always been about engaging other people and about sharing,” says Sharon. “We’ve been reflecting on this for a long time. The seeds have been planted, and now that vision is with others.”

Adds Larry: “We have so many young, brilliant and talented people around us, we’re trying to provide the opportunities for that talent to be part of the succession plan. It’s not just the Larry and Sharon show.”

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‘Agents of Change’ appears in the October 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the October issue on newsstands Oct. 5

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