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.”

Like the Walnut Way neighborhood around it, good things grow in one of the local gardens of vegetables and fruit. Photos by Sara Stathas.
Like the Walnut Way neighborhood around it, good things grow in one of the local gardens of vegetables and fruit. Photos by Sara Stathas.

The divergent paths of the couple came together in 1997 at a turn-of-the-century duplex at 17th Street and North Avenue, where Sharon had been raised, and where she returned after a 27-year absence. She was the younger of two daughters, and her father worked for the Milwaukee Road railway line, which meant the family got to travel by train. He also ran a janitorial business and helped with the family tavern. Her mother was a homemaker.

Going to college was the expectation for their daughters.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sharon moved to Michigan for a master’s degree in social work at Wayne State University. Executive positions with the Girl Scouts followed in Michigan and New York City. From the Girl Scouts, she moved to Harlem, where she was interim director for the Northside Center for Child Development. The adjustment from an organization like the Girl Scouts with major resources was difficult, she says. It was also the time of the crack cocaine epidemic. The job was rewarding, but challenging. After five years, she knew it was time to move on. “Like many others,” she says, “I heard the call to return home.”

But her hometown neighborhood had changed dramatically. The trees that had lined the street were gone. Crime, poverty and deterioration had set in. The two-story home she had returned to needed more work than expected. When she received a statement from the city with a $15,000 figure, she was puzzled.

“Coming from New York, I thought that was the tax bill. I thought that’s incredible. That can’t be right,” Adams says. To her dismay, she learned the statement was the real estate assessment of the 3,000-square-foot duplex. The equity she thought her family had built up had instead been wiped out.

“There had been a huge intentional disinvestment in this community. Our properties didn’t matter,” she says.

She could have walked away. But she didn’t. Instead, Sharon dug in and went to work fixing up her house. Updating the electricity so she could plug in her computer was first on the list. That’s how she met Larry Adams, a Marine veteran and an electrician who had his own construction and communications companies.

Larry’s father had spent a career in the Air Force, and Larry, along with his three brothers and one sister, had lived in 16 different states, including Alaska, before settling in Milwaukee. He remembers his family driving from Savannah, Ga., to Anchorage, Alaska, in a ’56 Buick Special without stopping. “It took 11 days because the Howard Johnson’s and hotels didn’t accommodate people of color. I lived that. I remember the signs.”

He also remembers that his father worked to get him and his older brother to integrate the baseball team in Greenville, S.C. “I do the work I do now because of my father,” says Larry. “He always stood up to anything that was unjust or not correct.”

In Milwaukee, he attended Messmer High School. He then went to Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia. He majored in political education while working in a shipyard. After two years, he returned to Milwaukee where his family lived. He worked as an electrician and wired fiber optic and cable, which allowed him to travel. Later, he received a degree at UW-Milwaukee in educational policy.

Sharon had called him about the electrical work, but he kept putting it off. Finally, a friend convinced him to talk to her about the work, and he agreed to take on the job.

“I kept the check in my pocket for two weeks,” he remembers. “Then on a Saturday morning, I went to the bank to cash it, and she was at the bank.”

The two started talking and sparks started flying. They were married a year later in 1998. Sharon always says she proposed to Larry. “If she asked me to marry her, I didn’t hear it,” he smiles.

Along with the electrical upgrade, the house needed a roof, basement and foundation work, painting and porch repairs, all of which Larry tackled. And as they built a personal partnership, the two began taking walks, talking to their neighbors and forming the roots of what would soon become Walnut Way.

“We sat on the porch and watched people in trucks dumping tires on a property across the street that seemed abandoned and uncared for,” Sharon says. Larry would pick up the tires and debris and take it all to the dump before going to work. “This was in front of our house,” he says, “and we didn’t want it to look that way.”

The dilapidated drug house across the street was scheduled to be torn down by the city, but the couple acquired it, rehabbed the turn-of-the century building, and christened it the Walnut Way headquarters and community center. Walnut Way worked with the city to acquire additional vacant lots that were turned into dozens of gardens and orchards.

Sharon and Larry Adams sit in the Walnut Way conference room on West Fond du Lac Avenue. On one wall hangs a painting of four musicians jamming together, a picture of harmony. On another wall, there’s a huge map of the world, representing the global perspective they bring to rebuilding a neighborhood.

Both widely traveled, they believe in the enrichment travel provides. “I think we’re both gypsies in a way,” laughs Sharon.

In one corner of the narrow room, there’s a wooden sculpture of the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkeys. Aside from the obvious meaning, the monkeys are meant as a reminder that negativity and distractions don’t advance the community.

“From the conception of Walnut Way, we have traveled to different places to think how could we bring back good stuff to share with our neighbors,” Larry says. “It’s bigger than what takes place in this room. Hopefully, what takes place here will affect some part of the world.”

Walnut Way formed in 2000, and its the name came to Larry in a dream one night about 3 a.m. “Walnut Street used to have all these people of color,” he says. “There were businesses, lights and a lively entertainment center in the l920s and l940s. It was beautiful. What happened there is indicative of the resurrection that could happen in this area. Walnut was the way.”

That first autumn, Larry and neighbors planted 1,000 tulip bulbs and sold the flowers to raise funds. “In the spring when people saw all the color, they thought they were on an acid trip,” he laughs. But the dumping stopped. A crop of collard greens followed. Then the orchards, bees, health and wellness, sustainability, housing and jobs.

With the city and other agencies, including the Wisconsin Housing Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), more than 65 new homes have been built in the Lindsay Heights area that includes Walnut Way.

From the beginning, the Adamses have collaborated and connected with an array of partners – residents, academics, foundations, health care organizations, business executives, government agencies and other nonprofits. Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power and considered the father of urban agriculture in the area, worked with the couple early on to build vegetable gardens.

“They’re passionate about restoring the community and focused,” Allen says. “Sharon is a great organizer and Larry is a great trainer of young adults with issues. They are a good combination.”

The Adamses’ approach to urban redevelopment – the beekeeping, and developing of gardens and orchards in the heart of the city – seems counterintuitive, says Leo Ries, the former head of the Local Initiative Support Corp. “Too often we focus on the endgame and force it, when what we need to do is create the space for change,” says Ries, who has worked for years on urban redevelopment projects in the city. “Too many people concentrate on the disorder of the inner city and overlook that, for many residents, this is their home, and they love and take pride in the neighborhood.”

It’s that spirit of collaboration and commitment that led philanthropist Joe Zilber in 2008 to select Walnut Way as one of the lead agencies for his $50 million, 10-year plan to revitalize poor neighborhoods, including the Lindsay Heights, Clarke Square and Layton Boulevard West neighborhoods. Like Sharon Adams, Zilber had grown up in the neighborhood on North 10th Street and Meinecke Avenue. They both attended Lee Elementary School. He had gone to college and law school, and became a successful real estate developer, building commercial and residential projects in Wisconsin and around the country. But seeing the condition of his old neighborhood, he wanted to provide today’s residents with the access to the opportunities he’d known.

“When he met Sharon, he found her story engaging and inspirational, and Walnut Way had already done a lot of work,” says Susan Lloyd, executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation. Walnut Way had worked with the Milwaukee County University of Wisconsin Extension to research the history of the area. Says Larry: “We wanted to create a culture of caring to revitalize, not just the land and buildings, but a spirit of connections.”

The organization had operated mostly with volunteers, but Zilber added new resources and partnerships. Walnut Way now has a budget of more than $1 million a year and over 20 staff members.

The Adamses’ agency leads the North Side effort in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, which is spread over a 110-block area from Walnut Street to Locust Street, and from I-43 to North 20th Street, and encompasses Walnut Way. Lindsay Heights is home to some 8,000 residents.

“They have built an incredible team at Walnut Way, and there’s a tremendous amount of activity,” says Rocky Marcoux, the commissioner of the Department of City Development. “Walnut Way is well on its way to showing the way to other neighborhoods. It’s a model that works based on faith and purposefulness.”

While much has been done in the Walnut Way neighborhood, the agency has been working since 2008 to create a business development project. In January, it finally broke ground for the Innovation and Wellness Commons, its most ambitious project yet. To be built in two phases, the Commons will create 15,000 square feet of space for mixed uses and an estimated 45 jobs. Completion is set for 2016.

Phase I, with an estimated cost of $2.5 million, has transformed a 100-year-old tavern into a new food hub and commercial kitchen. The Milwaukee Center for Independence has signed a five-year lease, and has geared up to make 3,700 meals a day for 21 choice and charter schools and educational centers, says Heidi Chada, the vice president for employment and commercial services at the center. In addition to employing eight full-time and two part-time workers, it will train others and also offer community cooking classes, she says.

The Fondy Food Center will locate its offices there, along with The Juice Kitchen. Outpost will open a 677-square-foot pop-up store in the Commons in October. Margaret Mittelstadt, Outpost’s director of community relations, says that after the initial one-year lease, the project will be reviewed, including the possibility of locating a full-sized store in the Commons.

The idea is to start small and bring local produce to compliment the Fondy Market, introduce new foods, and other items such as coffee, espresso, and wholesome dairy to test the waters.

“Each of our stores is different, and what resonates here is that everyone should have access to good healthy food,” says Pam Mehnert, Outpost’s general manager. In the inner-city 53206 and 53205 ZIP codes, there are 151 Outpost co-op members, she adds.

For about 11 years, Outpost has been at the table with Walnut Way, the Medical College of Wisconsin and others as part of the Lindsay Heights Neighborhood Health Alliance to discuss issues of healthy food, and the development of nearby Johnsons Park on Fond du Lac Avenue. From there, the conversations continued to grow, and Sharon began talking about the idea of Outpost locating in the neighborhood.

“Sharon has amazing tenacity, and she and Larry are two of the most inspirational people I have met,” Mehnert says. “If there’s a roadblock, she gets past it in a peaceful way.”

Phase II of the Commons will be built on the empty lot next door. Plans have not been finalized, although the facility’s aims will be related to health, education and employment.

“During a 10-year period,” says Larry Adams, “we counted more than 11 premature deaths on a one-block radius on 17th Street from North Avenue to Lloyd Street.” There were deaths from obesity, asthma, an accidental drug overdose, diabetes and heart attacks, he says. That doesn’t include incidents of violence.

“Sharon and Larry see the world through the lens of abundance, talents, resources and knowledge that can be leveraged to bring the community to wellness,” says Sheri Johnson, who’s with the Center for the Advancement of Underserved Children at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “They look holistically at health and wellness, including the relationship of stress brought on by isolation, racism and the disconnection of the neighborhood to resources, such as transportation and jobs.”

With its focus on health and wellness, the Commons will be an extraordinary development tied to community needs, says Robert Arzbaecher, president and CEO of Actuant Corp., a global manufacturing firm based in Menomonee Falls. Arzbaecher became involved with the agency four years ago after he heard about the Zilber neighborhood effort. He met Sharon and was impressed. “She’s a good listener,” he says. “She has the fire in the belly to improve that neighborhood.”

Arzbaecher chairs the capital campaign to raise the $6.3 million for the project. So far, more than $2 million has been raised from government programs, foundations and individuals, including a $413,750 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and $500,000 from the Zilber Foundation.

Ald. Stamper, who represents Lindsay Heights, sees the Commons as an important stepping stone in the revitalization of North Avenue and the neighborhood where he spent time as a child.

“There’s one word to describe what Sharon and Larry have done: It’s life,” he says. “They have transformed the community.”

For Sharon and Larry Adams, from the front porch of their Walnut Way office on 17th Street, the view is still one of energy and opportunity. Photo by Sara Stathas.
For Sharon and Larry Adams, from the front porch of their Walnut Way office on 17th Street, the view is still one of energy and opportunity. Photo by Sara Stathas.

Last summer, the Lindsay Heights neighborhood was hit hard when 21-year-old Raymond “Lil’ Ray” Harris was shot on North 16th Street in what police say was retaliation for an earlier shooting. Wounded, Harris ran and collapsed in a Walnut Way garden, where he died. Although Harris didn’t live in the area, his death brought sadness to many young men who knew him, Larry says.

Friends formed a spontaneous vigil at the garden. But Larry thought more needed to be done. He and other staffers started a peace project for men and boys so they could gather and share their grief, trauma and concerns. About 30 attended. At the end of seven weeks, they took a camping trip.

Two years ago when a fire broke out in the Walnut Way headquarters, Sharon was inside. Young men from the neighborhood rushed to help.

The next morning, many supporters and neighbors came to offer assistance. Restaurant owners and volunteers Jennifer and Joe Bartolotta brought hot coffee and bagels. The pear crop had just come in, and they offered to take the fruit. Their chefs at Bacchus prepared a gourmet dessert that they sold for $10. Proceeds went to Walnut Way.

“They are an incredible gift to the city and a beacon for all of us,” says Jennifer Bartolotta. “They have created an oasis that speaks to the power of one. Through persistence, faith and a lot of hard work, what they have goes beyond Walnut Way. They have created a sense of community where people know each other and are kind. You can’t walk down the street with Sharon without someone saying, ‘Hi, Miss Sharon.’”

LaVonda Graham, 72, has lived in the neighborhood for 43 years and seen all the changes. Her husband is a retired Chrysler worker, and she was the manager of the child welfare building in the area. They raised six children in the neighborhood. Through the years, they watched as homeowners moved out and stores closed. Promises made by the city when homes were torn down for the freeway were never met, Graham says.

When she saw what the Adamses were trying to do, she joined in, and now sits on the all-resident Walnut Way board. “I wanted to be part of it,” she says. Admirers of the Adamses’ work think one of the hallmarks of their leadership is the belief that everyone has a role to play. For nearly 16 years, they have assumed the leadership role. But now, the power couple is working to move out of their leadership roles in 2016.

Sharon, 68, won’t call it retirement, but an “encore,” and hopes to share their story and work with others as coaches or consultants. “Sharing the lessons we’ve learned is part of our story,” she says. Larry, 60, has had two knee replacements, and a car accident last year left some lingering problems. They plan to travel more and spend winters in a warm climate, but will still stay active in the Milwaukee area. For some time now, the couple and the board have been working on a succession plan.

The president of the Walnut Way board is Rigii Njoroge, who has roots in Kenya and likens the work of the Adamses to the bees Larry raises. In the winter, bees in the hive start to gather in the middle and the heat radiates out. That’s how they keep warm, Njoroge says. “Larry and Sharon are in the middle, and they start the buzz that radiates out. This area has the same issues and concerns as many in the city, but the energy that’s been created here has radiated out. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen all the energy they’ve put into it. And that energy carries itself.”

While a succession plan is underway, Njoroge says there’s no rush to replace Larry and Sharon. Neither will be leaving Walnut Way soon, and they will remain on the board.

Practically speaking, Sharon has served alternately as CEO and executive director of Walnut Way, but never used a title. “It’s never been about titles,” she says. “When I introduce myself, I say I’m a resident, and that’s what I am. I care deeply.

“That won’t change,” she adds. “I’ll be here.”

Georgia Pabst is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer. Write to her at

‘Agents of Change’ appears in the October 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Find the October issue on newsstands Oct. 5

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