A Sherman Park mold palace gets a makeover.
Congratulations,” said our real estate agent, handing us the keys to our new house. “You just bought a moldy, uninhabitable shell.” Full of excitement, my husband and I drove straight from the bank where we closed to bask in the glory of our newly purchased, and yes, mold-infested home in Sherman Park. We heard that our house had been vacant from four to eight years. During that time, a pipe had burst in the basement, causing huge colonies of spores to grow on the walls, ceiling and floor. Eventually, the city boarded it up and apparently at one point there was a raze order, but (I assume) its historic status saved it from the bulldozer. The house had no heat, no plumbing, one working light fixture and a hole in a bedroom ceiling from water damage. We affectionately dubbed it “Mold Palace.” And it was all ours.
I felt up to the task – fully equipped with my rose-colored glasses and the power of Pinterest. I wasn’t about to let a basement full of fungus and raccoon tenants stand in my way. But on that rainy April 2013 closing day, the whole idea of fixing up Mold Palace seemed like a really bad plan. The idea of living there was absolutely insane.
We started with the basement and used seven dumpsters to empty it. Other issues included a constant influx of rodents, plants growing out of congested gutters, a pesky incident involving biohazard tape, and our very skeptical parents. I had to figure out how to paint and clean while entertaining our three daughters, ages 8, 5 and 3. We were over budget, behind schedule and, oh, I was nine months pregnant.
As moving day approached, I lost sleep: How was it going to come together?
Then, one magical evening, a crew of neighbors offered to help me paint, toting their own ladders, brushes and dropcloths. Some were people I had perhaps met once, like Bryan, a white guy from next door and a director at the Milwaukee Art Museum, who painted the TV room. Pat, an African-American gardener across the street, brought me two pots of mums. Every room on the first floor got a fresh coat of paint and I now had pots of flowers to brighten my porch. After, I ordered pizza for everyone. We sat on my front porch, and Bill, a Marquette professor who lives across the street, brought bottles of homemade wine. Our house was christened that night.
We moved in on a Saturday and Marielle, baby number four, arrived on Monday. I did not feel like Mother of the Year bringing my infant daughter home to a construction zone, but perhaps the noise and chaos made her a better sleeper and more well-rounded human. At least that’s what I tell myself.
For the first several months, we had plywood countertops propped up with two-by-fours in the kitchen and one functional bathroom for six people and contractors. At the end of every day, I swept up sawdust and scrubbed dirty bootprints off the floor. Over the first two years, we put in a new kitchen, refinished the floors, removed layers of wallpaper, replaced the roof, added a master suite, gutted and finished the basement, remediated the mold (this was done by professionals before we moved, in case you thought I was certifiably insane), and enclosed a leaking second-floor patio. We trapped squirrels between jobs.
This wasn’t our first home in Sherman Park. Ten years ago, we relocated to Milwaukee with my husband’s band so he could pursue music full-time. I was finishing my graduate studies in psychology, and we had a 1-year-old daughter, Genevieve. After quite a bit of looking, we found a beautiful bungalow in Sherman Park, but we wanted to learn more about the neighborhood before we committed.
We weren’t familiar with Milwaukee – my husband grew up in Lodi, Wis., and I grew up in a rural area near Dubuque, Iowa – and were curious to hear the story of Sherman Park. We accepted a dinner invitation from potential neighbors. As we pulled up in front of their house on a beautiful November evening, I noticed the gorgeous leaded glass windows and inviting front porches of the neighborhood’s 1920s-era bungalows, all shaded under towering old locust trees. We saw people gardening in their front yards; a group of middle school boys was tossing a football in the street; adults were gathered on the sidewalk, talking while their children played around them.
It was like urban Mayberry.
At dinner that night, we listened to stories of people who had lived in the neighborhood for a long time and those who had moved in recently. There was a white couple who had lived here since the 1970s and raised their six children; a bi-racial couple with young children who lived a couple of doors down and had moved in several years before; an African-American pastor and his wife across the street who had moved in five years ago. Our hosts told us about the longstanding “Family Dinner” on Thursday nights, about the block parties, of sharing lawnmowers and snowblowers, and neighbors who carpool to school.
Perhaps we were naive and idealistic, but we decided to buy that bungalow. We thought we’d stay maybe five years at most.
We lived there six years. We sold it and bought Mold Palace, a block from our first home. Though we considered buying elsewhere, I’m thankful we had the opportunity to choose Sherman Park a second time. We are now approaching 10 years here.
Yes, living in Sherman Park has its challenges. There are times I wonder how to raise my children in a place that is so different from my upbringing. I’ve had moments when people challenged my point of view on race, privilege, or what it takes to change neighborhoods like ours. I’ve had moments when I felt unsafe when we heard gunshots or when we learned of a rash of robberies in the neighborhood from a neighbor’s email. Yet those moments are outshone by a spontaneous conversation on the sidewalk with Mario, front yard sprinkler parties for kiddos, Karen stopping by for a minute (which always turns into an hour), the block parties, a weekly dinner with friends down the street, or peaceful nights in Rod and Bryan’s backyard.
Living here has been more challenging and more rewarding than anywhere I’ve been. The greatest lesson: community provides us with a chance to belong to each other. You belong. I belong. And that beautiful belonging is the most compelling reason we have for sticking together, especially when it’s hard. I saw this when Sherman Park people showed up for each other after August’s riots. Residents were at the park for many days after to clean up, pray together, engage in hard conversations and supply food and water to protesters and police alike. In those days, I felt a surge of hope because of the people who live here: the entrepreneurs, artists, young families, empty-nesters, change agents. Those are our neighbors. We show up for each other because we’re all in this together.
The people in this community have creative ideas for starting new businesses, improving homes and investing in kids. This is the new urbanism, the urbanism that revives and restores, the urbanism that writes a chapter in a decades-long story rather than starting a new book. We aren’t pioneers of this neighborhood, but we have the opportunity to join in with the story like the many people who already have – homeowners and renters; black, white and Hmong; gay and straight. They’ve been here long before our family came. This generation has seen the effects of gentrification, and it’s a generation willing to engage people who are different, while looking for creative ways to keep the neighborhood economically and racially diverse. Everyone is invited to the party.
I’ll look for you at Family Dinner. Perhaps you’ll come to enjoy the conversation and good food, but you may end up buying a beautiful home up the street. Or you may score a moldy, uninhabitable shell for yourself. But only if you’re lucky.