By helping to demolish an abandoned duplex with its glass shards and plywood where windows used to be, Rodney Johnson, by his own admission an “ex-drug dealer,” is in the process of turning his life around. Johnson leads a crew comprised almost entirely of other black men in the razing of the duplex, which is located in Milwaukee’s now-infamous Sherman Park neighborhood, the site of rioting last August in the aftermath of a police shooting.
The duplex will be rebuilt as part of the City’s Adult Build Initiative, through which Johnson, who was released from prison in 2011, has found steady employment for the last two-and-a-half years.
In stark contrast to Johnson’s hard hat and worn workwear, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, in a crisp suit and overcoat, visited the doomed building on Friday. “This is a fantastic model for other communities to follow,” said Castro, a native Texan who was making his first visit to Milwaukee on a blustery December day. “These folks, while they’re getting good skills that make them more employable, are also making this a better place, so this is exactly what we like to see at HUD.”
Although President-elect Donald Trump had yet to announce Ben Carson as the new HUD Secretary, Castro did address the transition of leadership within the agency. “I’m confident that no matter who is in those political seats that the good work of investing in communities that need help will continue,” Castro said. “Places like Sherman Park, they deserve significant attention, not just locally but from Washington, D.C.”
Donning a hard hat himself, Castro took a look inside the duplex, accompanied by, among others, County Executive Chris Abele and Tony Kearney, a project manager at Northcott Neighborhood House, a nonprofit which recruits participants for the Adult Build program.
The city is looking to sink $2 million in grants — from a $4.5 million state funding package approved after the August unrest — into rehabilitating 200 abandoned or severely neglected homes, with most of them, like this one, in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Adult Build is one program that would benefit, allowing it to continue putting neighborhood residents to work improving the housing stock and, by extension, the families who live there.
For his first job as part of the program, Johnson replaced a garage roof, which he learned to do on the job. “They trained me,” Johnson says of the new skill. Now, after overseeing the demolition of the Sherman Park duplex and waiting out the busyness of the holiday season, Johnson plans to visit the City’s License Division, where he’ll file paperwork to start a roofing business of his own.