History & Timeline

The Way it Was...

Early in 1998 an old man said, sadly, "The neighborhood wasn’t always like this. It used to be people took pride keeping up their homes. Used to be people sat on their porches, visited, watched out for each other. It used to be quiet and safe. It used to be a good place to live."

But then, all around us, day or night, we could see prostitutes walking up and down, sometimes doing their business in the back seat of a car right on the street … even next to the elementary school when the children were at play. Cars stopped in the middle of the street, drivers buying drugs from cocky young men, or running in and out of houses where drugs were sold. Sporadic gunfire was heard every day. There were vicious assaults, sometimes killing. Three Police Captains advised me (a community development worker) to stay out of the neighborhood, even during the day … too dangerous. Boarded houses, others in awful disrepair, and trash-filled vacant lots where good homes "used to be" bore stark witness to how far the neighborhood had declined over nearly four decades of job losses and deepening hardship for people in this Central City neighborhood.

...and Then Came Change

The best in human spirit does not disappear, no matter the circumstances. First came the call from a woman, back in her ancestral home after thirty years living and working out of state. Dismayed at conditions in the neighborhood of her happy childhood, she asked for help to save a condemned turn-of the century home across the street from demolition. She reached out and found willing partners … a carpenter dedicated as she was to restoration of people and houses and places, even when he was threatened or his tools repeatedly stolen … a community development worker, caught up in the vision of what could be … neighbors and more. Her leadership and persistence worked. The house was restored, and sold to a first-time homebuyer. She started taking daily exercise walks in the neighborhood, waving, calling out to residents peeking out from behind their window curtains, isolated by fear. Over time, others …men, women, children… joined the walks, and talked of what they could do to recapture their neighborhood the way it "used to be."

Other neighbors stepped up to report criminal activity to authorities. One defied drug dealers by refusing to let them hide guns and drugs from police on her property, then stood her ground when they shot at her feet. Another, not from the neighborhood -quiet, reserved, determined- bought one of those vacant lots and built a new home next to the school. She, like others, invested her time, talent, hard-earned assets and courage to drive out crime and restore the neighborhood. Even after night-time thieves tried to frighten her away with repeated break-ins, she stayed as a shining example to many others who followed her lead and built new homes too.


The gun fire, drug trafficking and prostitution have virtually disappeared. Homes have been or are being restored. Sixty-five new homes have been constructed and occupied …construction is planned for 54 more new homes. High production gardens are cultivated annually, and a small tree nursery has been planted. People enjoy their neighborhood, meet and greet on the street …even at night! ... work and play together, and watch out for one another.

Walnut Way’s resident-driven program planning and implementation has focused on launching and sustaining experiential educational initiatives that inform and engage youth and adult residents in:

  1. Civic and community leadership
  2. Housing construction and restoration
  3. Stewardship of environmental resources
  4. Economic Development

Walnut Way residents and volunteers have five years of successful experience in urban-ecology-based initiatives, including nearly eliminating drug and prostitution activity in the neighborhood; creating and managing multiple, high-production community gardens; conducting successful, profitable sales of garden produce, on-going gardening and nutrition education programs for youth and adults; launching a storm-water education program; installing rain gardens, rain barrels and other strategies to manage storm-water runoff at the neighborhood level; establishing a small shade-tree nursery to expand the urban tree canopy; and converting a former drug house/murder site into a prime turn-of-the-19th century restoration which will serve as a neighborhood gathering spot for educational as well as social purposes. The Walnut Way Center dream includes creating a computer lab in the basement, providing youth and adults who don’t have home computers access to the technology, helping them build competitive skills.

Walnut Way has established strong working partnerships with other community entities to strengthen their programs, including partnerships with Growing Power, Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, City of Milwaukee Economic Development Corp, Dept of City Development, MATC’s Horticultural Program, UW-Extension, UW-Milwaukee and WHEDA.

Beyond the obvious benefits, Walnut Way’s initiatives have renewed residents’ connections to African-American cultural roots, built a sense of community involvement and independence, and taught valuable skills to both youth and adult residents.


  • Residents began seeking improved housing
  • Residents began talking about community revitalization
  • Residents rallied to stop old home demolitions
  • Partnered with WHEDA to work on stable housing initiatives
  • Residents developed vision for healthy, restored, sustainable neighborhood
  • Partnered with UWM Cultures & Communities to capture resident experiences of faith, work, and social traditions
  • Residents incorporated as 501(c)3 nonprofit - Walnut Way Conservation Corp.
  • Mission: To sustain neighborhood well being through community organizing, property restoration, and economic development.
  • Walnut Way Cluster Boundaries: North Ave., 12th St., 20th St., Fond du Lac Ave., and Walnut St.
  • Philosophy: People heal working collectively for the common good. There is enough.
  • Established partnership with Will Allen, Growing Power to teach residents techniques of urban agriculture
  • Residents cleared trash from vacant lots, improved soil, planted first production gardens. Sold garden items to support education programs
  • Inaugural Community Block Party on 17th Street - Harvest Day, first Saturday of October
  • Partnered with UWM School of Architecture & Urban Planning
  • Residents partnered with the City and WHEDA to create TID #44. This is the first time TID funds were used for restoring residential properties
  • Began Tulip Sale Fundraiser
  • Engaged residents in gardening, environmental experiential learning, and civic activities.
  • Rid neighborhood of crime
  • Improved and restored housing
  • Created an atmosphere of trust and honor and collective action


  • Took possession & renovated a former drug house to create a Neighborhood Center. Received permission from BOZA to operate as a Community Center
  • New Mission Statement: To sustain an economically diverse and neighborly community through civic engagement, environmental stewardship, and economic enterprise.
  • Initiated RAIN Project: Residential Action In Neighborhoods - Minimizing Stormwater.
  • Installed 40 rain-gardens, three 500-gallon cisterns & one Bio-retention Basin, disconnected downspouts from combined sewer system.
  • Engaged UWM Student Service Learners regularly
  • Started Urban Fruit Orchard
  • Provided neighborhood tours to local, national, and international groups
  • Selected as lead agency for the Lindsay Heights area Zilber Neighborhood Initiative


  • Expand experiential learning resources within WW Neighborhood Center and land spaces
  • Increase experiential learning opportunities for neighborhood residents
  • Create cooperative business-investment opportunities for neighborhood residents
  • Intensify garden production on WW land [raised beds within Orchard, Shade Tree Nursery; Green House gardening]
  • Engage residents in intensive production gardening on private land
  • Serve as a model for reformation of urban neighborhoods in Milwaukee and elsewhere


Goal 1: Growing Prosperity 
  • Expand workforce development in landscaping & agriculture
  • Revitalize commercial corridor properties
Goal 2: Environmental Stewardship 
  • Transform vacant lots into healthy green spaces
  • Enhance the WW environmental campus Promote and attract housing resources
Goal 3: Civic Engagement 
  • Expand peer support networks Strengthen leadership opportunities
  • Create diverse engagement pathways for resident and partners to connect
Goal 4: Catalytic Development 
  • Develop the Innovations & Wellness Commons as a catalytic development
Goal 5: Sustainable Walnut Way 
  • Strengthen organizational capacity and resiliency to execute our mission