When I think about Milwaukee, I think about the TV show Happy Days, the story of teenagers Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his legendary friend “The Fonz” (Henry Winkler). Episodes of this funny, fictional show always seemed to have a happy ending. But for some, life in Milwaukee has been full of serious challenges over the years. This is especially true for many in the Milwaukee community of Walnut Way.
Located in the city’s downtown core, Walnut Way was traditionally a community for African Americans, many of whom migrated to Milwaukee from the agricultural south after World War Two. They found thriving industries in the city. At that time, the Milwaukee was still segregated, so many settled in Walnut Way. They bought homes and planted gardens and fruit trees. They could afford higher education for their children. They lived something like the American Dream.
In the 1970s, everything changed as a result of globalization. Increasingly, it became cheaper to outsource manufacturing jobs to other countries and unemployment became a big problem in Walnut Way. Residents lost their jobs. Property values plummeted. Young people felt hopeless and restless, and crime rates and social problems increased.
But in 1998, there was a movement to bring hope, abundance, and prosperity back into the community. It was led by residents Larry Adams, his wife Sharon, and the founders of the Walnut Way Conservation Corporation.
Their first step was to plant peach trees on an empty lot in the neighbourhood. They enlisted young people to help improve the soil, a challenging task. They planted sunflowers, which suck toxins and heavy metals out of the soil. The sunflowers needed to be moved into the garbage, rather than the compost, otherwise they would rerelease those toxins as they decomposed. (More information about this can be found in urbanfruittree.com’s Soil Workshop.)
The workers brought in new soil and planted the trees, and have nurtured them over the years. Meanwhile, they continued to launch new community initiatives, including planting vegetable gardens, planning community events, working on artistic projects, and organizing job training for young people. Now, some of the trees produce enough fruit to feed the community and to sell or distribute to local agencies, like the food bank.
During my visit in 2013, Larry Adams told me that their goal, in planting fruit trees, was to create a feeling of abundance rather than scarcity. Seeing those beautiful peach trees full of near-ripe peaches made it clear to me that the feeling of abundance in Walnut Way is getting stronger every year.