Donna Handel and Roberta Lyles did not like what they saw from their front porch on Third Street in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood. Power lines with hanging sneakers signaled drug dealing. Gunshots went off like firecrackers at night. Foreclosed homes started outnumbering occupied residences. Litter lined a vacant lot in the middle of the block. Kids played in the busy street.
Handel and Lyles wanted it all to change.
“No, this is not a ghetto,” she would tell those who believed they lived in the ghetto. “This is a community.”
This vision grew into the Cluster II Play and Grow Lot, which is a community garden and natural playground. The main idea behind the lot was to give the community an inter-generational spot to socialize. Children play on tree cookies, which are painted tree stumps that they can jump around on, have tea parties on or play any other imagination-based game they can dream up. While the children explore the natural playground, parents or grandparents can garden in the beds adjacent to the playground.
This year, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. nominated the lot for a Milwaukee Award for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDI) Award.
Handel and Lyles teamed with Groundwork Milwaukee, a non-profit organization that looks to improve the community through community gardens. Mary Beth Driscoll, executive director of Groundwork Milwaukee, operations director Dave Mangin, and Antoine Carter, outreach coordinator for the site’s volunteer team, helped bring the pair’s idea to life.
“They finished what they started, and that’s a very good thing,” Carter said of the duo.
“Groundwork is all about taking away that vacant lot, taking away that blight to create a platform for people to get to know each other,” Driscoll said.
It all began 30 years ago when Handel and Lyles, became good friends and decided to rent a house together. Sick of the crime in their community, they sought after a place in the neighborhood where children could play safely.
“We just thought to ourselves: ‘Hey, the drug man is out here and he’s taking the kids. Why can’t we get out here and do something for our children?’”
Handel added: “We did this for the neighborhood. We didn’t do this for ourselves.”
The garden provides some benefits for Handel and Lyles too. While Lyles joked that the garden keeps her young, harvesting the food grown in garden might actually do it. The gardeners harvest the food and then distribute equally among the neighbors. Lyles, who has her own gardening bed labeled ‘Roberta,’ says planting food is one of her favorite parts of the garden. She enjoys planting various vegetables, including tomatoes and string beans.
In addition to gardening, Lyles created a summer program for younger children called “Rainbow Summer,” where she teaches the kids about what goes on in the garden.
“People don’t understand. They’re looking at teenagers, ages 12-21. We’re trying to take the little ones from three-10 and show them that there’s a different way to life,” said Handel.
Lyles said she asked her class where food comes from on the first day of her summer class. Their response: the grocery store. “Where else does it come from?” she then asked. “I don’t know, it just comes out of the grocery store,” they said. She fired back: “Well, you’re going to learn where else it comes from.” Lyles’ teaching, combined with the community gardening, has made an impact.
“The great thing about Cluster II is that it is not just a community garden,” Mangin said. “It serves as a demonstration for what could be done and replicated throughout the city. As far as the MANDI awards go, there are projects that are bigger and more glamorous, but this is one that is in the heart of the neighborhood that really needs it.”
Handel said that the prestige of the MANDI Award does not matter to her.
“It’s what you do to try to make this neighborhood better," she said. "It’s not only here. It’s throughout the city of Milwaukee and the United States. That’s what counts.”