MILWAUKEE — A neighborhood is like a garden. It is full of bright and beautiful life when it blossoms. However, gardens need people to tend and grow the flowers. Things are constantly changing. It takes constant work. Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood is blossoming bit by bit thanks to the neighbors helping it grow.
In this edition of My Block, I met Camille Mays, so she could show me her neighborhood through her eyes and her experiences. Where we went, who we talked to, and what we discussed was all up to her. The goal is to learn about the communities around us from the people that know them best - the neighbors - like Camille. Welcome to Sherman Park.
Sherman Park is literally full of gardens. Camille plants Peace Gardens to honor victims of gun violence. She began in 2015 after a 69 percent increase in the number of homicides in Milwaukee from 2014. She calls it the Peace Garden Project MKE.
"I'm hoping we reduce those homicides. That's the goal of peace gardens to fight for peace. To reduce violence. To plant peace and love in the streets and not to have all these homicides like we're seeing now. Just to get out and spread some love in the community," Camille said.
It's a pain she unfortunately knows. Her son, Booka, was shot and killed in November 2019.
"And I know from my personal experience. I've had trauma all my life, and I know it helped me, and I looked up plant therapy. It is therapy. It does help you with mindfulness and well being," she said.
Most of the gardens are planted near where the victim was shot. However, Booka's is outside of Camille's house. There are Peace Gardens near Clover Nook Park, near 76th and Silver Spring, and 46th and Wright Streets just to name a few. For however successful Peace Garden Project MKE has been, it's not something she wants to do for her entire life.
"I'm hoping to work myself out of business like most people doing work in the community should hope to do. So my whole goal isn’t to sustain myself, but to work peace gardens out of business. I'm hoping I don’t have to do peace gardens that much," she said.
Love In Unlikely Places
More than just flowers have blossomed in Sherman Park. In fact, Camille met her fiancé, Greg Powell II, while working on a Peace Garden at the corner of 39th and Center for Emani Robinson. Greg managed the convenience store at that corner. He would bring Camille and other volunteers water.
"I couldn’t help to but to gravitate towards her because it seemed as though we were supposed to be together. Like there wasn’t even a choice in the matter," Greg said.
At first, Camille said she gave him a "bit of a hard time" which Greg quickly responded to with "yea she did." But the love between the two was undeniable, and now they are engaged.
"A match made in heaven but through a lot of pain because what got us there were unconventional things that maybe not everyone would understand," Greg said.
Now Greg works with Camille as her right hand man.
"And I was pretty much a one girl show, so he's my other half in everything," Camille said.
My Other Mother
On our walk through Sherman Park, Camille insisted we meet her neighbor, Ms. Lular. Camille calls Ms. Lular her 'other mother' for how close the two are.
Ms. Lular is one of the neighborhood elders. She has been in the community for around 35 years and has seen a lot of change in the neighborhood - most of which has been good.
"Our neighborhood is going to be one of the premier neighborhoods of Sherman Park. Yes we are. Yes we are," Ms. Lular said. We care over here. We care, and we love each other."
People have each other's back in Sherman Park. It's a way of keeping an eye on the neighborhood. Ms. Lular who is a self-described lover of fashion has tons of pairs of heels. She said her neighbors thought she had moved out because they couldn't hear her iconic walk anymore.
"They would know I'm on the way to the bus stop cause they hear me walking. I wear high heels. They would tell me they hear the high heels walking down the street, and we built a relationship from that."
"And when I retired, someone was like, 'we said either you moved or you just retired because we didn’t hear the high heels anymore.' And that's how we look out for one another. Little things connect us," she said.
In fact, Camille will often get phone calls if someone is dropping off a package because in the Sherman Park neighborhood, they keep a watch out for everyone. During a reshoot, for the My Block video, Camille came out to see why Ms. Lular was outside. Camille didn't know I was there filming Ms. Lular. She just wanted to check on her neighbor.
Just like a garden needs tending to grow, so too does a neighborhood.
As Camille was pulling weeds and clearing debris from Emani's Peace Garden she said, "It's just a reminder to me that it's constant growth, and that things are constantly growing. Things are constantly changing, and we have to constantly keep maintaining, and we cant give up."
The neighborhood needs people like Camille, Ms. Lular, and Greg to help the community grow and prosper. Camille said that not everything in Sherman Park is perfect, which is why they have to work to make the neighborhood better. Just like pulling weeds from a garden. Because a garden left unattended will only whither.
"Instead of watching it, walking by, looking at it a certain way, we can just do it," she said.
The last place the Camille took us was the Center Street Nail Bar. Camille said the people who own that business are the perfect example of community stewards who live, work, and play in the neighborhood.
They are active members of their Neighborhood Improvement District and are constantly investing resources into the community to improve the neighborhood. However, at the same time, they are campaigning to get more attention and resources so that they can create palpable change.
"This looks different than it does downtown, in the Third Ward, Doctor King Drive, on North Avenue because city resources are being infused into those areas, and we are just as capable, just as competent, and we are good stewards of the resources that we do have," owner of the nail salon Ms. Jennifer said.
They said there is no reason that their business district shouldn't look any different from others in Milwaukee.
If you want your neighborhood to be featured or know someone who would be a good ambassador for their community reach out to James Groh at firstname.lastname@example.org.