MILWAUKEE — The Amani Neighborhood in Milwaukee stretches from 35th to 15th Streets and from Capitol Drive to North Avenue.
Barbara Smith has lived here a long time. “About 20 years,” she says.
In that time, homeownership rates have fallen and many of the homes are showing their age. Community leaders say abandoned properties became a problem – including one dubbed “The Critter House.”
“That house became infested with every type of free roaming rodent, animal, cat and dog, you name it, it lived there,” says Denisha Tate-McAlister, director of the Block by Block program in the Amani Neighborhood.
Smith says over the years plenty of organizations came in to spruce up the neighborhood, but residents didn’t have a lot of trust in those groups.
“There were so many promises made,” Smith says. “They’d come in and they’d do something and they were satisfied with that something and then they were gone.”
It’s part of the reason Smith helped found Amani United several years ago. It’s a group representing the neighborhood’s interests for people who might not be able to attend local government meetings.
“We are here, we’re standing up for ourselves, we just need your assistance to get some of the things we want done,” Smith says.
The voice of Amani United was heard and the Amani Block by Block program was created in 2019.
Maricha Harris, executive director of Dominican Center, says her organization came together with Northwestern Mutual and Ezekiel Community Development Corporation to make it happen.
“We firmly believe that the residents, while closest to the challenges in the community, that also makes them closest to the solutions,” Harris says.
And those solutions vary from neighbor to neighbor. It might be legal advice for people inheriting property or dealing with citations. It could be finding grants and funding to help pay for repairs.
But Jim Gaillard says it might also be teaching people to make those repairs themselves.
“It’s an awesome feeling, it’s a great accomplishment and they want more of it,” he says.
Smith says that’s especially important – giving people the tools to help themselves.
“If you come in and do it for us, that’s wonderful, that’s great, but it won’t be sustained because you didn’t equip us,” she says. “You didn’t give us the tools we needed to keep it going, to sustain it.”
“Building a new building or painting a new building, that’s not revitalizing,” says Gaillard. “Revitalizing is when you’re energizing the people, making them believe in themselves, making them trust each other, working together.”
“One person having pride in their home is great, but when it becomes contagious, it becomes our block – an expectation. Our block – we own it. We’re proud of it,” adds Tate-McAlister.
The program has seen a lot of success – and everyone involved hopes to apply this approach to other blocks in Amani and around the city.
Smith admits, there’s a long way to go. Amani didn’t get this way overnight. But she’s confident – and proud.
“We’re going to reach the ultimate goal, which is revitalizing not only these properties, but the residents as well.”