Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: The unlikeliest neighborhood

Dennis Walton remembers swimming in the new Calvin Moody indoor pool in the dead of winter.

Built in 1978, the 54,000-square-foot complex was a year-round gathering spot in what was then called Franklin Heights, on Milwaukee’s north side.

Journal Sentinel reporter John Schmid produced this special report through a Marquette University Law School fellowship established through the school's Sheldon B. Lubar Fund for Public Policy Research. The fellowship provides support for journalism projects on issues of civic importance. All the work was done under the direction of Journal Sentinel editors.

“It had a music system built into the pool so you could listen to the music underwater,” recalls Walton, 42, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. “Beethoven. The local radio station. Everything.”

The pool was surrounded by middle-class bungalows and duplexes, all within walking distance of well over 10,000 manufacturing jobs. Walton’s parents belonged to an African-American community that found in Milwaukee a promised land of entry level opportunity. His mother worked at a meatpacking house, his father at the giant Pabst Brewing Co.

Then the industrial economy collapsed. Factories shuttered, leaving vast expanses of concrete, broken glass and barbed wire. By the late ’90s, city planners signed off on a new name for the neighborhood around the pool: Amani, which means “peace” in Swahili.

It was more prayerful than descriptive.

Bars covered windows; parents told children to stay indoors.

“When the jobs left, the drugs came in,” Walton says.

“The off-the-books economy is the survival economy,” said Robert Neuwirth, author of “Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy.”

In 2002, the Milwaukee County parks system shuttered the 24-year-old Moody pool. The darkened building became a crime hub abutting Auer Avenue School, casting shadows over the children who went there.

Hopes rose briefly when a third building opened on the same block: a recreation center with big indoor basketball courts. But the Police Athletic League landed in bankruptcy court less than three years after it opened at a cost of $7.2 million — millions over budget. By 2005, Amani faced the prospect of two hulking lights-out edifices next to its grade school.

Today, more than half of Amani lives below the poverty line, making it one of the most extreme enclaves in one of America’s poorest cities. More than one in three residents is unemployed, nearly five times the rate in 1970. Nearly every block has boarded up and abandoned homes. The ZIP code it lands in — 53206 — led the city in homicides six of the past nine years of available data. Even after 10 years of effort, researchers at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee failed to locate any other ZIP code in the nation with a matching per-capita share of residents who are or were incarcerated.

And yet Amani recently adopted a new role: It has become the test case of an emerging new strategy meant to put a floor under Milwaukee’s relentless downward spiral. New ambitions for the neighborhood amount to a wholesale rethinking of how to approach economic and social decline.

How it turns out could dictate the paths taken in other neighborhoods, and by other cities across the country.

A new approach

Unable for decades to move the needle in a positive direction, Milwaukee’s leading foundations and nonprofits quietly are abandoning many of the leftover conventions of the last century. They no longer pretend to cover the entire city. Rather than spread finite funds randomly across the region, they target a handful of strategic neighborhoods with a barrage of focused funding and clustered support.

The idea is that agencies, activists, nonprofits, foundations, even law enforcement — coordinating strategically for the first time — pile on together in hopes of reaching a critical mass, turning enough individual lives around that ultimately a whole neighborhood stabilizes, and hopefully rebounds.

In the cumbersome lexicon of nonprofits, it’s called a “place-based collective impact model.” A football fan might call it “flooding the zone.”

Today, eight foundations actively coordinate their activities within Amani, including the Northwestern Mutual Foundation, the Burke Foundation, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Most send representatives to the meetings of Amani United, a reinvigorated community council.

More than two dozen programs are focused in Amani: day care; preschool; parent guidance; adult basic education; family counseling; performing arts; athletics; free meals. Residents have a place to call when their heat and electricity are shut off. The neighborhood has landed its own medical clinic.

“You just can’t swoop in and provide services,” said Tony Shields, a key player in the city’s new strategy. “You have to be place-based.”

A team that includes Walton has worked on preemptive crime initiatives with Safe & Sound Inc., a law enforcement liaison group, as well as the community prosecution units of the district attorney’s office, also based in the neighborhoods. Walton boasts of evicting street gangs — including one that called itself the Taliban. Twice, the teams got police to crack down on shadowy liquor stores suspected of drug involvement.

Walton still bristles at labels like “place-based impact,” which to him smack of top-down “we’re going to fix those people” social engineering schemes. But he recognizes a turnaround in Amani, where he still lives in his boyhood home.

“I’ve never seen so much camaraderie as I have in the last two or three years,” he says.

19-century idea

Amani is virtually invisible except to those who want to get there. Bordered on the north and south by W. Keefe Ave. and W. Center St., and on the east and west by N. 20th and N. 27th streets, much of it is tucked between the old factory zone and Union Cemetery.

In 2005, the neighborhood turned for help to an urban catalyst from the 19th century: a settlement house. It was an idea pioneered in 1889 on the Near West Side of Chicago by Jane Addams.

The classic American settlement house is little changed from Addams’ Hull House: a commons meant to foster cohesion within fractured populations of poor and working-class people. It sponsors recreational and social clubs, basic social services and an off-site summer camp for kids.

In Milwaukee, the oldest settlement house is the Children’s Outing Association, founded in 1906 and headquartered in the Riverwest community. The association stepped into the vacuum in Amani and acquired the Police Athletic League building, establishing a satellite settlement house.

The move galvanized attention in a city with some of the nation’s most ardent settlement house enthusiasts.

Among them was Susan Lloyd, head of the Zilber Family Foundation. In 2008, as it rolled out its first neighborhood initiatives, Zilber partnered with Milwaukee’s association of settlement houses — the United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee.

Zilber has since given $1.8 million to expand the concept. Six settlement houses are now integrated into collective impact neighborhood efforts in Milwaukee, often with an anchoring role in their respective neighborhoods, such as the one in Amani.

The term “settlement house” may sound quaint and antiquated. Versatile by design, it is intended to be the glue of social cohesion, ideal for collaboration. In Addams’ time, waves of immigrant Europeans — with conflicting languages, cultures and ethnic backgrounds — went on to become the fully integrated foundation of a solid suburban middle class in the 20th century.

“These institutions create a dignified atmosphere so people aren’t deterred from accepting services,” says Shields, who heads United Neighborhood Centers.

Conspicuously, Amani remains an economic dead zone. But the objective is not to rebuild the old industrial economy. Instead, it’s to foster some semblance of front-porch America in one of the nation’s most impoverished urban enclaves. “The main thing we’re building is invisible,” says Lloyd.

Jane Addams had one other legacy: In 1911, she co-founded a national network of settlement houses — the United Neighborhood Centers of America — which today also is based in Milwaukee. The 150-member group merged in 2014 with the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.

The Alliance, in turn, is a national leader in research on childhood trauma and its social impact. Its Wisconsin staff has carried out more statewide surveys of adverse childhood experiences than any other state. “Resilient and healthy and productive people live within resilient and healthy and productive neighborhoods. Settlements houses understand that and move on both fronts,” says Alliance CEO Susan Dreyfus.

It helps that the head of Amani’s settlement house — the COA Goldin Center — is politically well-connected. From 1993-2001, Tom Schneider served as U.S. attorney for Southeastern Wisconsin, and before that prosecuted white collar and organized crime as deputy Milwaukee County district attorney and assistant DA. Along the way, he co-founded Safe & Sound. In Milwaukee, he says, the city’s settlement houses now serve more low-income children and families than any other nonprofit organization.

“Individual programs help but don’t change the environment,” Schneider said about the old model. The fiery riots that erupted in August in the Sherman Park area “could have happened in a lot of Milwaukee neighborhoods,” Schneider said. But the likelihood they would engulf Amani are far less likely than other high-poverty enclaves, he said, “even though the economics in Amani are far worse than Sherman Park.”

Amani belongs to a national experiment of eight poor communities that are testing collective-impact tactics, including Brownsville in Brooklyn, N.Y., Roxbury in Boston and Magnolia in Los Angeles. Schneider meets representatives from each twice a year under the sponsorship of the Doris Duke Foundation and the University of California-Los Angeles. “They also actively measure whether or not they are seeing improved outcomes in their communities,” said Lola Adedokun, New York-based director of the eight-city initiative at Doris Duke and native of metro Milwaukee.

Seeing results

Lewis Lee pushes open the front door of the Goldin Center and says, “I love this place.”

Walking through the metal detector, he gestures to the health clinic sponsored by Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Down the west corridor is the Burke Early Education Center, filling two sun-drenched floors with day care, preschool and kindergarten.

Lee has a 1-year-old granddaughter, Myla, in the center’s care. There’s a teaching kitchen and a teen center. Lee runs a music studio with keyboards, where kids like to play with electronic beats.

Down the east corridor are a computer lab and homework room; a performing arts studio; an art center; and a parent education and family resource center. There are indoor basketball courts. Upstairs is a high school for at-risk students.

In keeping with the settlement house tradition of offering rural overnight resident camps, Amani youths also have access to a lakeside pine forest retreat in Portage County, about 150 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

No one expects a quick turnaround in Amani. It took nine years just to deal with the abandoned Moody pool.

In 2014, the county came up with $2 million to bulldoze the building and build a new park. Amani committees drew up plans for landscape architecture, creating a contiguous campus integrating the grade school, the new park and the settlement house. There are organic gardens, a baseball field, and a field house that serves free meals.

In a city known nationally for its parks, Moody Park is a modest addition. But it’s a fresh green expanse — complete with floodlights, discreet video surveillance cameras and hidden accoustic sensors called ShotSpotter that allow police to detect gunfire instantly.

Last year, Amani reported a 10% decrease in overall crime compared with 2015, while the drop citywide was about 4.6%, according to a report released in February.

Schneider says it’s not a fluke: Over the past four years, Amani has seen crime decrease 26%.

Global connection

It’s easy to mistake the steel shipping container outside the COA Goldin Center as a garbage Dumpster. It’s actually one of only 24 “portals” that exist around the world.

They’re in places like Iran, Iraq, Mexico, South Korea, Gaza and Myanmar. Two are in Syrian refugee camps. There’s one at Stanford University, one at the United Nations, one each in Chicago and Detroit.

Each portal is identical, inside and out. Each is fitted with immersive audio and video technology, soundproofing, air conditioning and carpeting. Those who enter can converse live — full-body, eye contact — with someone in another place on the planet as if in the same room.

Lee is the Amani portal’s full-time curator and runs it like a talk show, pulling in school kids and sometimes local cops on the beat. For a district long saddled with anonymity and isolation, even within its own city, Amani residents find plenty to chatter about. “We are going to bring the world to us,” Walton says.

Sitting inside the shipping container like it’s their clubhouse, Walton and Lee talk about changes in the neighborhood, including the local vocabulary. The word “trauma” has crept into the neighborhood vocabulary.

Lee grew up in Chicago, where his father was a gang member who turned state’s evidence. When Lee was 9, his dad needed to escort him and his siblings to school for protection. One day a sinister car pulled up. His father was faster on the draw, killing three men as his children watched.

Lee’s father went to prison, and federal authorities put the rest of Lee’s family in a witness protection program, which sent them to Milwaukee. Lee became a drug dealer and was shot five times in a petty robbery directly in front of the grade school. His younger brother, a cousin and two friends died in the incident. He has served three prison terms.

Today, Lee is a newly minted global citizen. One of his best friends is Baza Yves, curator of the portal in Rwanda, a nation that only 20 years ago was engulfed in genocide but has since transformed.

“For now, the United States is more violent than Africa,” Yves tells Lee through the portal.

Lee’s greatest passion is hosting international dialogs on criminal justice.

Lately, Lee’s been fascinated by Syrians, whom he’s met through the portal. They risked their lives to escape a ruthless regime, and build better lives.

“They lost relatives,” he says. “They witnessed gun violence.”

He doesn’t have to say “too.”