Start at the swings and walk south, across Brown Street onto 18th. Stepping from the park to its neighborhood, you’ll find a stretch of blocks unlike any in Milwaukee. There’s a scattering of classic, 100-year old Milwaukee houses, but a majority of the homes are of a style that would be more familiar to a suburban subdivision. And still, a few vacant lots dot each block, spots where structures once stood with nothing taking its place. This is Johnsons Park.
I had the great privilege of producing a video highlighting the Johnsons Park neighborhood, as well as major and longstanding investments in the community made by the Rotary Club of Milwaukee. Along with my collaborator Wes Tank, we spent time with residents and stakeholders, exploring many facets of the community and documenting what we found.
The video speaks for itself — and we recommend you watch it — but because Johnsons Park is deserving of a full-length documentary, we had to leave out a great deal of the neighborhood’s backstory. Below, I offer a little of what we could not include.
Deep roots & profound upheaval
In the mid-1800s, Deacon Samuel Brown’s farmstead occupied the land of Johnsons Park. The Brown family residence, located roughly where Feeding America stands today, was a crucial stop on the Underground Railroad. They harbored an untold number of African-Americans escaping slavery on their way to freedom in Canada, including both Joshua Glover and Caroline Quarrls.
In the early and mid-1900s, the Great Migration brought an influx of black families from the South, seeking opportunity in the “Machine Shop of the World” and a better life in Milwaukee. Just up the road from Walnut Street, Johnsons Park was a key part of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville. Thousands of families laid down roots in the neighborhood and built a tight-knit community that promised a bright future.
In the late 60s, the I-43 interstate highway was connected from north to south, requiring thousands of homes to be torn down and tens of thousands of families to be displaced — the majority of them African-American. On the heels of I-43, in the early 70s, another freeway called the “Park West” was planned. Its route would cut along Fond Du Lac Avenue, bending westward on North Avenue, continuing on to Wauwatosa. To prepare for the Park West, thousands more homes were taken and razed through eminent domain. This time, the highway was never completed due to a series of coordinated community demonstrations, but left behind a massive scar of vacant land and disrupted lives.
In the subsequent decades, deindustrialization took hold in Milwaukee, causing nearly 100,000 industrial jobs to leave Milwaukee’s urban core. This left a fraction of the opportunity that attracted families and workers to Milwaukee in previous decades.
Digging in & building up
With so many holes in the fabric of the community, in the 80s, some described the neighborhood as “a smile missing most of its teeth.” But in Johnsons Park, it was darkest before the dawn.
While a preponderance of vacant land can be seen as a challenge, it presents an unlikely opportunity in the core of a dense urban city — the chance to build.
Sparked by urban redevelopment programs, a wave of predominantly African-American professionals began to build new homes in the 90s and 00s. While each family had the means to live anywhere in the city or surrounding suburbs, they chose to create a new neighborhood in Johnsons Park. Named for Cleopatra and Clarence Johnson — important African-American professional and community leaders in the first half of the 1900s — the neighborhood embodies one of the most breathtaking turnarounds anywhere in Milwaukee.
The park that shares the Johnsons Park name followed a similar trajectory. In 2002, the Public Policy Forum ranked Johnsons Park as the most neglected of the 52 parks in their study. But with major support from the Rotary Club and others, a series of coordinated investments has authored a new story over the last 16 years. One of the most major green spaces on Milwaukee’s near North Side, Johnsons Park has gone from being a magnet for nuisance activity to a place frequented by families from the adjacent community.
Across 20th St. from the park, Alice’s Garden is a 2.2 acre urban farm where a block of homes once stood. With garden plots tended by over 100 families and organizations, the space has become a critical hub for community events. Milwaukeeans from all walks of life gather there for potlucks, critical dialogues, yoga, labyrinth walks and much more.
This “green energy” has spilled over into the neighboring Brown Street Academy, an anchor of the neighborhood for generations. With major support from the Rotary Club and design by Center for Resilient City, their concrete playground has been augmented with outdoor classrooms and green spaces inspired by Milwaukee’s native prairie habitat. These improvements have created a brand new experience for students, offering a slice of nature in their backyard.
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From the founding of Feeding America to investments in the neighborhood’s current momentum, Rotary has been an essential part of Johnsons Park’s renaissance. And through the process of filming the video, we got the sense that Johnsons Park is just getting started. Neighbors are eager to keep moving forward, but also recognize that progress is not inevitable without a good deal of work and continued investment.