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Milwaukee is adding more neighborhood healing spaces. They transform vacant lots into Little Free Libraries, gardens and public art.

April 1, 2022
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More Little Free Libraries, public art, flowers, herb gardens and other things designed to create peaceful spaces throughout Milwaukee are likely coming by fall under an expanding city program.

The Healing Spaces initiative was launched last year as a pilot effort.

It beautified and activated eight city-owned vacant lots throughout the Harambee neighborhood, bordered roughly by Holton Street, I-43, Walnut Street and Olive Street.

A $70,000 grant from Bader Philanthropies paid for amenities such as a sculpture garden, shaded places to rest, herb gardens and Little Free Libraries.

Now, the Department of City Development is expanding that program to other neighborhoods with $50,000 in city funds — which could be supplemented with private foundation grants.

Community groups, such as block clubs and neighborhood associations, as well as individual residents, can submit their ideas, and applications for grants of $5,000 to $10,000, by April 15 for this year’s program.

Individual residents who apply must have the support of a community organization to ensure that an improved space is properly maintained.

Applications can be submitted online through the department’s Neighborhood Improvement Development Corp. at its website.

Any city-owned vacant lot is eligible for an application.

Focus on four north side neighborhoods

But the city’s focus is on four north side neighborhoods: Harambee, Borchert Field, Franklin Heights and Lindsay Heights.

The healing spaces are to be designed and built from spring through fall.

A healing space does more than just beautify what was a blighted lot, said. Ald. Milele Coggs, whose district includes Harambee.

“It also has the power to bring people together,” she said, while shining “a positive light on our neighborhoods and communities.”

With the Healing Spaces Initiative “you’re really creating an opportunity for people to feel just a little bit more connected to their environment … and a little more centered,” said Development Commissioner Lafayette Crump.

Crump and Coggs were among the 50 or so people attending a virtual meeting Tuesday to discuss the program and encourage grant applications.

“We want residents to find some place in their own neighborhood to find solace,” said Kacee Ochalek, Neighborhood Improvement Development Corp. community outreach coordinator, who led the discussion.

The city will provide technical support for each healing space project, Ochalek told the group.

That includes planning, with both site design as well as engaging neighborhood residents to get their input; construction, with local contractors recommended who have experience with building public green space, and basic site maintenance, with the city Department of Public Works mowing grass, clearing snow and removing litter.

A site that receives funding will go through community engagement about the planned changes, and then a visioning session with a contractor, Ochalek said.

Design ideas that come from those visioning sessions will then go back to the neighborhood residents for their responses, and possible changes, before construction.

The construction of each healing space will include two three-hour volunteer work sessions on two separate days, Ochalek said.

Along with building the improvements, she said, those volunteer sessions help build community.

“Those are really, really special days,” Ochalek said

Neighborhood needs, accessibility important

In choosing a site (the city currently owns around 2,900 vacant lots), grant applicants should consider what the neighborhood needs, she said.

Another important factor: making sure whatever is built is fully accessible to people with disabilities, Ochalek said.

Accessibility was a key issue for a healing space developed during the 2021 pilot program by Solomon Community Temple United Methodist Church, 3295 N. King Drive.

Church members used some of the funding to create a path, accessible for people using wheelchairs, that led from a Milwaukee County Transit System bus stop to the entry into the church’s food pantry.

The space also features planters, benches and a Little Free Library, said Katharine Goray, chair of the church’s outreach ministries.

People have been using the space, including the improved path, she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

It’s part of a larger pocket park, known as The Belonging Place, being created by the church.

Other spaces developed from the 2021 pilot program include:

• Adams Park Sunshine Garden, 3760 N. Second St., to be completed this summer. It will feature a path, a picnic table, patio, a Little Free Library and small water fountain.

• Harambee Tot Lot, 129 E. Keefe Ave., to be completed this spring. It has a sail cloth shade structure, benches, a patio surrounded by an herb garden and a Little Free Library.

• Tranquility on the Trail, near the northwest corner of East Townsend and North Holton streets, completed in 2021. The space’s perennial garden includes a pergola to provide a shady resting spot for people using the neighboring Beerline Trail. It also has a Little Free Library.

• Peace Park, 3240 N. King Drive, to be completed by September.  ​A path will connect an existing urban garden to a space where peach, cherry, plum and apricot trees have been planted, along with an herb and sensory garden. There also are benches, with a Little Free Library to be installed.

• Sculpture Garden, 2868 N. Richards St., completed in 2021. It includes a patio with a chess table and two seats, as well as perennial gardens to attract pollinators and butterflies and a concrete pad for future art installations.

• Meditation Meadow, 2571 N. Second St., completed in 2021. A path leads to a bench with a small water fountain. There’s also a Little Free Library, perennial gardens (including one with medicinal herbs) and a shade sail to be reinstalled this spring.

• Island Life with a Touch of Relaxation, 2470 N. First St., completed in 2021. A  patio with a pergola and benches are surrounded by a perennial herb garden. There’s also a Little Free Library.

The Healing Spaces Initiative originated with a realization by Frank Cumberbatch, Bader Philanthropies vice president of engagement, that the Little Free Libraries movement started in Wisconsin.

Cumberbatch, a Neighborhood Improvement Development Corp. board member, thought of blending such libraries with public art and other features to create “just a little quiet space in the chaos of the city.”

“I really think these are the types of things we have to bring into our poorer neighborhoods,” Cumberbatch said.