by Melanie Lawder and Shoshauna Schmidt
It was a cold and windy day last May when an eclectic mix of people installed the 53rd Street Community Garden in Sherman Park. This project has since fostered and strengthened ties between local schools and residents.
“The feel of the day was, just, very united,” said Sean Kiebzak, the environmental specialist hired by Arts@Large to help shepherd the garden. “All the community members [were] just really excited that a project like this was going on. We had members from the Orthodox Jewish community there, the 53rd Street community – people from all over the city.”
The community garden was a finalist for the Northern Trust Navigator Award, part of the Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDI). The award recognizes organizations that bring together diverse voices and resources to improve the community.
Those diverse voices and resources include local residents, community artists, the Norwood Neighborhood Group, the Sherman Park Community Association and students and teachers from two neighboring schools. The garden, which sits in the lot behind the 53rd Street School, shares a play area with Yeshiva Elementary School, an Orthodox Jewish school located across the street.
One organization provided the crucial link among these groups.
“Arts@Large actually bridged the gap,” said Bridgette Hood, principal of 53rd Street School. “They actually brought us together.”
Arts@Large is a nonprofit funded by the U.S. Department of Education and dedicated to providing schools and students with a nurturing, multi-faceted art curriculum. The community garden stemmed from the organization’s “Growing Great Gardens” program. According to the nonprofit’s website, the program aims to link art and environmental education together through garden creation and outdoor learning.
“Where students may struggle in certain aspect of the curriculum or classroom work, they may find that they thrive or excel in the arts,” Kiebzak said. “Incorporating that into the classroom makes it more accessible for the student to learn the subject matter and to really be creative.”
Kiebzak collaborated with the 53rd Street School’s teachers and principal. Together, they helped students recognize and understand the connection between art and environmental science.
Teacher Erick McGinley found the garden to be especially useful for his class.
“It’s really a unique thing, because in a classroom, you try and simulate those outside experiences,” McGinley said. “But when you get out there and you actually have it, it’s totally different and the kids know that.”
The schools are not the garden’s only beneficiaries. Of the 57 garden beds, about 10 plots belong to the 53rd Street School and two belong to Yeshiva. Community residents, including families, older adults and couples, tend to the remaining plots. Like the students, they grow a myriad of plants, including flowers and vegetables.
Wendy Washington, a local resident and member of the Sherman Park Community Association, has two garden plots – one for her and her husband, and the other for her two daughters. She uses her plots to teach her children where their food comes from.
Sandy Short and Sarah Korb, also Sherman Park residents, bonded over the nuances of gardening. They had not met before, but their plots sit right next to each other, presenting them the opportunity to meet and become friends.
“It was surreal, almost, to me,” Short said. “(There was) this great level of cooperation and neighborhood harmony. I just loved it.”
Arts@Large is pleased with the garden’s success in bringing the community together.
“We accomplished everything we set out to do,” Kiebzak said, “and that was establishing a space for the community to come and enjoy (the garden) that is beautified by the students and that helps the community members reach a more sustainable way of life.”