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From The Ground Up
Groundwork Milwaukee's urban gardens strengthen neighborhoods and transform the landscape one lot at a time


November 2016

Photography by Matt Haas

On a hot Saturday in June, our tour group exits the yellow school bus, crosses Ring Street and steps past the threshold of a corner-lot community garden. It’s the home of Andre Lee Ellis’ We Got This, a program that teaches 12- to 16-year-old boys in the community about growing food, and here they are: watering plants and digging dirt to fill new raised beds.

At the back of the lot, a DJ plays music near benches, where Ellis invites us to sit. With rhythm and rhymes, style and swagger, he welcomes us to this community project, where he tells us how it began. He’s an entertaining showman, and that’s what you need when you want to collect donations to pay the kids $20 each for four hours’ work.

While Ellis is the star of this show, he makes sure to acknowledge the boys for their part — even as he scolds them to continue gardening. Then he calls Antoine Carter’s name and motions for the program director of Groundwork Milwaukee and manager of its largest program, Milwaukee Urban Gardens (MUG), to join him. Carter stands next to Ellis with his head down, seemingly embarrassed by the praise he knows he’s about to receive.

Later I’ll learn that Carter is a true champion of the community members he works with — like Ellis — who are passionate about bringing people together to transform Milwaukee’s vacant lots into gardens, orchards, gathering places — really whatever their vision for the space may be.

“I help them, but when it’s time to water and weed, I’m nowhere to be found,” Carter says. “I realize that, so I try not to take the credit for that.”

Yet his role is key. As much as successful garden projects need charismatic leaders who excel at community engagement, they need someone like Carter, who listens to what residents want and works with them and city employees to make those dreams take root.

Photography by Matt Haas

MUG’s Roots

After a group of residents started a garden on a city-owned vacant lot and subsequently lost the garden because they didn’t have permission to use the land, they formed MUG in 2000. In 2013, MUG became part of Groundwork Milwaukee, a land trust that leases lots, offers insurance and ultimately protects these groups for the duration of their lease.

“We’re like training wheels for getting a community garden,” says Carter, who manages 90 gardens in 20 neighborhoods and, as point person for the projects, has developed strong relationships with his partners at the Department of City Development, the Department of Neighborhood Services and HOME GR/OWN, the mayor’s urban agriculture program. He also secures large-scale funding for MUG projects and manages the Green Team youth who work on them.

After a lease is up, groups can negotiate another one. “As you move up in these leases, you get permanency,” Carter says, “but the cost is, like in a three-year lease, now you have to shovel the snow.

The more you want, the more you have to put in.

“But you’re able to build bigger structures, you’re able to do more on the space,” he says, adding that some groups, such as Victory Garden Initiative’s Concordia Gardens, have purchased their lots from the city. “The goal is to get it out of the city’s hands and into someone’s who is dedicated to keeping the momentum of the garden going for a long while,” he says. “(Creating) efficient, really engaged projects is the end goal; how we get there is the fun part.”

Photography by Matt Haas

Real Garden Variety

On the Newaukee Detours community garden tour, Carter shows us projects that vary in scope, from ones that aim simply to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for neighbors to enjoy healthy meals to ones that also showcase art with social commentary.

For example, at one garden on the north side, artwork featuring a young black man reads: “Even though I may sag my pants, my apparel does not make me who I am. … I am not a statistic.”

In fact, this community garden in Carter’s mother’s neighborhood is the very one that brought him to MUG and Groundwork in the first place. “My mom saw how awesome Groundwork was,” he says. “(She) nudged me, asked me to come join her.”

So five years ago he helped her start the garden, and she created a full-fledged program with neighborhood kids. Still a garden leader, she’s even more active in the community as secretary of her neighborhood association. It’s success stories like hers that he points to when he discusses the benefits of urban agriculture.

“Urban ag ties into everything,” he says. “It ties into the sewer system, it ties into nutrition, public health, community development. One of my jobs is framing urban ag and highlighting those other ripples that are benefits and not just (that) you get to leave with a tomato, because that’s one really big benefit — but it’s not the only benefit.

“Even the term ‘community garden’ — a lot of people focus on the garden part, but without the community, the garden won’t take off,” he says.

And some residents, especially in poorer neighborhoods, are eager to get involved to make their surroundings brighter. “People in these areas are tired of looking at vacant lots, tired of going to schools that don’t challenge them, tired of looking around and not finding a lot of opportunity,” Carter says. “Groundwork is not going to (solve) world hunger tomorrow, but these projects really go far to let residents know that they matter, that their ideas are valued, that where they live counts.”

Photography by Matt Haas

Sprouts of Peace

Commemorating the fair housing marches in the ’60s, artwork depicting Father James Groppi and the Milwaukee Commandos by Nicolas Lampert and Paul Kjelland looms large in Peace Place Park, at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Ring Street. Behind one mural, a structure directs rainwater into a barrel to quench the thirst of vegetables in raised beds for days to come. Purple coneflowers decorate a walking path that meanders past a Little Free Library, and a few yards away a wooden xylophone bench playfully offers respite.

Peace Place already exudes natural and man-made beauty, and it’s still a work in progress whose collaborators include HeartLove Place, Michael Carriere of MSOE, Lampert of UW-Milwaukee, ReciproCity, Walnut Way’s Blue Skies Landscaping and rapper/activist Fidel Verdin.

“Antoine was excited to help me find a location that would accommodate my grand, wild, colorful ideas,” says Verdin, also the garden leader for Peace Park at Fifth and Locust streets. “The moment I met Antoine I knew we would do great work and make some cool things come to life.”

“He has a good mix of urban ag and hip-hop, and you can clearly see it at the Peace Park,” Carter says of Verdin. “He’s dedicated to transforming spaces in a way that’s a little different from what used to happen in the past. A lot of groups would shortchange themselves with just a garden, and so I’m trying to tell them that minus some things — heights of fences and things like that — you can do a lot. … My goal is to create these larger spaces that encompass art, literature — just a multifaceted space.”

Verdin and the team are planning to build a stage at Peace Place, and several groups, including students from UWM and MSOE, have hosted events in the park.

Of student involvement in the project, Carter says: “(It was) a way for college students to engage with the community, giving them firsthand experience, allowing them the benefit of seeing things through, so now when those college students come past, they see a project that has their fingerprints on it as well.”

In Full Flourish

Connecting all of these players is part of Carter’s job, and his laid-back style and people skills no doubt keep projects running smoothly even when tempers flare.

“Antoine has the patience and the perseverance to work through all the challenges that working with diverse groups of people bring,” says Nick DeMarsh, food systems developer and Young Farmers Program manager at Groundwork Milwaukee. “He sees the best in people.”

“Milwaukee gets a bad rap about people who don’t care about the neighborhoods, but there are a ton of people who care, and they don’t get any sort of recognition,” Carter says. “So we’re honored to, one, know those people and be able to work with them, and, two, be able to celebrate their successes and hard work,” he says of Groundwork Milwaukee’s second Strong Roots Awards next month.

And so the humble Midwesterner and behind-the-scenes man will step into the spotlight as host for the event — fittingly to then shine the light on others.

Food in Your Belly & Love in Your Heart

If you feel grateful for what you have and want to give back to the community this holiday season, consider donating time or money to Groundwork Milwaukee or one of these organizations also looking for volunteers:

House of Peace and St. Ben’s Community Meal

House of Peace helps families with food and clothing, and St. Ben’s feeds the homeless and at-risk populations. You can prepare and serve meals, stock shelves in the emergency food pantry, or sort gently used clothing for distribution. (414) 374-8841, ext. 41

Kathy’s House

At the guesthouse for patients and families who are in town for medical care, you can make a meal, bake cookies, decorate the house or lead a craft project. (414) 453-8290,

Riverwest Food Pantry

This organization provides healthy food to people on the northeast side. You can drop in Saturdays at 8 a.m., or call ahead to stock shelves or prep produce at other times throughout the week. (262) 518-2009,

Salvation Army

Provide kitchen prep, greet guests or help with check-in at this year’s Christmas Family Feast Dec. 25. You can also help distribute and sort new toys donated for the Christmas Toy Shop, a program that helps parents in the greater Milwaukee area with gifts for their children. (414) 302-4300, ext. 2163,

This story ran in the November 2016 issue of: