Editor’s note: This article is one of an occasional series profiling the 12 finalists for the Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Innovation (MANDIs). The LBWN Block Projects Menu is a finalist for the PNC Bank Trailblazer Award for an innovative approach to a community problem.
Layton Boulevard West Neighbors is proving small changes can make a big difference.
Through the organization’s Block Project Menu initiative, many Burnham Park, Layton Boulevard and Silver City residents have received address plaques, neighborhood flags and exterior lights for their homes. The residents say that as a result of this and other LBWN projects, they feel safer on their blocks and more connected to their neighbors.
The idea for the Block Project Menu stemmed from a desire to build leadership and social cohesion among neighbors and improve the safety, identity and appearance of the three South Side neighborhoods LBWN supports.
In 2011, LBWN created a Quality of Life Plan for its communities, with goals of improving neighborhood appearance, community safety and social engagement, among other things. However, the organization struggled at first to spur real change, explained Jonatan Zuñiga, a LBWN community outreach manager.
“In community development we have these discussions about how do we build resident leadership, how do we build social cohesion in diverse neighborhoods like this one where we have residents who only speak Spanish and residents who only speak English,” Zuñiga said.
So in 2016 the organization started individual block projects, in which the residents of one street gather outside on the block and choose the project they want to pursue from a “menu,” including flowers, decorative outdoor chairs, flags, exterior lighting, yard signs and address plaques.
“It makes an abstract idea into something concrete the neighbors can do,” Zuñiga said, “and it makes it easier to engage residents.”
More than 300 neighbors have participated in block projects, including 31 who have stepped up as block captains.
Zuñiga recruited resident Debby Montano a few years ago to serve as a block captain to help engage neighbors in block parties and projects. Montano has lived in the neighborhood for four years but was never involved in her community until she began working with LBWN.
“Now I try to promote all the community events in our neighborhood,” Montano said. “We want to make sure our neighborhood shines, and if we keep using the resources that are here, they’re going to stay. If we’re not utilizing the things that are here in our neighborhood, we’re not going to get the funding, we’re not going to get the participation and be able to voice the concerns that we have.”
She said her efforts are paying off.
“Once we started having those block parties and coming together as a block, now our neighbors are talking to each other, now our neighbors are watching out for the other kids, now our neighbors are very comfortable sharing concerns about something that doesn’t look right in the community or on our block.”
LBWN surveyed residents of two blocks — one that received address plaques and the other neighborhood flags — to gauge their satisfaction with their community before and after the projects took effect. The percentage of block residents who agreed their neighborhood is an attractive, desirable community went from 38 to 71 percent after they received the address plaques. On the block that received flags, 100 percent of respondents said they either agreed or strongly agreed their block was attractive, up from 69 percent before the flags were distributed.
LBWN also helps facilitate communication between English- and Spanish-speaking neighbors.
Burnham Park resident Maria Poradek, who speaks only Spanish, said she appreciates LBWN’s translating services when it comes to community meetings or forms she has to fill out. LBWN translators also helped her communicate with an English-speaking neighbor to resolve an issue.
Jim Gac has lived with his wife in their Layton Park home for 37 years and has experienced many changes on the block. Since helping Zuñiga coordinate a block party a few summers ago, he has noticed increased social pride among his neighbors, he said. More people socialize with each other, neighbors are taking better care of their homes and yards, and there are group efforts to improve safety. Plus, with Zuñiga’s help, he can communicate with his Spanish-speaking neighbors and serve them as a neighborhood leader.
Angela Mitchell, community outreach liaison at the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Development Corp., lauded LBWN’s successes in engaging residents and recruiting community leaders.
“One of the things I most admire is how they build neighborhood leaders,” Mitchell said, referring to the block captains LBWN has recruited to engage neighbors in community activities and projects. “The neighborhood community groups can’t always bring the change that we’re looking to see. Sometimes you need the neighbors to hit the ground doing that.”