How One Garden turns a neighborhood on the south side into a community


By Sam Woods
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories about fifteen neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee. Visit

The Bumblebee Haven Core Group is celebrating the conclusion of the Garden’s third full season together in October. From left to right: Timothy Novak, Jill Madigan, Claribel Morales, Sophia Torrijos and Gerard Guerra. (Photo by Sam Woods)

Claribel Morales remembers going out on the first day to eliminate the bloom in a garden on Mitchell Street.

Morales was enthusiastic. She had a vision. But she also had the wrong tool. She said neighbors and businesses saw her struggle and informed her that she needed a hoe, not a shovel, for the job.

“I realized at that point that this wasn’t going to be a solo effort,” Morales said. “You need a whole group of people to transform a space. “

His experience led to the establishment of the Bumblebee Haven Community Garden, 1459 W. Mitchell St., which began after a previous gardening business fell into disuse.

“I remembered thinking ‘Claribel is a natural community organizer,’” said Bob Heffernan, owner of the land, recalling his first conversation with Morales. “I support this kind of activism. . . and she proved me right.

Heffernan attempted to bring a community garden to the space before the start of Bumblebee Haven. Owner active in refugee resettlement, he arranged for refugee students from elementary school to high school to take the bus from their tutoring location in the Concordia neighborhood on the north side to the garden on the south side.

After about two years, however, the program came to an end as the organization of cohesive transport became too difficult to maintain. For about four years, the idea of ​​a garden on the grounds was put on hold until Morales approached Heffernan to ask him to revive the garden.

“It was my neighborhood”

Raffle, a frequent visitor, soaks up the sun at Bumblebee Haven (Photo by Sam Woods)

Morales, now the lead garden organizer, lived less than a block from the plot and said she knew she wanted better things for the garden but didn’t know where to start.

“It was my neighborhood, and I didn’t want it to be the aesthetic,” Morales said. “I am an artist at heart. I want to see things live up to their potential.

Sophia Torrijos, executive director of Friedens Community Ministries, was a neighborhood organizer in 2018. She saw similar potential and started knocking on doors looking for neighborhood volunteers to take ownership of the project.

Torrijos recalled that the project had a profound impact on why she now tries to ‘bundle’ neighborhood projects into a small area rather than spread them out.

“For me, this project set off a light bulb. Why would I start another project far away when I can regroup, ”she said. “In this way, people have the feeling that the neighborhood is changing, because a lot of projects are emerging in a small area. “

After finding a few other enthusiastic residents, the group set out to revitalize the garden.

During the summer of 2018 and the following years, the group achieved an overgrowth; assigned responsibility for garden beds; requested and received a Community Connections grant for a new sign; uses community partners such as Teens Grow Greens to update and expand the selection of flower beds in the garden; and renamed the garden “Bumblebee Haven”.

“It helped me transform myself as a person”

The name of the garden reflects the original desire of gardeners for space to be a place to come and go for pollinators. This includes bumblebees, but has come to include neighbors who briefly contribute to the garden before leaving.

Morales estimates that there are about seven people who are heavily involved in the garden at any given time, and another six or seven who come and go. In addition, neighbors and neighboring businesses helped by emptying the garbage.

Many neighbors have also fed on produce from the garden, which over the years has included several varieties of tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, herbs and more.

A neighborhood cat, Raffle, also makes regular appearances.

Morales isn’t sure what the next step is for her other than keeping some level of connection with the garden. After all, she didn’t know her neighbors when this project started.

“Usually I’m a very private person, but this project made me step out of my comfort zone and be more assertive in telling people about the project,” Morales said. “It helped me transform myself as a person.”

Building the garden into what it is today also gave Morales and others skills in community organizing.

“More than just gardening and having fun, Claribel and others here have learned to organize themselves. It’s not always about the result, but the process of building our own leadership skills and our community, ”said Torrijos.

“In their own way, the people who work behind the scenes are transforming the neighborhood,” added Morales.


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