How One Couple's Love Story Sparked Change In Their Community, Block By Block

Feb 15, 2019
Originally published on February 15, 2019 1:57 pm

Husband and wife Larry and Sharon Adams have spent the past 20 years bringing boarded-up homes in their Milwaukee neighborhood back to life.

The love they share for their community grew out of their love for each other. During a StoryCorps interview in October, Larry, now 65, and Sharon, 72, remember how they first met.

It was 1997, and Sharon had just moved back to her childhood home on North 17th Street in Milwaukee's Lindsay Heights neighborhood. But like several other properties in the neighborhood, it needed some work.

Larry, who was working as a contractor, took a job to rewire Sharon's house. One day, as Larry was working, Sharon offered him some tea.

He says he was doing full renovations of five other homes at the time. "I'm smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and didn't have time for none of that," he says. "But out of my mouth came 'Yes.' "

Almost from the start, sparks flew between them. Sharon recalls feeling Larry's gaze, but he avoided direct eye contact.

"I'd never met anyone who had such a gentleness and a firmness at the same time ... and wouldn't let me look deep into his eyes."

Larry was determined to wrap up his work as fast as he could, he says, because he was eager to move on to landing a date with Sharon. "I wanted to finish the job, so that I could fire myself from the job. Then I would engage in dealing with you," he says.

The two didn't see each other again for another month, when Larry asked Sharon out for ice cream — their first date. "I'm thankful to God every day since," he says.

Over the next year, they moved in together and got married. Larry remembers Sharon telling him about the history of the neighborhood.

"You told me Walnut Street was a place, historically, where African-American entrepreneurs had resided," he says. "And in this area, there were elm trees up and down the block that kissed in the middle of the street."

But deindustrialization that started in the 1980s stalled the rise of many middle-class African-American families in the area. And Sharon was disturbed by the evidence of that deterioration throughout Lindsay Heights.

While celebrating Christmas one year, the couple remembers, they were sitting in the kitchen, looking out at their block. With most of the homes vacant and boarded up, the street was very dark.

In the dark, Larry says, Sharon noticed a flash of light. "What's going on with the flickering of those lights?" he remembers her asking. "And it was crack pipes."

Sharon says, "We looked at each other and said, "This is —"

"It's not right," Larry says.

Sharon made a request. "I want you to do that house, please," she recalls asking. "I did say, 'Please,' right?"

"Absolutely," he says. "Your eyes always say, 'Please.' "

It was their first joint renovation on the block but hardly their last. A few years after that first renovation, the couple established Walnut Way, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing their Milwaukee neighborhood.

Since then, they've built and restored more than 100 homes.

"The renovation of our own home became secondary to the renovation of our community," Sharon says. "There is such a blessing in the commitment that you and I have for each other. And I get great joy when that commitment manifests itself. Block by block, household by household."

For Larry, it has become more meaningful than his previous work. "I was renovating homes, but to take it deeper, to renovate communities — it's a purposeful life."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Aisha Turner and Afi Yellow-Duke.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday, which means it's time for StoryCorps. We're on the day after Valentine's Day, which is really becoming almost like Valentine's week here on MORNING EDITION, which is fine. Today, two people whose love for their neighborhood grew out of their love for each other. Larry and Sharon Adams have spent the last two decades bringing boarded up homes in Milwaukee back to life. They started in the '90s when Sharon moved back to the house she grew up in in Milwaukee's Lindsay Heights neighborhood. At StoryCorps, Sharon and Larry remembered how they met.

LARRY ADAMS: I was a contractor, and I was asked to come rewire the house. And somewhere, you asked, did I want tea? I had five jobs going on at the same time. I'm smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and didn't have time for none of that. But out of my mouth came yes.

SHARON ADAMS: And you drank tea with me, and you fixed my switch.

L ADAMS: Free of charge (laughter).

S ADAMS: Free of charge (laughter). And I knew you were looking at me. And I'd never met anyone who had such a gentleness and a firmness at the same time and wouldn't let me look deep into his eyes.

L ADAMS: I wanted to finish the job so that I could fire myself from the job. Then I would engage in dealing with you.

S ADAMS: So we didn't see each other for a while.

L ADAMS: That's true.

S ADAMS: And then...

L ADAMS: Then we went for ice cream.

S ADAMS: That was our first date.

L ADAMS: I'm thankful to God every day since. And I remember in conversation, you told me Walnut Street was a place, historically, where African-American entrepreneurs have resided. And in this area, there were elm trees up and down the block that kissed in the middle of the street.

S ADAMS: Right. So it was very dark on this block - right? - 'cause most of the homes were boarded.

L ADAMS: It was.

S ADAMS: And Christmas Eve, we were sitting in the kitchen looking out.

L ADAMS: And you said, what's going on with those flickering of those lights? And it was crack pipes.

S ADAMS: We looked at each other and said, this is...

L ADAMS: It's not right.

S ADAMS: It's not right.

L ADAMS: And you said...

S ADAMS: I want you to do that house, please. I did say please, right?

L ADAMS: Oh, absolutely. Your eyes always say please. That was the first renovation on this block.

S ADAMS: So the renovation of our own home became secondary to the renovation of our community. And there is such a blessing in the commitment that you and I have for each other. And I get great joy when that commitment manifests itself block by block, household by household.

L ADAMS: Before, I was renovating homes. But to take it deeper, to renovate communities is a purposeful life.

S ADAMS: I love you.

L ADAMS: Love you, too, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Remember. It's OK to pull over the car if there's a tear in your eye. That was Larry and Sharon Adams for StoryCorps. In 2000, they established Walnut Way, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing their Milwaukee neighborhood, which has built and restored more than 100 homes. This conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.