Transformation: Leopold’s Story

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Transformation: Leopold’s Story

If the heart of a city is its neighborhoods, then the heart of a neighborhood is its people, and the many ways in which they live, work and play together.

The Selfless Ambition staff is pleased to offer here the first installment in what will be a three-part series, “A Neighborhood in Transformation,” to help tell the story of how one Madison neighborhood — Leopold — has made significant strides as a community.

We’ll look at what Leopold used to be, what it is now and what the path forward looks like for the neighborhood residents and the rest of the city.

A painful history

When the Race to Equity Report came out in 2013, it shined an ugly spotlight on what few in Madison wanted to admit: Dane County had some of the largest racial disparities in the United States. The statistics were staggering and highlighted dismal graduation rates, increased police encounters, and unacceptable rates of infant mortalities within communities of color.

The second-highest concentration of these hurting communities lived in the Leopold neighborhood. (Race to Equity, Appendix 2: Maps).

Leopold was one of the last areas near Madison with a high number of affordable rental units, and for years the neighborhood had been drawing transient, urban families of color. Many of these households struggled with socio-economic challenges, but the area was landlocked from any of the larger social service resources. The nearest community centers, grocery stores, and libraries were well beyond walking distance and separated by major highways. Throughout the 2000s, a lack of resources and positive opportunities in the area generated daily acts of violence and regular police calls to the neighborhood.

Then something changed. Between 2011-15, while overall calls for police service in the city remained largely static, calls for service within Leopold dropped more than 25 percent. This wasn’t a product of gentrification, as the community’s demographics largely stayed the same. Nor was it due to large development projects. Yet something powerful and healthy was clearly happening in the area.


Leopold Neighborhood Calls for Service via South Madison Police Department Records 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Total Calls 612 595 612 475 384 435 452

It started with relationships

Officer Deon Johnson hanging out in his old stomping grounds at Leopold Garden.

The challenges of Leopold were well documented by the South Madison Police Department. Officers knew the troubled spots and the frequent offenders, but their presence was largely reactionary. A variety of crimes were regularly committed in the community, and the police would be called on to sort through the chaos. The neighborhood’s relationship with the police was tepid at best, full of acrimony and vitriol at the worst. According to Officer Deon Johnson, during his first ride-along through the Leopold neighborhood, a officer in the community told him, “You never want to find yourself alone in this area. You always want to have back up.”

Things changed toward the end of 2009. A Neighborhood Resource Officer was designated for Leopold, whose primary job would not be to patrol the streets, but to build relationships with neighbors, stakeholders, and local non-profits. The hope was that having a presence in the community outside of the times of crisis would build a strong foundation to stand on when the next crisis arrived.

The first officer in the position was Deon Johnson. He applied for the position because he wanted to change the relationship between the local community and the local police. Instead of being a one-man outfit, he loved the “collaboration and synergy” that took place between residents, the Madison school district, Joining Forces for Families, the city of Madison, and the faith community. The Neighborhood Resource Officer role gave Johnson the opportunity to get to know the residents, build trust, and develop positive change.

Soon he was helping run flag football programs with the YMCA and showing up at neighborhood association meetings. Kids knew his name on the street, and if the police needed to be called, he had built up a level of trust with the residents where they weren’t seen as invaders. The time he invested created trust, and a new type of relationship with law enforcement and the neighborhood began to develop.

Innovating a community center

As mentioned above, one of the complicating factors in the Leopold neighborhood is the lack of any social service center. Virtually all of the land is either already developed or owned by private companies. Beyond that, the neighborhood straddles two cities (Madison and Fitchburg), and neither municipality has been able to commit larger, community center funds to the area, because half of the residents who would receive services would come from the other town.

However, there is one public space with which both sides of the border have shared ownership: Aldo Leopold Elementary School. The school is the second-largest elementary school in the Madison school district, and as such has a large gym, cafeteria, library, and computer lab. Sandra Rivera, a former social worker, had an idea: What if they opened the doors of the school one night a week, allowing residents to use the open gym, library, and computer lab as an Open School House?

Working with AmeriCorps, the city of Madison, and The Foundation for Madison Public Schools, Rivera put together a proposal for her idea. In 2011, Open School House launched as the first safe place for the Leopold community to gather. Soon all types of programming from Zumba classes to family reading events were happening on Tuesday nights at the school.

Seeds of community involvement

Another necessary piece of the puzzle fell into place when several neighborhood residents worked to start a community garden at Aldo Leopold Park. For years, the park had been one of the known hot spots for crime in the neighborhood. Much of the land was covered in trees, significantly limiting visibility and making it an easy area for illicit activity to take place. The community garden changed the terrain, literally. Working with the city of Madison and the parks department, most of the trees were cut down, replaced by the Leopold Community Garden. They worked with local artist Sharon Kilfoy, and with help of students during the Open School House, painted a gorgeous fence mural.

The difference this space has made can not be overstated. Within one year, the park went from a nefarious center of neighborhood activity, to the safest, most diverse space around Leopold. Hispanic, African American, Asian, and white families all garden alongside each other, and since no one feels comfortable conducting illicit business with Grandma Sanchez 30 feet away gardening, crime in the park disappeared almost overnight.

Problems still existed (and still exist today), but the transformation of the neighborhood was undeniable. No longer did the police and neighborhood residents have the same kind of antagonism. Children now played in the park, and there finally was sustained, positive momentum.

Next week: We’ll take a look at some of the current programming going on in the neighborhood, the partnerships that are developing, and dig deeper into the challenges that remain.

Want to see the community in person? Stop by our block party at Leopold Park, this Saturday, from 11am-2pm!

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