Mario Ramirez, 29, stands outside his new home. (Darren Hauck/ The Washington Post)

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — He sits on his old front porch, below the boarded windows and a freshly plastered sign: NO TRESPASSING. His block – it’ll always be his block – is vacant. The pick-up soccer games and squeaky tricycles, gone. Mario Ramirez, 29, hears only the whack, whack, whack of crowbars against drywall. Construction workers are tearing down the neighbors’ house. His is next.

It’s hard to move up in this economy. Some people never get a chance. But the water authority here just gave one to Ramirez, in a twist of fate and infrastructural makeover. He’s watching it rise from the rubble of his old life.

Last year, his mother, a Mexican immigrant, found a note on his family’s front door. She couldn’t read English well and asked the youngest of her nine kids to translate. Ramirez read aloud in Spanish, angrier with each line. But his mother seemed to hear something else. “That’s a beautiful opportunity,” she told him. “Embrace it!”

Two years ago, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, Wisconsin’s largest water authority, started buying houses along the Kinnickinnic River in order to destroy them. Engineers plan to clear room for bigger floodplains. When storms drench Milwaukee, the KK, as it’s called here, often spills into backyards. Kids slip in and can’t get out. Emergency responders rush to save them.

On this June afternoon, two teenagers sit on the river’s edge, legs dangling. A thin stream sits stagnant in the concrete tube, about a hundred feet from Ramirez’s old porch. Weeds sprout through cracks. A graffiti tag shouts: “U STANK.”


(Darren Hauck/The Washington Post)

Roughly 145,000 people live on the KK’s manmade banks, which wind through the industrial South Side. Thus far, more than 80 families have agreed to move, accepting buyouts. The average home price is $65,000 — but the water authority agreed to give homeowners up to $25,000 more, plus moving expenses, if they buy a more expensive place.

Mario built his life — part one — in the old house, slated for demolition. He grew up there, got his first tattoo (Sandalia, his mother’s name), dropped out of high school, became the neighborhood’s unofficial barber, got his thirtieth tattoo (chin stripes) and had his now seven-year-old son, Mario.

“We sat and talked about leaving on the porch for an hour, me and my mom,” he said. “She saw it as a sign to move forward, so we talked about moving forward. She told me my son was watching me. Always. It was time for me to move forward, too.”

His life, part two, started when the family moved out in November and, with a buyout check for $84,000, bought a new house in a nicer neighborhood across town. It has a wooden deck with pink, purple and yellow potted Hydrangeas. “My son loves it,” he says. “He’s always exploring the yard with this big smile.”

Ramirez graduated in May from a local technical school, with certification as a medical interpreter. His summer plans: Remove the chin tattoo. Land a steady hospital job. Set up a saltwater fish tank for little Mario.

The old house came down in late June. Ramirez is ready to see the rest of his world transform.


An empty lot is all that remains of the home of Mario Ramirez and his family’s former home. (Darren Hauck/The Washington Post)
Danielle Paquette is a reporter covering the intersection of people and policy. She’s from Indianapolis and previously worked for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow her on Twitter: @Dpaqreport.