But Adams wasn’t afraid. She started taking walks in the neighborhood and was gradually joined by others who told her they were sometimes hesitant even to go out and retrieve the mail.
It was during this time that she met Larry Adams, a contractor she hired to help fix the wiring in her house. After the job was finished, he asked Sharon out for ice cream and within a year, they were married.
During their first Christmas together, in 1997, they were sitting in their dining room when Sharon wondered aloud about some flickering lights that had suddenly appeared in the dark, abandoned house across the street.
“Do you suppose they’re lighting candles?” she asked her husband.
“No,” he replied. “Those aren’t candles. They’re crack pipes.”
That’s when Adams knew she needed to do more than her neighborhood walks. Several dozen homes that she had admired as a child were now boarded up or had been torn down. People regularly came to the neighborhood late at night to dump old tires, refrigerators and unwanted furniture into the weedy lots that remained.
She wanted to fix up her community.
“There was crime in the neighborhood, but it was a symptom of total disrespect,” she said, adding that authorities had razed a canopy of trees in the neighborhood years earlier for an expressway that never came.
Soon, she and her husband formed a nonprofit organization called Walnut Way Conservation Corp., named after a main thoroughfare in Lindsay Heights. Sharon, who at the time coordinated service projects for the University of Wisconsin, and Larry, a contractor and electrician, found no shortage of residents who wanted to help them turn around the neighborhood.
With help from local redevelopment programs, grants, donations and dozens of volunteers, Walnut Way had soon fixed up the abandoned crack house that Sharon and Larry had seen light up on Christmas night.
After the Victorian residence was gutted, refurbished and given a fresh coat of paint, the couple moved on to another house and fixed it up. Then another. Along with volunteers, they went street to street in the community of 2,700 households to renovate abandoned homes and vacant lots — more than 100 in all.
Most of those initial homes were sold to first-time buyers through a low-interest loan program offered by the YMCA and Walnut Way, said Sharon Adams.
Soon a grocery store moved into the area, along with a coffee shop and a smoothie cafe.
“We celebrated one milestone at a time,” she recalled. “If I’d embraced the task as daunting, I might not have continued. So I embraced it as a desire of the heart.”
As the years went on, they gutted and rebuilt crumbling interiors, transformed lots choked by weeds into fruit orchards, planted flower and vegetable gardens, painted fences and set up beehives, hoping to bring back some pride to their community.
Some of the vacant lots and foreclosed homes were acquired from the city of Milwaukee, said Sharon Adams, while other homes were built or renovated with “forgivable” loans from the city. She and her husband also purchased and restored two homes, a commercial building and several vacant lots, she said.
“We both knew how to work with people, and our love for the neighborhood attracted other folks who also love it here and wanted to make a change,” she said. “Over time, it became a genuine community effort.”
They were also happy to see crime drop.
“It’s been a wonderful thing to witness — slowly but surely, we’ve made great strides,” said Sharon Adams.
In 2007 — the earliest year crime statistics for Lindsay Heights from the Milwaukee Police Department were available — there were 365 serious crimes, including homicide, rape, robbery, burglary, assault and theft, law enforcement records show.
Those crimes have decreased over the years as the Adamses’ cleanup efforts have taken hold: Records show 211 serious crimes last year.
Twenty years after they fixed up that first house, the couple is still at it, even though they’ve retired.
“It’s a commitment, but it’s one that we’re happy to keep,” said Sharon Adams. “We take a lot of joy in this. Year after year, we’ve simply wanted to create a place were people would thrive.”
Now that the most run-down homes have been renovated or torn down to make way for green space, the Adamses, who are on Walnut Way’s board of directors, will soon open a new project called Adams Garden Park. The development is funded by public and private investments, including loans, grants and individual donations, said Sharon Adams.
Old buildings and the surrounding land are being transformed into gardens and workspace for businesses and charities that focus on environmental issues such as sustainable energy, landscaping and clean water and air, said Larry Adams.
Along the way, he and his wife were wholeheartedly embraced by the community.
“They’re like family,” said Rosetta Bond, 33, a single mother who runs a catering business in a duplex renovated by the couple. “They’re big-hearted people who treat everyone with respect and kindness, whether you’re a janitor or a CEO.”
“There isn’t a person in the neighborhood whose life they haven’t touched,” she added. “When your neighborhood looks good, you feel better. Crime has gone down, and people now take pride in where they live, thanks to the Adamses.”
Sharon and Larry Adams have also created opportunities for young people in their neighborhood through summer programs, job training and gardening projects, said Danielle Washington, 30, who the couple mentored when she was 16.
“They provided me with avenues to express my interests and they gave me a voice,” said Washington, who is now a graduate student studying epidemiology. “They’re a breath of fresh air to the Lindsay Heights community.”
Another resident, X’Zayvion McCoy, said he’s grateful for the Adamses’ energy and commitment.
“She and Larry have taught me it’s not just about one person — it’s about family, friends and the community,” said McCoy, a former intern and education coordinator for Walnut Way who is now a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Sharon Adams said she considers it the ultimate compliment when someone she mentored decides to put down roots in Lindsay Heights and raise their children in the neighborhood she once happily roamed as a girl.
“They can choose to live and work anywhere, but they choose to return here,” she said. “That is a beautiful feeling.”