Ms. Bernadette Davel moved to the Sherman Park neighborhood in 1971. Her twin daughters, the youngest of six children, were just infants at the time. Back then, the neighborhood was protesting the construction of a new freeway, a project that would tear up the community. Although new to the area, Ms. Davel became involved immediately. Her daughters tell her that that is why they grew up to be involved in community efforts — because their mother put them in a wagon and marched with them in protest, standing up for the best interests of the neighborhood. With six children, and being the new neighbor on the block, nobody would have blamed her for staying home and focusing on her personal life. What makes Ms. Davel different is that she puts community first after family, and she’s contagiously selfless.
More than forty years later, I walk into her house for an interview. The room is quiet and pictures of family members cover the end tables and shelves. Ms. Davel prefers to sit in an antique wooden/leather chair that has two little beasts with open mouths carved into the armrests. Without much prompting, she begins explaining the current state of the neighborhood, the history, and her personal involvement.
She has been an active member of the Sherman Park Community Association (SPCA), one of Milwaukee’s oldest community organizations, for many years. The organization works to unite the community, to inform its members of current events and issues, and to stimulate civic development, advocacy, and local business. As a volunteer Ms. Davel previously wrote for and edited the Sherman Park News when it was still running, and in that capacity, interviewed many members of the neighborhood as well as board members. Perhaps her most passionate involvement is with the parish of St. Catherine’s at 51st and Center. There, she helps to organize the neighborhood block party, an annual event that brings together three hundred people to participate in games and socializing. She also volunteers at the food pantry. She appreciates that the people who attend this church are not there just because it is convenient. Instead, they really care about the congregation and that neighborhood. Therefore Ms. Davel chose the church for its sense of service to the community. Their powerful motto, ‘‘Here to stay, here to serve’’ voices the firmness with which Ms. Davel and others like her have dedicated the better portion of their lives to building and maintaining their immediate society, and in turn strengthening the City of Milwaukee.
As Ms. Davel continues, she mentions the current challenges for the community, the tragic events last year, the uprising that followed and the consecutive portrayal of the neighborhood by the media, the loss of funding for the Sherman Park Newspaper and the departure of several businesses from the area over the years. Despite these changes, she stands by the neighborhood as a ‘‘strong neighborhood’’ filled with good neighbors and people who care about their community. She commends various organizations and people for their involvement. For instance, she explains how St. Joseph’s Hospital serves as an anchor in the community, sponsoring concerts, offering meeting rooms, and providing excellent emergency services. Common Ground is another strong organization with which she works. This organization has gone as far as travelling to Germany to confront Deutche Bank, one of the banks responsible for the housing and foreclosure crisis. She mentions the involvement of the Hasidic Jewish community, adding, ‘‘Their presence is a very stabilizing force. You see them moving in the neighborhood as they walk to [the] synagogue, and it provides a symbol of strength and power.’’
When I first walked up to her house, I noticed a garden on the side of the house that spreads widely between the neighboring house and her own. The fluidity of the vegetation makes it impossible to discern who is the gardener. At the end of the interview, I recall this garden as a symbol of unity between Bernadette and her neighbors, of her willingness to share. When I ask her why she has been so involved, why she has such passion and drive, she says it is an extension of her faith, and that she feels that you need to reach out to neighbors. As the interview wraps up, she finishes with a powerful message, ‘‘You don’t live in a vacuum, you live in community, and community is so critical to strengthen you. When you’re involved in community, you meet people who are concerned, unselfish people, people who have a sense of pride in themselves and in the people that they work with.’’
Ms. Davel is a leader and a true neighbor. She sees her community, she knows her community.