By Edgar Mendez Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Nov 14, 2014 at 4:12 PM

Joey Zocher, an advisor at Escuela Verde, recalls going online and seeing floor plans for the renovation of a vacant property in the Burnham Park neighborhood of Layton Boulevard West.

What Zocher, a renewable energy enthusiast, didn’t know at the time was that she’d eventually call the Turnkey Renovation program duplex home. Turnkey homes are foreclosed properties that have been rebuilt with a focus on refurbishing old craftsmanship and energy efficiency.

Zocher joined dozens of residents recently for the 20th annual community gathering of Layton Boulevard West Neighbors (LBWN), where she remarked on how the two-story, solar-paneled home and other amenities drew her to the neighborhood.

"It’s the rain barrels, the turnkey homes and the parks; this is an amazing neighborhood," Zocher said.

Renovating homes such as the one Zocher purchased in July are part of LBWN’s effort to improve the physical infrastructure of the neighborhood by improving private properties and public spaces, which is one of seven key initiatives comprising the area’s Quality of Life Plan, launched in 2011. Other initiatives include the creation of a community safety network and increased social engagement.

In addition to the turnkey homes, LBWN also worked to bolster the neighborhood’s infrastructure by awarding 95 home improvement grants totaling $70,000, which spurred an additional homeowner investment of more than $200,000 in 2014, according to Daniel Adams, neighborhood plan coordinator for LBWN.

LBWN newcomers Justin and Linnea Bielinski utilized grants to replace a caved-in porch, install new windows and replace the front door on their new Burnham Park home this year.

"It was a domino effect," Linnea said. "Once we fixed one thing we wanted everything around it to look good.

The Bielinskis took third place among 56 entries in LBWN’s Most Improved Home Contest this year.

In addition to home improvements, four new businesses and the Escuela Verde school, run collectively by Zocher and a group of teachers, moved into LBWN over the past year, organizers said.

"We wanted to be part of this neighborhood’s quality of life plan," Zocher said.

And while signs of economic progress are everywhere, so are reminders that improving the quality of life in LBWN is an ongoing process. On a sidewalk on South 33rd Street, only blocks from Zocher’s home, sits a makeshift shrine marking the area where 40-year-old Alfonso Estrada-Cortes was beaten to death by a group of individuals after being involved in a minor car accident earlier this month.

LBWN organizers held a moment of silence in Cortes’ honor during the annual gathering, while reminding neighbors to look out for one another.

Still, most nights in the neighborhood are calm, said Zocher, and days are filled with the sounds of children at play. Chances to increase social engagement are everywhere, she said.

"The parks in this neighborhood are filled; I never felt a sense of community like this before."

Edgar Mendez Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
Edgar Mendez is a beat reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, covering Clarke Square, the neighborhood in which he lives. Prior to joining the team at NNS he was a feature writer for El Conquistador Newspaper in Milwaukee, and a web writer/reporter for in Racine.

Mendez, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, graduated from UW-Milwaukee, with a double major in Journalism and Media Communications and Sociology. In 2008, he won a Society of Professional Journalists' regional award for social columns dealing with diverse issues such as poverty, homelessness and racism. Currently, he's a master's degree student at the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

His interests include scholastic research, social networking and the Green Bay Packers.