Young Couple Impacts Inner-City Community


Ten years ago, Kirsten and Lee Hildebrand thought they knew where their lives were headed. They had just settled into their first home in a suburban community, where Kirsten practiced labor and employment law and Lee was working on a doctorate in counseling psychology. But when the couple attended Eastbrook Church, a nondenominational, inner-city Milwaukee church, they began to wonder: Did we settle down in the right place?

"For a lot of white people in this country, their experience is mainly monocultural—they just get to know the dominant culture," says Lee, who graduated from Trinity College with a dual major in philosophy and communications. Kirsten, an english and communications major, graduated the year before him. "Some of our friends thought we were totally nuts, but we felt led to break out of that and move into an inner-city neighborhood."

In three days, Kirsten and Lee sold their home and bought one in Sherman Park, on Grant Boulevard, where old brick homes shoulder Mediterranean tile roofs and copper gutters, and neighbors take in the world from adjoining porches. As the couple unpacked boxes, a question hung over them. "We knew we were led here for a purpose, but we didn't know why," says Lee.

Six months later, after they had remodeled their own home, the Hildebrands noticed a foreclosure sign a few houses down. They tried, along with two of their neighbors, Paul Handle and Dave Klevgard, to purchase it. The bid was unsuccessful, but their conversations during the process helped them identify an unfortunate trend in their neighborhood—absentee landlords. "The landlords didn't care about the properties, didn't put the work in, and then demanded rent," Kirsten says, passion evident in her voice. "They're treating people this way, but everyone deserves a nice place to live. All humans do."

After many late-night conversations over the Hildebrands' dining room table, the four came to a decision. Together, they would systematically purchase rundown houses, restore the beauty of the buildings, rent them affordably to the residents of their city, and, hopefully, change the trend. They registered their name as "City Ventures LLC" and brought their 50-page business plan to Legacy Bank. "We didn't just go in jeans with stuff scribbled in a notebook," Lee says. "Kirsten is an attorney, Paul is a marketing manager, David is in insurance, and I was doing my PhD at Marquette. We went as young professionals."

The bank decided to invest, and, with additional funds from individual home equity loans, City Ventures bought a single-family house on Burleigh Avenue, where they spent intensive nights and weekends. …As their business expanded to a series of duplexes, the City Ventures partners juggled full-time jobs with the new worlds of plumbing, electrical work, rent collecting, and the realities of the inner city. The night could bring drug dealers into their construction sites. The morning light might reveal the scrawl of vandals on freshly painted walls or a pile of glass instead of new windows. Once, a disgruntled tenant held a gun on Lee, forcing him to use every ounce of his counseling background to talk his way out of the room.

But neither Kirsten nor Lee sees crime as the neighborhood's defining characteristic, and they don't want others to see it that way, either. "A city is a group of people living closer together, in a smaller place," Kirsten says dismissively. "Crime results from that." Lee adds: "That's not the sum of the neighborhood. Ninety percent of the people are people who just want to live their lives."

Today, Sherman Park is a living illustration of the last six years of the Hildebrands' lives. Seventy restored buildings boast colorful awnings and shutters, new bricks or siding…. "It's really exciting—the way we've started from a dream," Lee says. "We worked hard, and God's grace was involved. We give him all the credit. It's amazing how different the neighborhood is from six years ago."

Excerpted from Trinity Magazine (Fall 2006), p. 14, the magazine of Trinity International University.

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