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Karin Long

When she’s not working, Karin Long is outside. A bohemian cross of intellectual and wild woman, Long would look natural in front of a classroom or knee-deep in the water casting for salmon. It’s no coincidence that the Milwaukee River flows through her backyard. A steep division of terraces and paths, it’s home to birds, squirrels, coyotes, possums, and residents most city-dwellers only read about. A rescued dog and cat lazily supervise their wild counterparts through her patio door, he a near-amputee found with a mouthful of porcupine quills, she an abandoned malnourished stray. Long and her roommate Sue have a soft spot for animals and for this place by the river, having sold everything they had to buy it twelve years ago. Like so many of their neighbors on Vienna Avenue, they may never leave. Long has a diary of the wildlife they’ve spotted here, a tome at least ten years old. It reads with dated entries like; Juncos spotted… possum family in the trees…deer by the river. Even those with paradise in their backyard need to work, though. Long deals with a different kind of wildlife in her day job — various species of landlords and their tenants. In her role with the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services she teaches a class called the Landlord Training Program, Keeping Illegal and Destructive Activity Out of Rental Property. She’s good at her job and she has a history of social activism. Still, Long explains, “This is nothing I ever thought I’d ever grow up to do, believe me.” Like so many of us, her path from past to present has been as tangled as the new plants and vines unfurling in her backyard. Long came here from northern Wisconsin 30 years ago on a bassoon scholarship. At UW-Milwaukee she skipped from music to art to English, her educational fever a product of the time. She explains, “There we were, all the women who finally got into the university, and we were all over the place, just taking classes. But when the Vietnam War ended, all the men came back, and they needed to find a way to get us out of there.” The university simply created a Bachelor of Arts-General degree, and Long and her unfocused — but well-rounded — peers were set loose on the working world. The BA-General proved to be good training for these renaissance women, and Long’s pursuits would ultimately be as varied as her education. Neighborhood groups, food co-ops, farmers markets, and non-profit bingos were some of her early employs. From there, it was political campaigns. Next came a job with the city. She organized the first (nationally acclaimed) federal Martin Luther King birthday celebration. She handled discrimination charges in housing and employment. She started various training programs, even training police on abuse, assault, and cultural issues. The awards started to roll in. Long joined the Department of Neighborhood Services in 1987, training building inspectors, because “they thought if I could train police recruits, I could train anyone,” she says. She was part of a task force targeting negligent landlords, and the job opened her eyes to some issues. She illustrates, “When I started talking with these people, I realized landlords didn’t realize the power they had in keeping a safe and decent neighborhood. To go in to get a loan to become a landlord, no one asks you if you know anything about your business.” To combat this problem, Long set up the Landlord Training Program to teach good property management practices. She says, “It’s America; you have a right to make it. But what no one tells you is that you also have a right to fail. And if you fail as a landlord, you hurt a block, you hurt a neighborhood, you hurt a whole community.” She teaches rights as well as responsibilities — practical things such as how and why to screen tenants, why one keeps properties up to code. She illustrates, “A good applicant is going to drive by and see what your place looks like. If they drive by and the porch is falling off and the screen door is banging in the wind, a good applicant is gone. Who do you get instead?” Tenants are referred to Long for advice as well. Landlords unwilling to fix property code violations will often try to simply evict a tenant that complains about them. This is illegal, Long explains, and tenants in this situation can be protected for six to 12 months from eviction, but it’s imperative they report the violations so the problems can be dealt with. She explains, “I’m not a landlord advocate; I’m not a tenant advocate. I’m an advocate for strong, healthy, safe communities.” Long knows about communities. She’s seen and helped create a great many changes in Riverwest since her days as a bassoon scholar. From having helped establish a Riverwest women’s health center, to renovating a burnt beauty of a home using non-traditional contractors (women and minorities), she’s been promoting progressive causes since her arrival. Long has had fun, too, and has the stories to prove it. She tells tales from the adventures of 89 lesbians who once lived on Booth Street, to present-day neighborhood efforts to discourage Illinois anglers from fishing the Milwaukee River. She says, “Riverwest has been one of the most interesting sections of the city that I can remember, and watching all the changes here has just been incredible. Thirty years here, there is just no other place in the city that I would live… absolutely not.” The Landlord Training Program is held approximately twice a month. Copies of the class are also available on DVD and VHS at all local public libraries. For a class schedule, or more information, call (414) 286-2954, or visit their website by searching on Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services.