Kyla and Rick Fernandez
by Jackie Reid Dettloff, photo by Erik Ljung Okay, so it’s Friday night and I have finally hooked up with Kyla and Rick Fernandez.
I know a little bit about them. Know that they are active members of the St. Francis Parish community – he as the person in charge of maintenance and restoration, she as a Sunday school teacher. I know they have been key players in the effort to clean up their block of 2700 North Buffum. Twice I’ve seen Kyla at City Hall testifying at hearings about the bar at Buffum and Hadley. But I don’t really know much of their story. I want to ask them how it is to live as homeowners on a street that is nicknamed “Cocaine Alley,” a street so notorious that it is known in the ‘hood as “Buffum County.”
They set me up with a beer and they sit me down at their dining room table and we begin our conversation.
Rick surprises me by saying that they only moved into their house in June of 2007. But it’s not like he’s new to the neighborhood. He grew up near Palmer and Vine, went to grade school at St. Francis School, played with lots of cousins on his mother’s side who went to St. Casimir’s. People in his dad’s family owned taverns like Rudolph’s Corner at Palmer and Vine, and Tony’s Place on Pierce and Center that now goes by the name of River Horse.
When he and Kyla married and started raising children, they rented a number of places in the area west of Holton. They were in a large apartment at North and Hubbard when they and their children had to evacuate immediately before the building went up in smoke. After that they moved to 2nd and Burleigh but when the landlord gave them a 30-day notice, they were in a pinch.
That’s when I hear Kyla come in with the phrase “divine intervention.” Could she explain what she means by that?
Kyla Fernandez is a full-blooded Apache. As a newborn she was adopted by an Anglo couple and grew up in Grand Junction, CO. She came to Milwaukee when she was 18 to join her older sister. She is the proud mother of five children, ages 30 to 18, and grandmother to 5 children whose photos are arranged lovingly on the dining room table. She speaks of “divine intervention” a lot. “Ricky and I didn’t know where we were going to go when we had to leave that place near Burleigh. And then a couple from church offered to help us buy a house. I call that divine intervention.”
I think to myself that “rent to buy” would be a different way to describe the arrangement that Rick and Kyla worked out with the generous couple from the St. Francis parish community. That couple put up the money to buy a house; Rick and Kyla agreed to take full responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of the house; what they pay each month is not rent but more like a mortgage payment because it goes towards the purchase of the house.
But why choose a house on Buffum, of all places? I ask. Because it had a three-car garage, Rick beams. “You don’t find one of those very often!” And because it was immaculate on the inside, adds Kyla. “We couldn’t believe it when we stepped through the front door. The previous owner lived here for 30 years and took great care of the place. We didn’t have to fix a thing. We could just move right in.”
But weren’t they worried about the neighborhood? “Not really,” says Kyla. “There was a fence around the whole yard. We have three dogs. And I know how to call the police. I used to call them all the time at the other places we lived. They know me by name at the police station. They know that 90% of the time I am right on when I call to report some suspicious activity on my street. I know the detectives by name, I know the beat cops, I know the people at Neighborhood Services. So when we moved in here, I knew I didn’t have to confront the drug dealers personally. I just call the cops.”
Rick says that he’d rate the Milwaukee Police Department as excellent, very responsive to the calls that he and Kyla have made. “Drug deals going on across the street, prostitutes, cars cruising down the block with loud music, we just call the cops. Pretty soon there’s a patrol car on the scene, maybe a paddy wagon and we have our block back, for a little while at least.”
Rick and Kyla aren’t the only ones on their street who call the police. Neighbors a few doors north do the same thing, keeping record of the date, the time and the reason for each call. This paid off big time in the spring when residents of the 2700 block of N. Buffum banded together to call for the closure of the bar at corner. After 30 years as a peaceful local tavern, the Groovin’ Inn changed character when a new manager took over. The place became a magnet for drug dealing and other illegal activity. Working with police at the Fifth District and testifying at City Hall, Kyla and Rick were among the vocal residents who successfully campaigned to close the bar down. In October they returned to City Hall to speak out against the re-opening of the place.
So after moving in just two and a half years ago, Rick and Kyla have seen some definite changes on their block of Buffum. They see themselves as part of the neighborhood effort to transform “Cocaine Alley” into a decent place to live. “It’s still not good,” Rick says, but it’s getting better. “God put us here to clean this up,” is Kyla’s take on their situation.
Wrapping up my visit with a quick tour of the backyard, I ask about the vacant lot to the south. I see both Rick and Kyla light up. I hear enthusiasm in their voice. They tell me about their dream of having a park there. As a matter of fact, they’ve already contacted Ald. Coggs about the possibility of building a tot lot. Imagine. In the heart of “Buffum County,” a patch of green where small children can play. Imagine.