Alexis London — Lexi to friends — enjoyed her job as a lead baker at Manna Cafe & Bakery on North Sherman Avenue in Madison.
This was a decade ago, and London, with a new child, had temporarily stepped away from nonprofit work. She loved baking and even liked the solitude of the hours, the predawn drives through deserted streets, passing a man on her way to Manna who inexplicably swept his driveway every morning around 3 a.m.
But in 2015, when a friend of London’s left her job managing programming at Madison’s Bayview Foundation, London applied to replace her.
It brought London back to her true passion: working in traditionally underserved communities while helping to provide equitable services and support.
Bayview’s townhouses and community center — at the corner of Regent Street and West Washington Avenue, part of the Triangle Neighborhood that also borders Park Street — were low-income housing that welcomed their first renters in 1971.
By 2016, London had been promoted to interim executive director at Bayview; nine months later, the board of directors removed “interim” from her title.
Bayview was on the cusp of great change: an ambitious redevelopment effort necessitated by the deteriorating infrastructure of its nearly 50-year-old buildings.
The details — including an energetic fundraising campaign — would emerge over the next few years.
But two things were immediately clear.
Bayview, and the greater Triangle Neighborhood, were haunted by an ill-conceived 1960s low-income housing effort that razed homes and displaced hundreds of immigrant families in the name of “urban renewal.”
It was paramount that that not happen again.
Fortunately, in London, Bayview had chosen a leader singularly well equipped to make sure it didn’t.
London is originally from California, though in middle school her family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where she graduated from high school. Then it was back to California, and the University of California–Santa Cruz, where she majored in art history and fine art with a focus on printmaking. The campus overlooked the Pacific and the vibe was laid-back. Students could create their own majors.
“Even at a young age,” London says, “I valued alternative ways of seeing and engaging with the world.”
She earned a master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There she became involved with Architreasures, a community development nonprofit that works with low-income neighborhoods to positively transform public spaces.
The engagement process struck a chord with London.
“Rather than just parachuting in and doing a project in a community,” she says, “you really work with that community group to understand what issues and ideas are important to them, what stories they want to tell.”
It became a mantra that London years later brought to Bayview, once the decision was made to design and build new housing in the Triangle.
Natalie Erdman chairs an ongoing fundraising campaign for the community center, which is part of the larger Bayview redevelopment.
“I developed a deep respect for Lexi’s ability to work with the community,” Erdman says. “I got to see how well she engaged with residents in a way that was accessible to them. She was extraordinary in being able to say, ‘What’s important to you?’ and then translating that into what the built environment was going to look like. Then she’d come back and say, ‘Did we get it right?’ ”
London worked with a few nonprofits after landing in Madison following grad school in Chicago, including seven years with VSA Wisconsin (now called Arts for All Wisconsin), where she ran statewide education programming.
When she came to Bayview in 2015, London tasked herself first with getting to know the residents — a population of roughly 280, many of them multigenerational immigrant families.
“I was establishing relationships and building trust,” London says.
She grew to love the community, which, while facing significant challenges, was rich in culture and diversity.
When London earned the executive director role, she worked closely with her staff and the Bayview board of directors as they planned a redevelopment of Bayview. It included modern, more-spacious and better-ventilated apartment buildings and townhouses that would bring the population to 500.
The first four-story, 48-unit apartment complex was completed last September. Construction continues, with 82 additional housing units and an 11,500-square-foot community center expected to be finished by summer 2024.
There was, of course, the matter of paying for it. Low-income housing tax credits, along with financing from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, the city of Madison and Dane County, covered much of the project’s more than $55 million price tag.
As noted, Erdman also chaired a capital campaign that began with a goal of raising $4 million and escalated to $6 million. While some $1.2 million remained to be raised as of early 2023, it has been a swift and successful effort.
Here again, Erdman praises London.
“She is fearless,” Erdman says. “For being a relatively soft-spoken person, she is fearless. She’s never done a lot of fundraising. I think our success [is] directly related to how genuine and authentic Lexi is when she talks to people. How committed she is to the vision. She’s been the key piece to having success.”
London’s goals include creating a cohesive, walkable, inclusive neighborhood linking Bayview to the other communities in the Triangle, where redevelopment is also taking place.
She hopes, too, that greater Madison comes to recognize Bayview’s revitalization and potential.
“Right at the doorstep to the Capitol,” she says, “there’s this beautiful, vibrant community.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor at Madison Magazine. Find more Moe in his web-exclusive blog on madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.
COPYRIGHT 2023 BY MADISON MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED.