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North Side ‘On the Table’ Seeks to Build Community

By October 18, 20172 Comments6 min read

ZIP code 53206 is often labeled as the poorest, most troubled neighborhood in Milwaukee. These stereotypes were put on the table during a community roundtable made up of people who call it home and believe in its future.

Twenty-eight residents, civic leaders and entrepreneurs from the north side took a deep dive into the challenges their neighborhood faces during candid conversations hosted by St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care-Bucyrus Campus on Tuesday, Oct. 17. The event was part of On the Table, a one-day forum sponsored by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, offering people from a four-county region an opportunity to connect and collaborate on ways to improve quality of life in our community.

“We had earnest discussions that came up with several long-term solutions to repair the torn social fabric in the central city and spur small business growth,” said John Jansen, St. Ann Center’s Vice President of Grants, Community & Capital Development. “These are the rank and file central city residents who are going to build back their community.

“All three of our groups, sitting in separate rooms, expressed a strong need to find numerous ways to increase social interaction and communication among people in the central city,” Jansen said. “The good news is that there are so many ways we can do this, including arts groups, business networking, school activities and athletics, to name a few.”

The Challenges

“People aren’t connecting as family and neighbors, or having community experiences like they used to,” said Rochelle Robinson, a teacher who helps run her family cleaning business. “Many of us are so busy, we’re in survival mode. We aren’t aware of what’s happening and what’s available even on our own block.”

Only 2% of residents who live in the 53206 ZIP code work there. Andre Ellis, founder and CEO of We Got This Milwaukee, an initiative to empower young black males, is concerned about the local talent drain. “Many people think there are no jobs here, so they go to Atlanta or somewhere else for better opportunities,” he said.

The scarcity of family-supporting wages is another concern. “While the community rises, people need a minimum wage of $15 an hour in the interim, so they have time to spend on pursuing their talent, rather than worrying whether they can put food on the table,” said Barbara Miner, a freelance journalist who has reported on Milwaukee’s central city. Eddie Hatch, founder of Night Owl Services, his family appliance repair business, agreed. “We need to eat while we dream,” he said.

Questions of race and racial inequality also came up. “We don’t want to talk about it because it’s difficult, but it needs to be on the table,” Miner said. Sharon Adams, President of Business Improvement District #32 and co-founder of Adams Garden Park nursery business, pointed out that job creation for big corporations like Amazon are subsidized by government tax dollars. When people in the central city ask for help to revitalize their area, they’re often told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “Policies are made that provide equity to certain people—you could call it racism,” Adams said.

The Solutions

The majority of the discussions focused on positive actions that could help the north side community reach its potential. Some of the bold ideas offered include:

Create a healthy business environment. “There’s a lot of vacant land that’s owned by the city—let’s get organized and turn it into resources,” Adams said. She suggested locating pop-up shops in vacant buildings as a way to launch or test out a business, without a long-term lease commitment or permanent space. Business coach Dana Williamson has dreams of opening a coffee shop that doubles as a movie theater and small business incubator. She suggested a twist on a “tour of homes” for developing businesses—a tour that would showcase north side startups, introducing them to the community.

Build a sense of community. Bishop Walter Harvey of Parklawn Assembly of God emphasized the importance of unity and collaboration in a neighborhood. “We are better together,” he said. “We need people to form fraternities and sororities around their common interests so they can share their gifts. Our church has formed an Economic Development Corporation to bring entrepreneurs together. They are able to learn about and from one another in a noncompetitive environment.”

Liz Haagensen, Community Relations Coordinator at WaterStone Bank, suggested opening a shared community space that could serve as a think tank. “People could bring their skills here and meet others with different specialties,” she said, adding this could lead to beneficial partnerships and productive problem-solving.

Improve communications. Participants agreed building awareness is key to fostering a healthy community. Markasa Tucker of Wisconsin Voices Inc., suggested using targeted door-to-door canvassing of neighborhoods and businesses to spread the word on important issues. “To reach the younger generation, we could use a cell phone tree,” she said, explaining how important information could be shared through text blasts. Monica Hubbard, founder of her own pastry and dessert business, thought the neighborhood could use a prominent digital sign that would display community events, job and learning opportunities, new business openings and more. Others emphasized the importance of networking through churches, businesses, schools and community media outlets.

Find and support local talents. Several participants proposed conducting a census of skills within the neighborhood with results used to create a comprehensive inventory of local resources. Once talent is found, person-to-person referrals are vital, said Angela Thompson, who runs her own accounting service. Milwaukeeans need to recommend businesses they like to their friends and family, she said. “That’s an important way to support one another.”

Involve residents in decision-making. Diane Beckley, Chief Operating Officer of St. Ann Center’s Bucyrus Campus, explained how the organization spent five years getting input from north side residents before the center was built. “We asked people to tell us what kinds of services they’d like to see,” she said. Requests for a family-friendly entertainment venue and exercise area led to the planning of a 350-seat band shell and tree-lined walking paths on the Bucyrus Campus grounds, scheduled to be completed next year.

Other ideas for community building ranged from block parties that spotlight neighborhood artists, to community-wide talent shows with prize money, to free and affordable classes on everything from music to sports to starting your own business.

The importance of investing in the north side’s young people came up in every conversation. If the community wants strong leaders, Adams said, “We have to grow our own. And we have to create a place for them…a place they want to come back to after college.”

Ellis told the story of 11-year-old Malik, a smart and creative boy who, without a father figure, was getting into trouble. Ellis became his mentor, and when Malik was 13, showed him how to turn a $20 investment into $160 selling cold bottled water from a cooler at 8th Street and Locust Avenue. The next weekend, Malik had four of his friends working other corners—each made a couple hundred dollars. This year, at 15, Malik made $1,600 over the summer and was able to take his little sister shopping for new school clothes. “Many young black teens want to get away from guns,” he said. “We need to create a system so they can.”


  • Denise Wooten says:

    Unfortunately these types of gatherings do not include many who live in the 53206 and would have loved to be a part of the dialogue. So many community groups that meet within the 53206 such as Borchert Field C.A.R.E.S., Project Focal Point, Grover-Triangle-Williamsburg Heights, and countless others, never receive invites to lend ourr voices on issues that affect our communities. Chris Abele in his campaign promises pledged more county attention and dollars would be directed towards the 53206. As usual after his re-election similar talk sessions were initiated through the Office on African American Affairs but eventually came to a screeching halt when the Sherman Park debacle occurred. I have questioned the motives of countless other sessions that have sprung up but gone no where when it comes to looking for answers to what plaques this area. As I read the summary of the October 17th round table, I hoped someone would have suggested as I have repeatedly, a revamping of the infrastructure as a first step. Bbut alas that too was never mentioned. If anything would incite my neighbors to realize that they are the answer to most of the problems it would be a renovation of the aesthetics that have long been ignored. I suggest that anyone reading this may want to drive down east to west Burleigh or north to south Teutonia from Capital Drive, and see for themselves the devastation of those heavy traffic byways. Many beautiful 2nd and 3rd generation homes sit alongside vacant, debris littered or abandoned dwellings, that bring the comparable rate for reselling to its knees for the rest of us homeowners and landlords alike. Vacant lots are used as human waste bins and dumping grounds for those unwilling to pay disposal fees. City street lights are purposely turned off (not randomly going out as I am told by City operators when I report) lending to unsafe foot travel. Should I go on? All of those things mentioned in this article are nice and ideal if even basic needs are met. But this is not the case in our neighborhoods and until some of what I have stated is seriously and earnestly addressed, people will still meet and patronize us with ideas they believe will put us on our feet. Most of outsider efforts appear to us as just another unresolved “feel good” photo op for the next group waiting in the wings without us.

    • Cathy Feldkamp says:

      Hi Denise,
      Thank you so much for your comment. Your observations on the need to renovate the aesthetics and that your neighbors are the answer to most of the problems and are right in line with our thinking. We are working diligently with the City, BID #32 and UWM to push the stalled streetscaping process forward on Fond du Lac and North Avenues. As an permanent anchor tenant in the area we have the responsibility to do what we can to make sure our neighbors can one day live in an environment that is attractive, that they can be proud of, and that somehow promotes job creation. When we signed up to be a host for the On the Table event, we chose our theme of bringing out the talent in the neighborhood because we know from the three Business Incubator Workshops we’ve held at St. Ann Center in the last 14 months that there is far more entrepreneurial talent in the 53206 area than is commonly known. We invited some North Side community leaders plus all of our previous Business Incubator Workshop participants. The result was over 30 people from the North Side focused on how they could improve their future. We vowed to keep our focus squarely on the future, and to develop our own solutions to help each other succeed. We plan to meet again, within the next few weeks if possible. If you share those goals, we’d love to have you join us and continue the conversation. Please let us know if we can add you and any other individuals from the organizations you mentioned to that email list?

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