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.”
“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 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.”