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Overhead photo of streets filled with two-story homes and apartments, with a city skyline in the background.
Milwaukee, as seen from the predominantly black north side. A number of progressive developers are trying to rebuild neighborhoods in the city that have long suffered from underinvestment and discriminatory housing policy.

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How progressive developers are trying to remake America’s most segregated city

When Milwaukee hosts the Democratic convention, politicians should pay heed to these neighborhood redevelopment ideas

A good place to start to understand Milwaukee is on a street with two names.

During a bus tour earlier this month of the city’s near north side—a mostly residential stretch of homes, past the more familiar downtown and the districts of squat brick brewery buildings that have been converted into lofts, condos, and retail—Frank Cumberbatch explained why Old World Third Street, which runs through the business district, turns into Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as it heads north, through the city’s majority black neighborhoods.

A Trinidadian who emigrated to Milwaukee nearly 40 years ago and now works as vice president of engagement for local charitable group Bader Philanthropies, Cumberbatch has focused his career on bringing equality and opportunity to the city. When he introduced himself and his work around community health and housing, he said that, in the 40 years he’s been in Wisconsin, “I’ve wondered why the kids that look like me can’t get educated, why the men who look like me can’t keep a job, and why is it that our city leads the nation in the incarceration of African-American males.”

As he showed a group of writers around the city, pointing out some of the new and upcoming developments, such as a $100 million medical college taking the place of a shuttered department store, he said that the abrupt cut-off of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is indicative of the city’s deep inequality and racial segregation. King Drive passes through an area called Bronzeville, once a thriving black entertainment district that hosted artists such as Count Basie and James Brown, but suffered through white flight, highway construction, and job loss and only recently started to bounce back via the efforts of Bader, developers, and other community leaders.

“That shift in names makes people feel less like human beings,” he says. It’s only called Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the majority black neighborhoods, though some local leaders are discussing plans to make it the street’s only name. “It’s our intent that next time you come into town, Martin Luther King Drive runs right through the city, because that’s how we start the healing.”

The entrance to Sherman Phoenix, featuring a mural of a black women clutching a flame.
The entrance to Sherman Phoenix, a community business incubator that’s part of a wave of new developments trying to bring new businesses and opportunity to Milwaukee’s north side.
Kelly Leitz

A city in the spotlight

Next summer, Milwaukee will find itself in the national spotlight when it hosts the Democratic National Convention. It’s a strategic choice: After the Democrats lost the presidential election in 2016, in large part due to the crumbling of the so-called “Midwest firewall” of states such as Wisconsin, thought to be reliably blue, the party decided it was vital to communicate that it hasn’t forgotten this region.

Milwaukee will have plenty of reasons to show off to out-of-town guests, including high-profile developments such as the new $524 million Fiserv Forum, a multipurpose arena for the Milwaukee Bucks and other concert and sporting events that kickstarted a development boom in the city’s Westown neighborhood when it opened last year, and the sail-like Northwestern Mutual Tower, a 32-story high-rise that opened its doors in 2017 and reassured developers of downtown’s potential. Rocky Marcoux, the city’s commissioner of development, said he can’t wait to show off investment opportunities to those who haven’t been here before.

“It’s not that people have a negative impression of Milwaukee; they have no impression of Milwaukee,” he said. “I’ll bet roughly 80 percent of the people who will come haven’t been here before.”

Marcoux is understandably excited about the convention and the chance to show off to investors from the coasts. But he wants to make sure the whole city is in focus, including still-in-progress efforts to overcome a legacy of segregation and disinvestment.

“We want to show everything, the good, bad, and indifferent,” he said. “We want to talk about the challenges we have, and hear new ideas, too.”

Milwaukee’s formula for urban renewal

Media stories about the Midwest often depict the region’s working class as struggling white autoworkers, but in Milwaukee, which is roughly 40 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic, it is working-class people of color who face some of the greatest inequalities.

Cumberbatch said it can all be seen in a single zip code on Milwaukee’s northside. The majority-black 53206 postal code has some of the highest rates of unemployment, incarceration, and childhood mortality in the nation, the results of decades of segregation and discriminatory housing laws. Documentaries have focused on the neighborhood’s post-industrial plight, and Matthew Desmond’s searing, Pulitzer-winning book Evicted looked at the deplorable state of rental housing for many of the city’s low-income black residents (last year, he returned to Milwaukee for a lecture and said that “little has changed”).

Overhead photo of Milwaukee northsideneighborhoods.
The Century City development, a former GM plant, was cleaned and remediated by the City of Milwaukee with hopes of attracting new businesses to the north side.
Courtesy WEDA

“When you look at the old redline maps of Milwaukee and look at the racial breakdown of neighborhoods today, it hasn’t changed,” says Joaquin Altoro, the new executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

The old A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive factory, now rechristened Century City, a former GM plant in the center of the near north side that was abandoned in the late ’80s, has left a scar that’s just beginning to be filled by new businesses. Cumberbatch called the site a “total travesty,” and would ask candidates and all party officials at every level to stand on the ground, amid the rusted steel, and explain what they’ll do to help this neighborhood. He said the residents here are so down, they’re “looking up at the belly of a grasshopper.”

“What I’d like politicians and convention visitors to understand is, poor people care about their environment,” he says. “Poor people care about their children and their families, just like everybody else. Poor people have contributed greatly to the success of the Democratic party. This is what they should focus on. If this boat rises, then all boats across the nation rise.”

A few blocks from the Century City site, the Sherman Phoenix, a local hub of entrepreneurship and a potential model for community engagement, suggests one route to neighborhood rebirth. The name aims to be symbolic. A former BMO bank branch that was burned out in 2016 during an uprising over the fatal police shooting of black 23-year-old Sylville Smith, the building is crowned with a mural of a woman clutching a flame.

When the New York Times wrote about black Milwaukee following the 2016 shooting, the article’s closer—“Help us be the Phoenix that rises from the ashes”—caught the attention of Joanne Sabir, a black entrepreneur and community leader, and Juli Kaufmann, a white woman who founded Fix Development, which focuses on a quadruple bottom line (projects that promote economic stability, environmental stewardship, social equity, and cultural continuity). The two teamed up to create a business hub to help the area rebuild.

A couple at a table inside a food court set up inside a renovated old bank building.
Shindig Coffee and Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, two of the local businesses that have set up shop inside Sherman Phoenix.
Courtesy Sherman Phoenix

The Sherman Phoenix focused on giving local businesses a place to thrive, offering mentorships with other business leaders, access to a commercial kitchen, and affordable space near like-minded companies. Banks wouldn’t loan money due to the location of the project, in the Sherman Park neighborhood: It’s a $4.5 million project, Kaufmann claims, but banks value the land at $300,000. So Sabir and Kaufmann sought funding from local foundations, as well as community crowdfunding. Roughly 100 equity investors pitched in at least $1,000 each, making up 10 percent of the project’s total funding and guaranteeing the neighborhood was engaged.

“Essentially, I built a mall with my partner and we didn’t know what we were doing, we just listened to the community,” said Kaufmann. “People are starved for interaction, and government isn’t supporting the main streets of America; they’re chasing places like FoxConn.”

Now, after a year of operation, Sherman Phoenix has more than two dozen new businesses in action, including a clothing store that helps victims of human trafficking with employment and job skills; professional services such as family therapists, a yoga studio, and jewelry makers; an artist who customizes sneakers; and a number of restaurants, including an organic Buffalo wing shop and a place that sells booze-infused popcorn. There’s a waiting list of entrepreneurs trying to get in, and even formerly dark corners of the bank building’s basement are jam-packed with new ideas and fledgling companies.

“There’s no surprise there’s a waiting list to get in here, or that none of the businesses have failed here so far,” Kaufmann says. “There are a million black entrepreneurs and black ideas for job creation. It’s white privilege and institutional racism and systems built into our city that have made these things less possible. We have to innovate through those challenges and work through them and disrupt them.”

Diversifying the development world

Milwaukee’s also home to other pioneering programs that seek to empower local communities to shape their own development and destiny. The ACRE program, or Associates in Commercial Real Estate, has been a catalyst for supporting real estate projects by and for people of color in Milwaukee. Created by professor Mark Eppli and the Marquette University College of Business in 2005, after Eppli attended a real estate event at his school and noticed not one of the 360 attendees was a person of color, ACRE is a 26-week crash course to get more diversity in the development field.

When Eppli launched the program in Milwaukee, he discovered that, in 2003, less than 1 percent of the 100,000 professionals who worked in commercial real estate development nationwide were black. Though the program temporarily shuttered in the years after the Great Recession, it restarted in 2014, and has graduated dozens of real estate professionals, as well as aldermen and business leaders, who, slowly but surely, have helped reshape Milwaukee and encourage more black entrepreneurship. The new Ikon hotel development taking shape near the city’s Fiserv Forum is led by Kalan Haywood Sr., the first black developer to build a hotel in Milwaukee, who’s also building a mixed-rate housing development near Fiserv Forum. Melissa Goins, a black developer and ACRE graduate, is working on a number of developments across town, including new lofts set to go up opposite Century City.

Milwaukee has also utilized tax-increment financing districts, or TIFS, to spur development in underinvested neighborhoods. On the near north side along Martin Luther King Drive, which Cumberbatch spoke of as a symbol of the city’s divide, a number of new business openings have started to revitalize the near north side, picking up on the momentum created by the King Drive Business Improvement District, which was launched in 1993 (more than $400 million has been invested in the area since). Mi Casa Su Cafe, Rise and Grind Cafe, and DreamBikes have opened in the last few years, “breathing new life into this once overlooked part of Milwaukee,” as the local paper Shepherd Express describes it.

On North Avenue, a block away from King Drive, the America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM), which explores “the harmful legacies of slavery in America and promotes racial repair, reconciliation, and healing,” is set to reopen as part of a larger mixed-use development, spearheaded by Melissa Goins, an ACRE grad, and Sabir, who cofounded Sherman Phoenix. Cumberbatch says the city and other developers have contributed to King Drive’s redevelopment, but before ACRE, there weren’t black developers involved.

A 2014 photo of Welford Sanders, a pioneering developer and former executive director of Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation, in front of King Drive Commons Business Center at 2772 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Michael Sears, courtesy of Frank Cumberbatch

Part of the challenge is to help the near northside, and its black residents, avoid being pushed out by development creeping up from Westown. While showcasing developments on a hilly stretch of Sixth Street, located due north of Fiserv Forum, commissioner Marcoux said that black residents could look down the hill, see the stadium, and “count the days before they’re out.” That’s why the city needs to redouble its efforts to apply anti-displacement efforts and neighborhood development (a Brookings study this year found the city is the most segregated major metro in the country).

Cumberbatch says that it’s important for everyone—locals as well as visiting politicians—to see how hard developers are working and how far the city needs to go. The changes on King Drive, like those in Sherman Phoenix, show the potential of community-led development.

“We’re very excited about the future of our town, and leaders like us in this community realize it’s on us now,” he says. “It’s the guys on the ground, it’s upon us to create wealth for families, create opportunity, and beautify our space, and bring dignity to people of color.”

Disclosure: Curbed participated in a three-day press trip sponsored by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. As per our ethics guidelines, coverage was not guaranteed, and all opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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