Monday, May 14, 2007

Bronzeville: What's in Store

In 2000, Milwaukee mayor John Norquist expressed interest in reinvesting in a new Bronzeville--meaning that a sense of community would return to the important section of Milwaukee. While the idea was couched for a few years, the city has experienced another resurgence with Tom Barrett in office. Barrett, incidentally, was also quite critical about the original demise of 1940s and 50s Bronzeville, and has always been displeased by the highway routing when Frank Ziedler was mayor.

The new Bronzeville will primarily encompass the area in between Garfield and Meinecke, and 4th and 7th Street. North Avenue, comprised of most of the businesses, runs directly through the center. Public improvements are in order, including the beautification of streets and sidewalks and the ushering in of murals and banners. Plus, a cultural center that will focus on the history of the area (much like this blog) will be instituted, and much like the old days, a new music/jazz club is being proposed as well.

Milwaukee, under the auspices of the Department of City Development, is reportedly spending over three million dollars to buy land for redevelopment. Existing buildings will be improved and private investment will be encouraged.

On the residential front, an organization called the Bronzeville New Homes Initiative is planning to sell empty lots to potential home-builders for one dollar. That's right, one dollar.
And according to the Department, this project will put Milwaukee on the map as an even more exciting tourist destination. So the effort to restore the neighborhood that once hosted national jazz acts is now a top priority. So an area that has been laying dormant for over forty years is receiving a well-deserved boost to restore its prominence.
--reported by Lawrence (photo from Department of City Development)

Bronzeville: The Present

Inside of the red square is the original area of Bronzeville--boxed in by North and State, 3rd and 12th. Walnut Street, which was essentially the heart of the community, runs parallel to State St. just south of Carver Park, the green shape that kind of resembles a shoe. If you casually drive through the neighborhood, one of the first things you notice is that the north-south I-94 freeway literally cuts right into the once-thriving neighborhood. And if you drive down North Street, the you can actually witness the deliberateness of routing a highway through this area. In this particular section of the city, it looks as if it split the area clean in half.

As for the houses, businesses, storefronts and public properties that lay at the west end of Bronzeville, the occupants were in a sense evicted in the late 50s for the highway construction. Subsequently, the buildings were unapologetically razed, even in some unnecessary areas where the road didn't end up touching. Since most people rented their properties instead of owning them, it was hard for them to keep their respective residences.

Today, this area may not retain the same sense of community identity, but that doesn't mean that a future revitalization plan won't attempt to reclaim the former feelings.

Here are two photos of the furthest northeast corner of what was once Bronzeville, at the intersection of North and 3rd (which is now renamed Martin Luther King Jr. St.) looking into the neighborhood. This side of town is dotted with businesses and corporate chains. America's Black Holocaust Museum is a block away, and further down MLK is an array of warehouses.

This is at the northwest corner of the neighborhood, at North and 12th, again peering into the community. At this edge were two opposing gas stations, some empty fields and some homes.
Since I'm trying to both see what Bronzeville looks like today and get a sense of things geographically, I continued on and took shots of the far southwest corner of 3rd and State. This area definitely has more of a downtown vibe to it, and the avenues are populated with bars. This corner felt the least familiar and seemed detached from the rest of the Bronzeville area.
Finally, here is the northwest corner of the former community. Again, this spot was influenced by its proximity to downtown. Also, it was bookended by the freeway which was visible just beyond the building to the right. The main establishments were an Aurora health center and a middle school, though empty lots were down just a little further.
--reported by Lawrence

Thursday, May 10, 2007

What was Bronzeville?

When emigrants from the southern states were moving up to the industrialized north, they had a myriad of towns and cities in which to choose to settle down. A popular route involved taking a train to the midwest metropolis of Chicago, Illinois--but to some, that endeavor proved a little to intimidating, and they opted instead for the less hectic lifestyle of Milwaukee.

The first hints of a gathering of southern emigrants occurred in 1900, when there were literally less than 900 African Americans in the entire city. From that point on until the late 50s--early 60s, the section grew by leaps and bounds. Much controversy surrounded the growth however, as rather bigoted mayors assumed that the influx of black citizens spelled social problems for Milwaukee. Frank Ziedler, the only socialist mayor of Milwaukee, for instance felt that the "chief issue" for northern cities was the black question. Henry Meier, who succeded him, in 1963 was convinced that these immigrants were unable to assimilate when they arrived, creating an ostensible wedge during his administration. What these two didn't take into account was that the community was operating fine under its own auspices.

Segregation was still very prominent in that day. African-Americans were relegated to a small quadrant that was bordered by the Milwaukee River to the east. To be sure, the limits were blocked off at the remaining cardinal directions too, as the cramped confines came to a stop at Twelfth and Third Street, as well as Walnut Street to the north. This area was known as 'Bronzeville', although it was not unique only to Milwaukee, as the phrase was simply a pejorative term for the sanctioned space where black residents called home. For there is also a well-known one in Chicago.

Bronzeville meant many things to the folks that lived and worked there everyday. To some it represented the hard work ethic of the disenfranchised, unequally treated immigrant. To others it meant the heart and soul of familial bonds and neighborly comity. Still others thought it stood for pride. Bronzeville supported a booming service industry, replete with storefronts, grocers, cafes, and barbershops. It also gave rise to a collection of vibrant jazz clubs and social venues. Churches were also a crucial part of its make-up, as well as sports organizations, schools and medical practices. A caveat is involved however, as most of these outfits were paid for by owners that had to work brutal, unenviable jobs in the city. It was tough to run a business simply on sales transactions in the day, so most managers had to lead two lives and punch in at a factory during the day.

The first corporation that began hiring African Americans in Milwaukee was A.O. Smith, which originally installed black janitors and porters into its various buildings in the early 1920s. The experience these black employees had entailed share cropping in places like Mississippi or Alabama, which might have also stymied their chances for employment on top of the existing segregation. In time, other companies did follow suit though, such as Allis-Chalmers and International Harvester. Eventually, African Americans were promoted up onto the production floor, and because of the war effort twenty years later most were engaged in the assembly of bomb casings. A.O. Smith, by war's end, had eventually churned out over five million of these artillery shells, some no doubt processed by Bronzeville residents.

As anyone who has read Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' knows, factories and production plants in the early 20th century were anything but pleasant. Unsanitary working conditions, safety hazards, absence of rights, and exhausting hours were the norm. Outside of A.O. Smith were other companies seeking employees as well, such as those involved in the iron and steel industry, tanning, construction, slaughtering and meat-packing. While toiling in one of these places, one could expect anywhere from 12.50 to 30 dollars a week in pay--hardly compensation for the dangers implicit with the job. Open lime vats were constantly steaming in tanneries, tuberculosis was a threat in the foundries, and construction injuries were prevalent. In one account, a Bronzeville resident on his own volition donned a suit of rubber to avoid getting burned in a tannery, though the suit wasn't a requirement by the company.

Hard work was a major theme running throughout Bronzeville, as exhausted factory workers returned home to support their family business or to volunteer at church events. Women, likewise, labored in domestic jobs during the day only to emulate the men in the evening. Needless to say, this inspired their progeny and set a lineage in place of manual labor being a necessity to survive and prosper in this world.

As more migrants began pouring into Bronzeville, the lack of space proved hazardous. In 1950, the African American population was just under 22,000, but in ten years it ballooned to 62,000. Many realized that they couldn't all dwell in this shrinking spot. Yet at the same time, ironically, they also supported local businesses by needing relatively inexpensive places to live, eat, receive haircuts and be entertained. In turn, rooming houses and restaraunts benefited by the rapid influx. And those who managed to find homes discovered a rather enjoyable and comfortable new life.

Most folks when it was warm slept on their front porches. Doors remained unlocked; screen doors with a tiny hook became the only means of separating a house's wares with the outside world.

Swinging nightclubs sponsoring national acts were the talk of the town. The Metropole, The Flame, Moon Glow and Art's were graced by the presence of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few. The shows garnered wider attention and in time attracted white patrons from Whitefish Bay, Shorewood and Bayside. There was no doubt that on some nights Bronzeville was *the* hot spot of Milwaukee.

While it may have been an exciting, cacaphonous place, it also supported familial ties and togetherness as well. Children were raised in community-oriented schools and went to churches that were run by numerous members of the community. Booker T. Washington YMCA provided an excellent outlet for sporting events and team learning, though this image is from the Lapham Park Social Center (photos from Geenen).

If one looks at Bronzeville, they'll see, just like its residents of yesteryear, that the activities and lifestyles were diverse, but the same emotion of harmonious living and communitu was felt by all.

--reported by Lawrence

The Decline of Bronzeville: Urban Renewal and the Carving of Highways

History is merely the analysis of systems of the past, and in particular it looks at why these systems exist as they do today--whether they are countries, governments, cultures, human interactions or the like. This field of study can encompass as much as the vastness of the Roman Empire to the relatively inconsequential election of a Milwaukee mayor. These interactions are everywhere, though the particular system we're studying just happens to be a small community in Milwaukee. Small indeed, though what it lacked in surface area it made up for in a sense of brotherhood, togetherness and kinship. In its heyday it certainly involved the lives of real people--people that had real feelings and deserved equal rights that weren't provided by their government. This community is what they called home. And though it is a shame that this important hub to many was ruptured, the following will try to do it some justice by revealing the inequality and external forces that were applied to it in the mid-20th century. The intention is to bring to light real governmental scenarios that will in any age be considered awful and unfair. So in this by no means exhaustive history, the steps that ultimately contributed to the neighborhood's decline will be spotlit in succession.

With domestic issues at the top of the agenda, the US Congress passed the Housing Act in 1949, a piece of legislation that essentially condoned the tearing down of less affluent, urban neighborhoods for new development. State and local governments were alotted considerable discretion when it came to what neighborhoods to eradicate, and they were given tax dollars to erect commercial buildings that would generate more money. Businesses weren't the only focus however, as a blending of government and corporate interest was at work to try to disenfranchise certain members of the community.

'Redlining', which entailed real estate agents refusing to offer certain locations to African Americans, was prevalent and actually advocated by the Federal Housing Administration. New houses were built with a new loan policy in mind: loans were only to be given to a single owner of a home, rather than the existing methods which included those living in multi-family buildings. At that point many residents in urban found it dreadfully difficult to get by. After these new housing discrimination laws were codified in the books, they were wholly entrenched up until the ratification of the 1964 Civil Rights Act--which was in itself an extraordinary battle fought via protests and demonstrations all across the country.

Signed by President Johnson, the Act was a milstone in helping to end the environment of discrmination in public services, voting and employment.

The residents of Bronzeville would have collectively cheered at such a historic precedent, but it was no longer quite as easy to coalesce anymore. The once prosperous neighborhood, consisting of hotels, night clubs, drugstores, cafes restaraunts, was already slowly becoming demolished due to gentrification. And even still, eight years before the Civil Rights Act was signed, the final push that toppled the community over the side muscled in. I-94, the north-south highway prone to congestion, was to run straight through the heart of their little town.

This is Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. It may seem odd that his image sits above, but hopefully it will become clear as to how his policies affected Bronzeville.

During World War II, Eisenhower was "Supreme Commander" of US forces in Europe, and on one of his many tourings of battlefields he became inspired by the German autobahn. Since America had yet to sanction a federally-recognized interstate system, he began to keep the notion in the back of his head as something useful for the homefront.

He was elected in 1953, and within a year's time the plan for a highway system was discussed amongst his cabinet. In turn the overall result was the Federal Aid Highway Act, which he signed into law on June 26th, 1956. The intent was to connect the country through a complex stretch of interstate highways that would end up totalling some 40,000 miles of cement and asphalt. 25 million dollars were invested in the ten year project. Eisenhower, at the time of his signing, allegedly drew out a crude United States and then added three vertical and three horizontal lines--indicating his idea of what major points to build roads off of.

Again, local governments were given control over where the highways would be routed to, and in many cases they were directed through vibrant urban neighborhoods in such cases as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston and Milwaukee to name a few. What ultimately occurred was the steady decline of the communities as they became isolated. What was equally as problematic was the fact that commuters simply zipped past the businesses of Bronzeville on their daily ride to work, with the once lucrative storefronts no longer accesible due to the I-94 guardrails.

To compound each of these problems, the city of Milwaukee was also developing its own plans to rid what it called "urban blight". Administered under the Mayoral guidance of one Frank Ziedler (a socialist party member), many homes were cleared away for revitalization. And finally, after 1956 the city finally prepared for the construction of the highway, which, cutting across Bronzeville, eliminated over 8,000 homes.

That number is almost difficult to comprehend. That entails over 8,000 people unfairly removed from their place of residence, and in some cases, even for no reason as the highway didn't come to touch an implied section.

The history is simply staggering, hard, and upsettingly disconcerting. How could such a tragedy befall a wonderful neighborhood?

--reported by Lawrence--

Ivory Abena Black, author of "Bronzeville: A Milwaukee Lifestyle," recounts the story of the thriving African-American neighborhood in its heyday -- before the community was decimated by urban renewal initiatives.

Bronzeville was a thriving African-American community in Milwaukee which peaked in culture in the 1940s and 50s. It was essentially localized in the area between North and State with 12th and 3rd Street as its borders.

African-Americans had moved to that particular spot after tensions had been arising in their existing neighborhoods of Milwaukee's sixth, second, and tenth wards.

What Bronzeville evolved into, before its unfair and unfortunate demise, was a community full of familial values, gainful employment, commerce, and a swinging jazz scene complete with tour stops and appearances by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole--to name a few.

This was all brought to an abrupt halt by two pieces of government legislation that literally tore the community apart. They were the Housing Act of 1949 and the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act.

--posted by Lawrence