“The President’s Perspective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President, City of Milwaukee
It’s late August in 1967. The wide expanse of flat concrete that is Milwaukee’s 16th Street Viaduct Bridge shimmers in the hot sun, its wire fence trimming the horizon. Sweat keeps dripping into the eyes of close to 200 NAACP Youth Council members and allies who are crossing from the Black North side into the mostly white South side. Their shadows, short in the noon sun, but their presence looming larger than life. At the time, this bridge was subject to a joke claiming that it was the longest bridge in the world because “it separated Africa from Poland.” The segregation was tangible, the disparities were far-reaching and our city felt more divided than ever.
50 years later some things have changed but the divide is still prevalent in housing, education and opportunities in Milwaukee. Opportunities for African Americans and Hispanics remain at a disproportionate rate compared to those in other cities that have a majority minority constituency.
Other than being unfair and not in line with “The American Dream” what is the impact of these practices on our community? Yes, there is some evidence that supports the fact that the greater the segregation of a community, the more significant the increase of crime. A person’s physical and social environments are primarily responsible for the behavioral choices that person makes. In particular, a neighborhood that has deteriorating social structures is more likely to have high crime rates. These neighborhoods may have struggling schools, vacant and vandalized buildings and high unemployment. In Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, you see a community where more than half the Black men who reside there have spent time in jail or prison by the time they are 34 years old. But in spite of this statistic all is not lost as there have been measurable improvements seen in dedicated neighborhoods throughout 53206. One example is the work of “We Got This”, founded by Milwaukee native Andre Lee Ellis. “We Got This”, engages young male residents in paid cleanup and gardening activities throughout their neighborhoods while exposing them to positive role models and mentors. Efforts like this have helped transform the lives of young people and have made our neighborhoods vibrant and engaging. Residents remain the backbone of improvements in 53206 and throughout the city, such as those seen through with this initiative.
Additionally, local organizations such as the Dominican Center for Women, Westcare and Running Rebels Community Organization have also played a major role in connecting with residents and revitalizing a sense of pride and ownership.
Place based strategies like Milwaukee Promise Zones continue to hold the best options for stabilizing neighborhoods and rebuilding them block by block. The Milwaukee Promise Zone initiative is a multifaceted city effort to improve certain neighborhoods by partnering with existing community-based organizations to leverage their expertise while unifying their efforts among one another and helping to unify our city.
Several other aspects of society have influenced the intentional gaps that prevent Black and Brown people in Milwaukee from truly living The Dream. Ultimately there has to be a multifaceted approach to improve the quality of life for those that live on both side of the bridge. We need economic development at scale that brings investments to all neighborhoods not just downtown and the outlying areas of the city.
In 2018 and beyond, we have some tough decisions to make both individually and collectively to assist everyone and every neighborhood with reaching their highest potential. Having a growing emphasis on community is an opportunity to redefine neighborhood economic policy. There are committed, positive, and appropriately aggressive steps available to us to bolster economic development in the places that need it. While the divide in our city is as old as time, there have been powerful efforts throughout history due to the passion of individuals like Howard Fuller, Mayor Marvin Pratt, Ben Johnson, Orville Pitts, Lynda L. Jones-Reyes, Felmers O. Chaney, Marcia Coggs, Isaac Newton Coggs, Ezekiel Gillespie, James Cameron, Father James Groppi, Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Prentice McKinney, Joe Oliver, Wilbur Halyard, Frances Brock Starms, Lloyd Barbee, The Honorable Vel E. Phillips, The NAACP Youth Council, The Commandos and countless others. The positive actions of not just individuals but a community will take us where we need to go.
Fifty years ago, when the youth council members squinted beyond the heat simmering in the air, they could see a crowd of thousands of counter-protestors. As the NAACP members and allies drew closer to the south side, the sound of north-bound smashing bottles, eggs, and the thud of rocks were barely heard over the sound of heckling and shouting. Despite this, the Youth Council and supporters marched for 200 days straight between August 1967 and March 1968. By marching, they held a conversation.
Without those conversations, it doesn’t matter what any organization does as long as there is an Us vs. Them dynamic. Efforts to heal our city will not be sustained in the long-term without improving the conditions of racial, social and economic relationships and that can only be solved by creating relationships and forging communities that value each and every person.