Bronzeville, Milwaukee Rises Again

Walking through Bronzeville, a north side neighborhood in Milwaukee, stirs the feelings of hope and despair. The desolate lots and homes, scattered litter and high crime rates may leave one to think that Bronzeville is just another run-down and forgotten Milwaukee neighborhood. But, there is a ray of hope; the Bronzeville neighborhood is on the verge of a major rebirth. 

Bronzeville was once the hub of African-American business ownership, culture and the arts in Milwaukee, but the freeway construction that tore through the bustling community left the neighborhood neglected for decades. The city and the residents are now making great strides to restore Bronzeville to its original glory through business incentives, local art and uplifting neighborhood events. Bronzeville is on the rise once again.

“The reason why Bronzeville was a thriving neighborhood is because there was a close-knit community,” said Paul Geenen, author of “Milwaukee’s Bronzeville.” “There was a range of professions, and there were even immigrants from the farms of Arkansas that came to Milwaukee. While it was crowded and unpretty, it was vibrant.”

In 2005, Geenen was a volunteer van driver for Cross Lutheran Church. 

“I would pick the women up from their neighborhoods and they would tell wonderful stories about Bronzeville, and I thought that their stories needed to be told,” Geenen said.

From then on, Geenen began to interact with a group of about 50 Bronzeville residents and gathered their photos and stories to memorialize Bronzeville in its prime.

From the early 1900s to the 1960s, Bronzeville was at its peak. The predominately African-American neighborhood was thriving. The streets were lined with successful black-owned businesses, homes were filled with happy families and the cultural impact was outstanding. The neighborhood brought all races and ethnicities together to celebrate African-American culture. 

Bronzeville was Milwaukee’s home to jazz, blues and the arts with special and regular appearances by musical legends such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. But the prosperous neighborhood came to an end when the construction of the I-94 / I-43 freeways, one of which cut directly through Bronzeville, demolishing many homes and businesses, leaving the neighborhood a shell of what it once was. 

America's Black Holocaust Museum (located on North Avenue and Vel R. Phillips Avenue)

Entrance to Gee's Clippers (located on MLK Drive and Garfield)

Large scale mural on the side of a building on North Avenue and 6th.

Pete's Fruit Market, opened in 2017 (located on North Avenue and MLK Drive)

Small red rail with Bronzeville affirmation (located on MLK Drive and Garfield)

Bronze statue of Martin Luther King (located on MLK Drive and Vine Street)

Bronzeville resident stands in front of Community Garden.

Bronzeville fell from its original grace decades ago, leaving many wondering why in the past few years there has been such an effort to revitalize the neighborhood and why it took so long to do so.

“There’s a lot of different reasons why it’s taken so long to recover and why it’s coming back now,” Geenen said. “The impact of gun violence in the neighborhood made investment difficult.”

Despite the beautiful architecture, open land, great location and exciting ideas, investors didn’t want to take the risk of investing in a crime-ridden neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of potential here, which causes a fear of gentrification,” Geenen said. “Since it’s so close to the stadium, some people are afraid that this neighborhood will be taken over. People don’t want to move out of their houses and lose businesses.”

Trying to restore Bronzeville with entertainment as the neighborhood focal point at this time may be doing more harm than good, according to Geenen.

“Focusing on entertainment may be tough to pull off at this point,” Geenen said. “They should focus on housing instead of other developments right now.”

Georgette Muilenburg, the local business owner of Nostalgia Home Decor in the heart of Bronzeville, is optimistic about the future of business ownership in Bronzeville. 

“I’ve owned property in Bronzeville for 10 years now, and it’s one of my favorite neighborhoods in Milwaukee, and I’ve lived all over the city,” Muilenburg said.

Muilenburg describes Bronzeville as a neighborhood with amazing changes underway.

“I get excited when I see all of the new local businesses on Martin Luther King Drive,” Muilenburg said. “It’s inspirational; it shows that we will overcome the difficulties that Bronzeville has faced over the years and that things are getting better. I especially love Hillbrook Coffee and Mi Casa Su Casa; great people, great businesses!” 

Muilenburg said the location is full of potential.

“I take walks around the neighborhood, and I see these beautiful buildings with awesome architecture,” Muilenburg said. “But everything is so underwhelming and we don’t utilize the space.”

That statement rings true when walking through the Bronzeville neighborhood. Adjacent to the expanding and exciting businesses, the old and broken Bronzeville remains.

Although Muilenburg is excited about the new changes coming to Bronzeville, she still has concerns.

“When I first moved down here, I didn’t take walks without a purpose,” Muilenburg said. “There is a lot of crime down here. We need more police and more sanitation for unkempt areas.”

Despite some of the downfalls, Muilenburg envisions a bright future for Bronzeville.

“I see the people in this neighborhood, and I believe in what is to come,” Muilenburg said. “You see these people, the residents; they’re human. They want improvement; they want to see things get better.”

While a booming local business center is helping to improve Bronzeville, the city of Milwaukee is also making other great strides to improve the neighborhood, and residents are taking notice; for example, Keisha Cobbs, a Bronzeville resident for 12 years, has noticed Milwaukee’s efforts.

“I’ve been on the North Side my whole life; it felt like things were all the same up here,” Cobbs said. “Just some run-down neighborhoods that no one gives a damn about because they don’t have to deal with it.”

When Cobbs first moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood, she felt like it was the same story.

“The violence was just as bad here [as] anywhere on the northside, people out here struggling to survive,” Cobbs said. “It’s just not a nice place to live.”

Cobbs lives with the unfortunate reality of feeling unsafe in her own home.

“I don’t even like walking out the house,” Cobbs said. “You especially got no business walking around at night; it’s dangerous out here, but that’s just the way it is.”

But, in recent years, Cobbs has taken notice of the actions being taken in Bronzeville to improve living conditions and give residents hope. 

 

“When I first got to Bronzeville, it felt like things would never change, like we were gonna be the hood forever,” Cobbs said. “But I noticed within the past few years, the city has been trying to do better.”

The city of Milwaukee has been doing better when it comes to restoring the historic neighborhood of Bronzeville. They have allowed local artists to create street art and have been creating events to boost morale among the community.

Cobbs didn’t know much about the history of Bronzeville, but the stories intrigued her, although they left her doubtful.

“I don’t know if Bronzeville will ever be that way again; too much has changed,” Cobbs said. “It would be exciting to get back to something like that. Real change isn’t going to happen overnight; it’s gonna take some time.”

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