This Black History Month, we are honoring the legacy of commerce and culture that Milwaukee’s historic African American neighborhood bequeathed to its future residents. A new generation of community leaders and entrepreneurs are channeling that drive and creativity and forging a vibrant Bronzeville for the 21st century.
For nearly 70 years, a square mile of downtown Milwaukee known as Bronzeville formed the beating heart of African American life in the city. Over the course of the first half of the 20th century, waves of people migrating north—seeking good manufacturing jobs, a respite from Southern racism, a better life—swelled the ranks of Milwaukee’s black community.
But the city, like other northern places, was not the promised land: racist housing, banking and commercial covenants, among other forms of discrimination, relegated African Americans to living and doing business in a handful of neighborhoods. So, black Milwaukeeans created their own “city within a city,” according to local author Ivory Black, “full of leadership, a sense of community and a focus on entrepreneurship.”
Bronzeville became the economic and cultural engine of the community, bustling with businesses—barbershops and restaurants, drugstores and realty offices, funeral homes and law firms—all run by and serving African Americans. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the neighborhood was renowned for its social organizations, religious life and entertainment venues. Clubs like the Metropole and Moon Glow hosted the stars of jazz and blues: Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday pulled in audiences from across the state.
Then, in the 1960s, Milwaukee’s inner-city neighborhoods, like hundreds of other places across the country, were targeted for urban renewal and by an encroaching highway system. Some 8,000 Bronzeville homes and an untold number of businesses were razed to make way for I-43 and other freeways. Residents were displaced, community life disrupted. In 1967, in response to enduring housing discrimination and police brutality, riots broke out that ultimately left deep physical and social scars on Bronzeville and its people.
In recent years, after decades of decline, a new generation dedicated to the neighborhood began tapping into its entrepreneurial and artistic heritage. Since 1994, when LISC first opened an office in Milwaukee, we have been supporting those efforts and, together with local partners and the city of Milwaukee, investing to spark commercial and cultural revival.
LISC has also been boosting business development and commercial real estate in the community—renovating commercial properties and assisting others in the predevelopment phase through the Brew City Match program. We help connect property owners with tenants, and provide lending and mini-grants to small businesses. Through our MKE Pop-Up program, 11 enterprises have opened temporarily in the neighborhood, solidifying their brands, and two new businesses have opened permanently.
One of the people making Bronzeville percolate again is Melissa Goins, a local developer who graduated from LISC’s ACRE program, an intensive training institute for commercial real estate professionals of color in Milwaukee. Goins is spearheading an unprecedented project combining affordable housing, commercial space and a new home for America’s Black Holocaust Museum, a formative Bronzeville cultural organization that was closed for nearly ten years for lack of a space and funding. The development, known as the Griot, received a recoverable grant from LISC and will serve as a new anchor in the historic neighborhood.
For Goins, the Griot is much more than a housing development. “It's really about bringing back what was,” she says, referring to the former vibrancy of Bronzeville. “It's never going to be the same exact way, but it can be a place where the history is respected.” As time-, labor-, and capital-intensive as revitalization may be, Goins adds, the payoff is profound. “I see the bigger benefit in what it does to restore neighborhoods that have raised me. I see the value in the people. I see the value in the community. So at the end of the day for me, it's worth it."