Watching a once familiar neighborhood gas station burn and the destruction and chaos that followed after a deadly police shooting in the Sherman Park neighborhood pained and saddened my heart.
For many years this was my neighborhood.
Less than two blocks from where Sylville K. Smith, 23, was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer and down the street from the BP gas station that burned, my husband and I bought our first home in 1980. It was a small, 1920s Tudor on 44th St. We loved it.
It’s here where we had our two daughters who were born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, which is also in the neighborhood. It’s here where the girls learned to ride their Big Wheels and play in the nearby triangle park down the street.
On hot summer days they would run through the sprinkler in the backyard and on snowy days slide down our front lawn on red, plastic sleds.
Once there was a nearby Boy Blue where we would walk to for ice cream cones on summer evenings and lick like crazy before the cones melted on our way home.
We would walk to the nearby Fruit Ranch for fruit and vegetables and for Easter and Halloween candy.
We were regular customers at the Kohl’s grocery store on Burleigh Street. And during the Christmas season the girls loved to ride the Santa train at the old Capitol Court, another place where we spent a lot of time and money.
Our children attended the Children’s Workshop preschool at Trinity Presbyterian Church on Sherman Blvd., just a short walk from our house. It was a great blend of Montessori and arts-based curriculum.
On summer evenings the girls would play with their good friends — twin boys who lived a few houses down the street from us — while the grown-ups pooled what we had in the fridge for leisurely outdoor potluck dinners filled with lots of wine and laughter.
There were Fourth of July fireworks at Sherman Park.
Good times. Good memories.
But as our children grew older, our lovely neighborhood began to change.
Boy Blue, the Fruit Ranch, Capitol Court and Kohl’s all closed, leaving vacant buildings and questions of what was to come.
Our home was burglarized numerous times. Bikes and Weber grills disappeared.
We had moved here in the late 1970s and early 1980s when many others had come to Sherman Park in hopes of creating a truly integrated, inclusive neighborhood in this city that’s so stubbornly segregated. Many of us believed we could be part of helping to build and maintain a neighborhood where all could work and play and live and get along and show the rest of the city that it could be done.
It was the dream. But slowly the dream faded.
Police squads and suspicious behavior became more commonplace. Once a squad screeched into our alley chasing some young men who were stopped and frisked outside our garage as the girls and I walked to our car. “The police are looking for someone,” I tried to explain calmly, trying not to show my nervousness and pretend this was a common occurrence. But it made me worry.
Another time a car barreled onto our property and came to a sudden halt just a few feet from where our children were watching TV in the family room. It was a scary close call. Too close.
Slowly, over time, the negatives mounted. Others started moving. And we questioned how long we could continue to live comfortably under what seemed to be increasingly uncertain conditions.
In short, there comes a tipping point. Yes, we wanted to be part of a good and worthy experiment. But when it came to the safety and security of your children, the choices narrowed. So we moved.
Sherman Park is, and always has been, a special place. It has deep roots in the city. It has beautiful old houses, an active and engaged community association, and a lot of good people who care. But it is not an island. And as the poverty, crime, job losses, growing incarceration rates, guns, drugs, tough economic times and foreclosures spread throughout the city, this neighborhood could not forever escape.
Many ask why the burning, destruction and despair that manifested that early Saturday morning in August in Sherman Park happened here. Why now?
The answers lie not just on these streets, but downtown, in government offices, corporate headquarters, nonprofits, police stations, schools and wherever decisions are made in and around the city and beyond.
Through the years there has been a general disinvestment and a lack of dollars, resources and ideas put into this and adjacent neighborhoods throughout the city.
There’s been a lack of creativity, imagination and political determination to make and keep this neighborhood (and others) thriving places to live and work.
Now the spotlight is on Sherman Park and what to do.
But it’s not just about Sherman Park. More importantly, it’s about lifting up so many others in the city and giving everyone a stake in its future. It needs to be a city fueled by hope, promise and possibilities, instead of the destruction and despair that’s crept in through years of neglect and indifference.