Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood is moving rapidly toward its revitalization zenith after a decades-long nadir, and nowhere is that more apparent than on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, designated a "Wisconsin Main Street Community" in 2017, the first in Milwaukee.
In the two decades after World War II, the black community in Milwaukee prospered as thousands of black Southerners moved north during the Second Great Migration, seeking better jobs and respite from Jim Crow. By 1950, Milwaukee’s black community grew to over 20,000. Bronzeville once boasted about 180 black-owned businesses, including restaurants and barbershops, beauty parlors and jewelers, record stores and hotels, the Regal Theater and a multitude of nationally-renowned jazz clubs. Despite the success of this tight-knit community, racist redlining policies stunted the growth and the upward mobility of residents in the central parts of the city, including Bronzeville. Freeway construction in the 1960s and the economic downturn of the 1980s only made the future of Bronzeville’s residents even bleaker.
While the realities of segregation and economic hardship are still painfully evident throughout the city, Bronzeville is pushing hard against this historic tide to revitalize the once-thriving neighborhood.
If you want to experience Bronzeville growing right before your eyes — with Dr. King’s statue a beacon of promise — here are our picks for places for sustenance, art, style and a variety of services along Doctor Martin Luther King Dr., from North Avenue to Vliet Street.
Map of MLK Drive Points of Interest
→ On the Bayou
Where: 2053 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
Not only does elegantly prepared New Orleans comfort food await you at On the Bayou — including NOLA grilled or fried chicken, blackened catfish and seared eggplant–but they’re also bringing the community together in creative ways with their monthly Books & Brunch and their catered Paint & Sip events.
→ Mi Casa Su Cafe
Where: 1835 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
You’ll definitely feel like this is your casa at this warm and cozy restaurant, where breakfast, lunch and dinner options include meat, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Mi Casa Su Cafe elevates its casual dining experience with jazz music, a warm wood and stone palette and an eclectic mix of African, Buddhist and pop culture art.
→ Pilcrow Coffee
Where: 1739 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
Enter the bright red door of Pilcrow Coffee that matches its logo color and try their tap nitro coffee, sample their blends in the Tasting Room and even order a Mobile Coffee Bar or Nitro Bike (especially in the summer) for your next event.
→ Urban Beets Cafe & Juicery
Where: 1401 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
Whether you grab and go or stay awhile at Urban Beets, your body will thank you for taking care of it with plant-based, raw whole foods: juices and Acai bowls and inventive, ever-changing creations like the Green Goddess or the “pulled” BBQ carrot sandwiches.
A number of legacy businesses — as Deshea Agee, the Executive Director of the Historic King Drive BID No. 8, calls them — have stood the test of time and continue to “contribute to the identity of the neighborhood with their long-standing commitment.” Fein Brothers opened at 4th & Juneau in 1929 and moved to its current location on King Drive in 1967, and Glorious Malone’s Fine Sausage moved in 1985 from its 1961 location on 6th & Garfield to its current home. Crown Hardware & Plumbing Supply has operated since 1957, Febco Refrigeration since 1926. And the state’s only black-owned bookstore, Reader’s Choice, served the community for 28 years before it closed last year. But even Reader’s Choice will see a rebirth soon.
Art & Style
→ Jazale’s Art Studio
Where: 2201 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
Co-founded by Darren and Vedale Hill, Jazale’s combines an artist residency, gallery space and after-school and summer arts opportunities and mentoring for urban youth. The artists-in-residence (currently Sherman Pitts and Mikal Floyd-Pruitt, also Jazale’s event coordinator) have space to develop professionally and the youth learn visual and musical arts and bring them to the community.
→ Gee’s Clippers Barber & Beauty Salon
Where: 2200 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
The ornate and cavernous former bank building that now houses the iconic Gee’s Clippers is filled with sports memorabilia and always abuzz with activity, with over 25 barbers and four stylists, though it will be harder to spot a Milwaukee Bucks player now that Gee’s has a shop in the new Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center.
→ Voluptuous Secrets
Where: 1740 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
Theresa Gadzik, owner of the sixteen-year-old boutique, prides herself on her loyal customer base — women from all over the country, in fact — who appreciate her custom fittings for a wide variety of upscale lingerie, swimwear and bras for full-figured women.
→ Creative by Design Inspires
Where: 1840 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
An upscale but reasonable, woman-owned boutique, Creative by Design Inspires features home and office decor, clothing, accessories and gifts, in a warm, inviting atmosphere that keeps customers coming back for more inspiration.
→ Nostalgia Home Decor
Where: 1821 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
While it is currently only open online and by appointment, look for the inviting and artfully arranged shop to open to the public mid-April. Co-founders Georgette Muilenberg and William Bachle buy, refinish and sell vintage furniture and accessories, many of them mid-century modern.
Agee celebrates the “non-stop action” on King Drive. “People are excited,” he says, “about so many new businesses.” At the north end of King Drive, the future home of Bader Philanthropies is currently under construction, and, in the old Growing Power Cafe location, the new Rise & Grind Cafe has been serving healthy breakfast, lunch and smoothies since February. Where North Avenue meets King Drive, Community Warehouse and Pete’s Fruit Market have added valuable, affordable home improvement and food resources to the area, and just west, The Griot development has already opened up the Historic Garfield Apartments, soon to be joined by more apartments and the new brick-and-mortar America’s Black Holocaust Museum, which will truly cement the neighborhood as a vital Milwaukee historical and cultural center.
Where: 2021A N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
Dreambikes is one of five locations nationally, which together have provided hands-on, paid job training to over 80 teens, who have learned how to refurbish and sell over 10,000 used bicycles back to the low-to-moderate income communities which they serve.
→ Crown Hardware & Plumbing Supply
Where: 2016 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
A staple in the Bronzeville community since 1957, Crown Hardware & Plumbing Supply prides itself on its superb customer service and wholesale prices of its over 70,000-item inventory.
→ Fein Brothers
Where: 2007 N. Doctor Martin Luther King Dr.
If you love cooking or have ever dreamed of opening your own restaurant, then walking into the massive Fein Brothers showroom will blow your mind, with over 60,000 foodservice items in stock. You can shop for commercial sinks and refrigerators right next to cutlery and professional utensils.
Future plans include converting the old Reader’s Choice bookstore into Kindred, a new home for Jazale’s Art Studio and Grateful Girls, which inspires and supports young women in their development, including those who have escaped the sex-trafficking industry. Kindred will join other youth-focused organizations along King Drive, namely the YWCA Southwest Wisconsin, PEARLS for Teen Girls, the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center and Golda Meir School. And finally (though “finally” probably isn’t the right word, for there are still spaces available for new businesses), the HomeWorks: Bronzeville project was recently announced, spearheaded by Sara Daleiden and Vedale Hill and Mikal Floyd-Pruitt of Jazale’s. They describe their project’s “backbone” as “an artist housing cluster where each owner-occupied property is a container for a professional artist’s live-work practice, to incubate entrepreneurial culture and youth development in Bronzeville.”