ZIP code 53206 is often dismissed as the poorest and most troubled neighborhood in Milwaukee. But the labels overlook the everyday lives of the people who make it their home. A glimpse beyond the stereotypes.
On a spectacularly sunny afternoon in October, I approach a group of people along Hopkins Avenue on Milwaukee’s North Side.
They are wary, and I am nervous. I explain that I am working on a story about the 53206 ZIP code.
“Oh, you want to write about all us poor people,” one woman on the sidewalk says. Her sarcasm is unmistakable, and I also detect anger and disgust. She walks away.
I turn to two young people sitting on a nearby porch. They introduce themselves as Andrea and Berrion. I joke about the problems of a white person walking around 53206 and asking questions. But, I add, I am a gray-haired older woman and hopefully not mistaken for a cop.
As Berrion and Andrea remind me, an unknown white person may be greeted warily even if they aren’t a cop. I could be with child protective services. Or a religious proselytizer. I’m not even sure of all the possibilities.
What I do know is that 53206 is often written off as Milwaukee’s poorest ZIP code, an epicenter of drugs, violence and joblessness. But it is also home to some 29,000 people – more than the cities of Stevens Point or Superior.
For almost 30 years, I have lived in Riverwest in 53212, east of 53206. I get frustrated with people who look only at the numbers – the crime, the poverty – and assume that I live in a “bad” neighborhood.
Spurred partly by that divide between perception and reality, I began working on this story on 53206 with one main focus: Look beyond the stereotypes. What might you find?
I walked the streets and talked to residents, community advocates and religious leaders for several months. It didn’t take long to realize 53206 is more complicated than I had thought. It also became clear that trust is a huge issue. And not just because of the ever-present racial tensions in Milwaukee, one of the country’s most segregated metropolitan regions. The residents of 53206 may have differing opinions on issues such as police/community relations, parental responsibility and Milwaukee schools, but distrust of the city’s major newspapers, television and radio stations – “the white media” – is rampant.
Follow the mainstream media for any time, especially talk radio and television, and one begins to understand the distrust. More often than not, Milwaukee’s central city is portrayed as a black ghetto filled with victims and villains, good guys and bad guys, all caught in a web of murder, mayhem and government handouts. There are few stories of everyday people doing their best, just like folks in Wauwatosa or West Bend, to earn a living, raise a family and find some happiness in life. People like Warren and Shirley Harper, Patrice Townsend, Lester Carter Jr. and countless others in 53206.
Warren Harper is the 81-year-old owner of Warren’s Lounge on Hopkins Avenue, just east of the now-defunct A.O. Smith complex that once churned out auto and truck frames by the thousands. He is a sports fanatic partial to the Green Bay Packers, an avid card player partial to Spades, and a kind and gentle host who speaks his mind.
On one of my visits, Warren explains that his wife, Shirley, is not there because she had cataract surgery and has had to go to the hospital twice.
“Twice?” I ask, surprised. “I hope everything’s OK.”
“Of course twice,” Warren says. “She has two eyes, one right and one left.”
The laugh is on me. But it’s good-hearted.
For many white people, walking or driving around 53206 presents many reasons to be uneasy, even during the day. Too many businesses are closed or have imposing metal bars and padlocks. The corner grocery stores are small, with a plethora of liquor and cigarette advertisements and notices for the government-funded WIC and Quest food programs – all telling you that, no, this wouldn’t be like walking into a Pick ’n Save. And what about that group of young men on the street corner? Should you worry? Sometimes, the answer might be “yes” – especially at night, when even neighborhood residents take precautions. But what happens when fear becomes the dominant response, all day, every day, even when there is no reason to be afraid?
The first time I visited Warren’s Lounge, a friend had invited me. But it was still intimidating, and not only because of the small, dark doorway and the fact that all the buildings across the street had long ago been abandoned. What kind of tavern has a heavy metal grate on a locked door with a bell that must be rung to get in?
Once inside, however, Warren’s reminded me of “Cheers.” Even if they don’t know your name, they’ll treat you well. I soon understood why people routinely travel in from outlying ZIP codes and suburbs to spend a few hours at the lounge.
And the doorbell and locked front door? I ask Warren, assuming it had to do with being robbed. “It was kids being mischievous,” Warren explains. During the summer, kids would open the door, throw a tomato or egg, laugh and run away. By the time Warren ran after them, they were long gone. The doorbell solved the problem.
Warren tries to be at the bar seven days a week, beginning in the afternoon. Shirley opens up at 7 a.m. and works five days a week till noon. More often than not, Warren is wearing his 2011 Green Bay Packers Super Bowl hoodie, while Shirley prefers her Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt. They’ve been married 59 years, with four children and nine grandchildren. One of their sons died last winter after a series of illnesses exacerbated by diabetes. It’s been hard on them.
Warren and Shirley moved to Milwaukee in 1957, part of the Great Migration of African-American farmers and sharecroppers traveling north in search of jobs and a better life. They moved to North 26th Street in 1963, the first black family in a neighborhood dominated by Jewish and German residents. Their home skirts the eastern edge of the 30th Street Industrial Corridor in 53216, which, in its heyday, employed many of the neighborhood’s residents and spawned a host of businesses nearby. They bought the bar in 1970, a chance for Warren to do more than work in the city’s tanneries.
“Business was really booming, and we had fun,” Shirley says. Factory workers would stop in for a quick lunch of chicken or a burger, or relax at the bar after their shift. When the Green Bay Packers played at Milwaukee County Stadium, which they did until 1994, players would often stop by Warren’s.
“And now it’s all gone,” Shirley says. “First A.O. Smith left, and then Tower. For a while, we had the train, but now even that’s gone.” (Talgo Inc. had moved in to build modern trains. But the company left after Gov. Scott Walker rejected federal funds for rail travel, and the Republican-led Legislature canceled Talgo’s contract with the state.)
Warren and Shirley’s son, Warren Jr. – called Wayne by everyone except his dad – retired after 30 years in the U.S. Air Force and recently visited his parents. He worries about the ZIP code’s demise. “I could take a picture in Turkey, or other places, and you would say, ‘Oh, that’s the Third World,” he says. “But you take pictures here, it’s similar. And we are in the United States.”
The problem goes deeper than the neighborhood’s loss of factories. “There’s investment out there, and there are jobs,” Wayne says. “But they’re in New Berlin or Waukesha. There’s no bus, so how are people going to get there?”
At the same time, Wayne considers the neighborhood his first and favorite home. When he walks past the red brick building on the corner of 26th and Keefe, he can’t help but remember the German bakery where he bought donuts for a nickel. He has a home in New Mexico, but his wife passed last June and his two children, one a lawyer and the other in law school, have their own lives. He sometimes thinks about moving back to Milwaukee. “People think I’m crazy,” he admits.
Shirley and Warren, meanwhile, don’t plan to close the lounge. It’s their life. Their children and younger relatives have pushed them to bring in hip-hop bands in addition to the jazz and blues bands that occasionally play there. In September, Vet Spencer, 40, opened up PoGurl Cafe in the back of the lounge, serving everything from soul food to tacos, seven days a week.
“We struggling, but we’re still here,” Shirley says.
Asked what would help the ZIP code most, Shirley has a half-century of experience behind her answer. “We need some businesses,” she says. “People can’t have a job if there aren’t businesses. Back in the day, we had everything we needed, including a George Webb’s. But now, even the corner mailboxes are gone.”
The Basics of 53206
ZIP codes, established in the 1960s as part of a national system to deliver mail efficiently, also evolved into a profiling system for marketing, real estate and data collection. (ZIP, an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan, was chosen to imply speedy delivery.) 53206, with a perimeter of almost nine miles, runs from North Avenue to Capitol Drive on the north, and from Interstate 43 to 27th Street on the west. It is home to such historical landmarks as Union Cemetery; St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, the state’s oldest African-American congregation; and Borchert Field, which hosted the minor league Brewers baseball team from 1902 to 1952. Made obsolete when County Stadium was built in 1953, Borchert Field was demolished to make way for I-43.
The ZIP code includes distinct neighborhoods, from Franklin Heights to Amani to Arlington Heights. Sections near Capitol Drive were once a stronghold of the black middle class, with stately brick homes. Farther south, it’s not unusual to find two homes on a lot, one off the alley and another fronting the street. Some 97 percent of the ZIP code’s residents are African-American.
[quote]”There’s investment out there, and there are jobs. But they’re in New Berlin or Waukesha.” – Wayne Harper[/quote]
Overall, the statistics are sobering. According to a recent report on 53206 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development, only 36 percent of working-age males in the area are employed. The poverty rate for children is about 66 percent. Although the percentage of people with high school diplomas and college degrees increased significantly between 2000 and 2012, median household income declined during the same period. On average, workers in 53206 have longer commutes than other Milwaukee workers, and rely more on public transportation.
53206 has also been shaped by the war on drugs, which morphed into mass incarceration policies that disproportionately imprison African-American men. Today, Wisconsin locks up a higher percentage of black men (1 in 8) than any other state, in a country that incarcerates more people than any other nation. Most of the African-Americans jailed in Wisconsin come from Milwaukee’s poorest ZIP codes, 53206 in particular.
It is politically acceptable to attribute the problems of 53206 to an inner-city culture that has abandoned a sense of personal responsibility. Last March, for instance, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) said in a radio interview that there is a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular…[of] generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
The statistics belie Ryan’s remarks. Spend any time in 53206, and the question soon arises: Who has abandoned whom?
Leaving aside the loss of family-supporting manufacturing jobs, consider: There are no public libraries in 53206. No major parks. No Walmart, Kohl’s, Home Depot or Ace Hardware. No prominent restaurants, not even a McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Burger King. No Jewel-Osco, Sentry, Aldi or Pick ’n Save, with only a small Lena’s grocery off Fond du Lac and Meinecke. Child care centers, which have a median hourly wage of $8.64, are the fastest-growing business. Social service agencies have made a commitment to the area, but charity is not an economic development strategy.
Even the feds seem to be abandoning 53206. The U.S. Post Office, still in operation on Teutonia Avenue, stands small and forlorn, with cracks in the foundation and red brick walls. No one has bothered to fix the broken window facing the street.
‘Hey, white lady’
I am about to enter a meeting at St. Matthew C.M.E. (Christian Methodist Episcopal), and I hear a friendly voice. “Hey, white lady. How you doing?”
I look over and see Cheryl Smith, whom I had met two days earlier at the church’s Sunday morning meal program.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Smith quickly adds, worried I might be offended at her spontaneous hello.
“No worries,” I respond. She has perfectly captured how I often feel in 53206.
Throughout the fall and early winter, I talked with Smith several times and she came to laugh about her “white lady” comment. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can call you Ms. Barbara,” she says.
Smith, 54, moved to 12th and Chambers streets four years ago, attracted by the area’s low rents: “I live in this ZIP code because, frankly, I can’t afford to live anywhere else.” She had been an office worker processing insurance claims, but chronic cardiopulmonary problems forced her to go on disability. “Trying to balance with that one disability check of $900 every month, that doesn’t go a long way,” she says.
The last few years have not been easy for Smith. In addition to losing her job, she and her husband separated, and he is now incarcerated. But she is thankful for St. Matthew’s. “It’s a good place to start to get back on your feet,” she says.
Located on Ninth Street off Locust Street, St. Matthew’s is best known as home of the Community Brainstorming Conference, held monthly since 1986 to discuss concerns within the African-American community. In recent years, many members of St. Matthew’s have moved outside the ZIP code. The building is old and the issue came up: Should the congregation rebuild or move? “It was a very short discussion,” says the pastor, Rev. Richard Shaw. “The church members want to stay here in service to the community.”
Through St. Matthew’s, I also met LaVale Henry, who lives nearby and works part-time at the church in security and maintenance. He also has part time jobs in landscaping and home repair, and helps out his father, who is on dialysis.
Henry, 44, attended Madison High School, dropped out and soon found himself in trouble with the law. “I had been in gangs since I was 14,” he says. “I was in and out of prison three or four times. You know, gang-related stuff, fights. Silly stuff.”
Henry remembers his epiphany. He was 33 years old and serving time in the state prison at Waupun. One day, he watched an old man slowly and carefully walking with a cane. “I made a vow to myself that day,” Henry says, “that I would get out of prison and never come back. I was not going to die in that place.”
After prison, Henry got his high school equivalency degree through MATC, where he also took classes for a certificate as an appliance technician. He is hopeful about his future. But he looks at today’s youth and sees a younger version of himself. It worries him. “There’s nothing here for the youth to do,” he says. “And when there’s no future and nothing to do, what happens? You get in trouble.”
Similar concerns – will our children get in trouble? Will they be safe? – haunt parents throughout 53206. There is a higher percentage of children 18 years and younger in the ZIP code, compared to Milwaukee County. In addition, roughly 64 percent of all families in 53206 are single-parent families headed by women, double the county average. Women such as Marquita and Melissa Smith.
Twin sisters, Marquita and Melissa were born 30 years ago at a time when factories began disappearing from Milwaukee and instability became the new norm. From the ages of 5 to 15 years, the twins’ family moved about 18 times. They were evicted four times, lived in four different shelters, and attended six different schools. The one constant was the support they found at Hephatha Lutheran Church at 17th and Locust streets.
Two years ago, Marquita got the chance to buy a home near Hephatha through Habitat for Humanity. She was nervous, but determined. “If my childhood struggles taught me anything, it’s that I never want my kids to experience some of the things I did,” she wrote in a statement celebrating the Habitat program.
Ever since she was 16 years old, Marquita has had a job. For the last nine years, she has worked at the Aldi grocery store on 67th and Capitol Drive. Working is a matter of dignity and survival, and helps offset decisions she made when she was younger that, she admits, “I am not proud of.” Marquita has four children, ranging in ages from almost 2 years old to 11. She remains close to their father, who often stays at the home.
Melissa and her two children, ages 8 and 9, moved in with Marquita after an electrical fire in her rented flat about a year ago. A beautician, Melissa also works part time in a parent project at the Hopkins-Lloyd Community School a few blocks away.
The twins don’t dream of being rich or famous. They just want their children to be safe and have a better childhood than they had. “My dream is for my children to grow up without a lot of crime around them,” Melissa says, “for them to finish school without bullying, and to have positive role models.”
An Uncertain Future
North Division High School, located on 10th and Center streets, has always reflected the neighborhood’s demographics and dreams. Golda Meier, the late prime minister of Israel, graduated from North Division in 1915. Vel Phillips, who holds so many “firsts” as an African-American woman that it is hard to keep track, is a 1942 graduate. U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore graduated from North in 1969.
On a recent Monday afternoon, I talk with North Division students in a social studies class who are studying 53206 as part of a geography unit. There are about 12 students, slightly more young women than men. It doesn’t take long for differences to emerge.
“The police, I can’t explain it, but they don’t like black people,” says Rueben.
“That’s not true,” D-Andrea replies.
“I agree with him,” Teyonda says, nodding toward Rueben. “The police don’t help us.”
The back and forth escalates: “They’re just doing their job….” “People can be innocent and still get intimidated by the police….”
“Why did they kill that guy Downtown?”
Before long, the discussion is at an impasse. Roderick Rush, the teacher, switches topics. What might the future hold for 53206?
“It ain’t got no future,” says one young man.
“Nothing’s going to change, ’cause nobody cares,” another says.
Finally, D-Andrea, one of the more outspoken students, has had enough. “If you’re not going to try to make the change we need, and put in the effort, then just shut up,” she says. “And don’t complain.”
Soon, it’s D-Andrea against three of the boys. The teacher again steps in, and I ask a question: If you were interviewed on television about the ZIP code, what would you want people to know?
The sharp differences yield to a common plea.
“Notice that we are here, that, like you, we are human, and we deserve the same things you want.”
“We got talent, all of us in the ZIP code. People need to see that.”
Later that night, I think about the discussion and how many of the young men said they lack hope. A poem by Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” written in 1951, comes to mind.
Decisions of Banks and Boardrooms
In the 1960s, moving to 53206 – especially the more affluent north end – was a step up, a chance to move away from the inner core just north of Downtown. By the late 1980s, that was no longer the case, as factory jobs disappeared and whites moved to the suburbs.
Living conditions got worse with the nationwide collapse of the housing market in 2007, triggered by predatory and subprime lending practices. In 2008, as the recession escalated, unemployment grew and foreclosures skyrocketed. As with deindustrialization, 53206 was forever changed by decisions made in banks and boardrooms far removed from Milwaukee.
Overall, the foreclosure crisis in Milwaukee was not as bad as in some cities. “But the foreclosures were concentrated in certain areas, making the impact greater than one might think,” notes Maria Prioletta from Milwaukee’s Department of City Development (DCD). One of those areas was 53206.
[quote]What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore– And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over– like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?[/quote]
The perception is that the housing bubble affected people who perhaps should not have bought a home in the first place, Prioletta adds. “But a lot of the people who lost their homes in 53206 were long-time owners. They were the backbone of the neighborhood.”
The area near 24th and Burleigh is an example of how the foreclosure crisis has altered neighborhoods and made progress difficult. In 2005, the Children’s Outing Association (COA) opened a 54,000-square-foot facility at 2320 N. Burleigh St. Among its amenities: three full-sized gyms, an arts room and performing arts studio, computer labs, a family resource center and a medical clinic. It’s a terrific facility.
But the housing bubble burst two years after the complex opened. Today, if you walk along the north side of Burleigh from COA to 25th Street, there are six boarded-up homes and two more appear unoccupied. By the time you finish your walk, the shine is off the COA facility.
In 53206, there are 7,052 residential properties with one to four units, according to DCD figures. Since 2007, about 30 percent have had foreclosure filings, and about half of those have been sold in sheriff sales. Currently, more than 10 percent of the ZIP code’s properties are vacant, according to city figures.
Seen in this context, perhaps the real story of 53206 is in the people who remain committed to the neighborhood and refuse to give up.
Commitment and Community
Patrice Townsend is parent coordinator at Milwaukee Public School’s Auer Avenue, a K4-8 elementary school. She is getting ready to escort a group of young students to their after-school transportation. She touches base with each student.
“LaQuan, how was your day?” she asks. “Good, OK, or not so good?”
“It was OK,” LaQuan answers.
“Well, I’ll give you something because you were honest with me,” Townsend says, “and maybe tomorrow will be better.” She hands him a foil-wrapped piece of chocolate.
Townsend, 47, has lived on 24th Place south of Burleigh since third grade. She attended Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, one of a handful of African-Americans at the school, and graduated in 1985. Ever since, she’s worked in child care and elementary education.
Townsend lives in the same house where she grew up. She can close her eyes and, one by one, list her neighbors. There are the Lees across the street, and the Turks, the Mitchells, the Davis family and the Bufords, whose son Rodney played in the NBA. The Simpsons, who live next door, moved in about the same time as her family.
She’s never been robbed and knows of only one house on the block that has been burglarized, about three years ago. I find that hard to believe. “We watch out for each other,” she says.
About five years ago, Townsend reached a point in her life when she knew she would not have children. She became the foster mother of two children, Ahjah, 12, and Charles, 15. Both have medical problems and had been bounced around the foster care system before living with her.
Of her four siblings and her mother, who lives in a condo out past Mayfair, Townsend is the only one still in the neighborhood.
“My mom gets on me constantly about moving,” she says. “But I won’t. I’m grounded here. I’m connected… I won’t deny it, I hear shootings almost once a week. I hit the floor and call the police. But I still believe that people in our neighborhood are here because they want to be.”
It’s not just her job, her neighbors and her foster children that tie Townsend to 53206. For 28 years, she has worked part time at Carter’s Drugs on 24th and Burleigh, about halfway between Auer Avenue School and her home.
Townsend suggested I stop by Carter’s Drugs to meet her boss, Lester Carter Jr. Known as Dr. Carter to people throughout 53206 – and many beyond its borders – the pharmacist is a living legend. When I posted a picture of Dr. Carter on Facebook, it generated hundreds of shares and comments. Typical posts: “This man is a sweetheart.” “The neighborhood protects him out of respect.” “When I couldn’t afford a prescription for my son when he was little, Dr. Carter came thru for me. Bless this icon!!!!!!”
Dr. Carter has run Carter Drugs since 1968, when he bought it from a German pharmacist who became one of his best friends. He is called “doctor” in recognition of his knowledge of preventive medicine and herbal products – especially his line of pain relief and cough syrups – and his willingness to share advice that some customers value more than their physician’s.
Befitting a man who is 83 years old, Dr. Carter is decidedly old-school. He has gentlemanly manners and a quiet speaking voice, and in winter, he sports a knee-length wool coat and an Irish driving cap. When on the job, he wears a “Carter Drug Store” white medical coat, as well as a white shirt and a hand-tied bow tie, usually red.
“I’m one of the few left in the world, it seems, that still ties bow ties,” he says. “Years ago, during senior prom, the young men would be lined up out the front door, waiting for me to tie their ties.”
Dr. Carter loves his job, loves his customers and, make no mistake, loves his neighborhood. “When Channel 4 or Channel 6 come here and ask me if I’m worried about all the crime, I look them right in the eye and I say: ‘This is a beautiful neighborhood.’”
Dr. Carter says he has never had to call the police. There has been occasional shoplifting, but nothing he couldn’t handle, he says. I ask his secret.
“It’s very simple,’ he said. “I made a rule when I first started, that I would treat everyone with respect and courtesy. I don’t care if someone is 2 years old, or 22, or 102. They are Miss so-and-so or Mr. so-and-so.”
Then Dr. Carter tells me a story, one of an endless supply.
“The other day, young man comes in,” he begins.
“‘Remember me?’ the man asks.”
‘“I sure do,’ I tell him. ‘“You were one of the biggest hoods on the street.’”
‘“I’m a preacher now,’ the man says. ‘“And you’re the one that straightened me out.’”
It didn’t hurt that Dr. Carter knew all the parents in the neighborhood and would let mothers know if their children misbehaved. And that Dr. Carter had been in the military and knew how to box.
For almost half a century, Dr. Carter and his wife, Irene, lived upstairs from the store. Irene died in October, and he now lives with his daughter in St. Francis.
Forced by health concerns to cut back, Dr. Carter has turned over the fulfillment of prescriptions and the store’s ownership to Hayat Pharmacy, an independent, Milwaukee-based chain. But his heart remains in 53206. Three days a week, a transit van brings Dr. Carter to 24th and Burleigh, where he is readily available to tell stories, suggest remedies and do whatever he can for his customers.
“Once I get to be 100, I might start thinking about retiring,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, all but daring me to disagree.
The Past and the Future
In some ways, Carter’s Drugs represents the end of an era, and not only because Dr. Carter bought the store at a time when African-Americans in Milwaukee believed in the promise of a better life. With the sale to Hayat Pharmacy, yet another black-owned business is gone.
The future of 53206 is unclear. And if there’s any nationwide lesson to be learned from the past several months, it is the fragility of social relations in our unequal and divided metropolitan areas.
As I finished this article, the Langston Hughes poem kept echoing in my mind: “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Closer to home, one particular conversation I had stands out. Clayborn Benson, head of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society at 26th and Center and a former photojournalist at WTMJ 4, talked about how the media and powers-that-be are always asking people in 53206 the same question: “Aren’t you fed up with the shootings?” It’s a meaningless question, Benson said, because the answer is obviously yes.
“What people really need to be asking is, ‘Do you want this job that we have for you?’” he said. “And that would make all the difference. The difference is a job.”
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer. Write to her at email@example.com.