Looking at the DNC and the DNA of Milwaukee's Struggle with MLK
In 2016 the Democratic party lost the state of Wisconsin in the presidential election and lost the election as a whole. The state which was largely forecasted to swing blue and provide necessary electoral votes to then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was viewed as a relatively sure victory for the party. As a result, the nominee did not pay the state a visit, and what may be even more crucial, her presence was not felt by voters in the Milwaukee area. As the country gears up for the 2020 presidential election and many people get ready to face a political climate that has not been felt since the Nixon era, the Democratic National Convention has announced that the battleground state of Wisconsin will not only be viewed as a key component to a Democratic victory, but its largest city, Milwaukee, will be host to the 2020 Democratic National Convention (DNC). The DNC has selected the newly built and beautiful campus of the Fiserv Forum as their convention location. This location places the heart of the 2020 Democratic campaign at one of the largest major intersections that the city of Milwaukee has to offer, both figuratively and literally.
The Fiserv Forum and new Deer District sit at the base of the on-off ramps for WI-145 right where it passes under I-43. The community that surrounds the new stadium is a mix of development properties that are quickly being used to expand real estate in the area, and local businesses that have come to call the area home for years and even decades. The heavily trafficked Old World 3rd Street sits East of the stadium and is home to bars and other local businesses that bring life to Milwaukee's nights, providing a place for adults to enjoy evenings out whether they're celebrating a win or just looking to unwind. Dr. MLK Jr. Drive leads away from downtown and into the heart of the North and East sides of the city. It stems from 3rd St. where it runs through the Harambee neighborhood before heading North West and becoming Green Bay Avenue.
This general area has seen a lot of change over the years. As the Fiserv Forum became more of a reality, the city itself seems to have taken shape around the stadium in this consequential area. The Bradley center became an image of the past, and more businesses began filling up leases that are caught between a downtown that seems to be regenerating and primarily Black communities that have long been established in this area of Milwaukee. This should all be taken into consideration when acknowledging the DNC's choice to host the convention in the city. Not only because of the party's platform and goals often aimed at urban and metropolitan communities, especially those of color, but also because of the city's long history of struggling with race and segregation.
The push to change 3rd St. into Dr. MLK Jr. Drive is one that took significant effort from Milwaukee's Black community. In the face of a city that allowed them to be wronged in the past while denying not only them, but the city of Milwaukee as a whole, the right to celebrate the life and legacy of a man that fought for equality and equity in the face of undeniable racial injustices. Many businesses at the time of the street's name change were against it, citing that the change would require significant in-house efforts that involved address changes on stationaries and shipping labels. This pushback is what resulted in the street names of the area that we know today. The area between Wisconsin Avenue to McKinley Avenue became North Old World 3rd St., McKinley Ave. to Capitol Drive became Dr. MLK Jr. Drive, and past Capitol Drive the street becomes Green Bay Road. These harsh lines on the map that separated one street into three echoes not only the redlining of the Black and Brown communities all over this country saw for decades but also the breaking up of influential black communities in the name of metropolitan convenience. Much like the Bronzeville community that also inhabited the area in the first half of the twentieth century, the community around the same section of 3rd St., seemed to be viewed as more effort and inconvenience for metropolitan labor rather than members and citizens of a city whose voices should be heard. This past is why the community itself should be held in even higher regard and consideration as one of the country's largest political events prepares to host itself here. In the past politicians may have been arrogantly sure and dismissive, they should now be ever more present and persistent, listening to the voices of those who are closely and immediately impacted by their presence in the city.
This future expansion in the city is not something that can be avoided but the gentrification of these communities is something that should be combatted at all costs. As local business owner Jesse Englebrecht of MANIA Tattoos Milwaukee wrote to me: "I would love to see the area grow, but especially with business owners of color and diverse backgrounds."
Milwaukee to the public has often celebrated itself for its diverse heritage. Diversity shown through the music and cultural festivals that call the Lake Michigan lakefront home, the almost constant live music that envelopes the local parks in aural quilts to tell the stories of Milwaukeeans, and the street festivals that celebrate their communities throughout the summer. 55 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Bill, statistically and nationally Milwaukee is known as the most segregated city in our country. Major African-American leaders were killed for this piece of legislation. It was written with the intent of not forcing these communities to continue to bear the overall brunt of the economic and social injustices that continue to happen in their cities.
And while this spirit of positive change has not always been felt at the forefront of public policy and effort, in recent years the community surrounding MLK has been enabled to deliver its highest hopes and expectations to the city through a reignited Bronzeville. A celebration of what was demolished 50 years ago is now being allowed to grow and flourish just beyond the edges of downtown. A space that once stared down the barrel of eminent domain must now learn to thrive in the face of an expanding city and its free market. The change has been gradual but the community itself looks stronger than ever. Black-owned businesses continue to dominate the majority of MLK Drive as Pete's Fruit Market brought in a new food oasis to provide fresh produce to the community. It's a place that should be nourished for years to come as a vital vein of Milwaukee and a means to uplift communities of color and Black-owned business. And while the future remains uncertain, and the Democratic field still boasts a plethora of candidates vying for the nomination, what should continue to sit at the forefront of every Milwaukeean’s mind is how this event will impact our city. Not just by the job opportunities that the convention will bring for a short time, but in the ripple effects it will have on the city as a whole. Location has long been the selling point of real estate properties. The distance one with the means has to travel is a direct consideration of where they choose to live, shop, and consume. Allowing a community that has worked so hard to grow from the cement that was paved over it, to once again be the victim of perceived progress that will not accommodate all, would be a true waste of everyone's efforts.
And while Milwaukee at its heart continues to be very much like the city it was 50 years ago, for better or worse, it must take note of the changes that are getting ready to take place here. The city still maintains a strong sense of community through vibrant neighborhoods and public school students that have a strong sense of pride and identity in the schools that they go to. But the city still has to grapple with and face its social problems head-on. Acknowledging the fact that our police force is often more interested in confronting black youth looking for a way to enjoy life than letting them live that life and grow up. The city still bears three street names worth of scars from a time when gaining public support to honor a man that gave everything for his dream. Milwaukee is also working to heal these scars through acknowledgment. Not covering up the fact that they're there but revitalizing the tissue that they sit on. The DNC's choice to host the convention in Milwaukee is a breath of fresh air in a city still so synonymous with white flight, if only because it has the opportunity to offer continuing hope. Bronzeville should be looked at as a means for politicians that will come campaigning in the city to gain support and show that these communities can influence the policies and policymakers that may very well decide its future. It may seem like a small effort, but it would be a conscious one, and one that may help to reinstall a sense of trust with those in power after so much time has been spent disenfranchising and disassembling important communities of color.