‘No more history to make’: Decade-long effort to restore Bronzeville to Milwaukee glory gathers momentum

Located just 2 miles north of downtown, Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood has thrived for decades with vibrant small businesses and a nightlife that has attracted people of all races.

But, as was the case with many minority neighborhoods across the country, urban renewal programs of the 1960s and 1970s destroyed much of Bronzeville. Freeway construction in the 1960s resulted in the loss of more than 8,000 homes, churches, and businesses, scattering the once tight-knit community in Milwaukee.

Artist Mutòpe Johnson lived in Bronzeville until he was about 8 years old. Now in his late 60s, Johnson said Bronzeville has everything people need within walking distance. Until he disappears.

“Ultimately (Interstate) 43 went right past our house and right through the heart of Bronzeville,” Johnson said.

Last spring, Johnson opened a temporary art exhibit at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee detailing what old Bronzeville looked like. When he first learned of the neighborhood’s redevelopment efforts, he was torn.

“There was a bit of reluctance, because when you think of a neighborhood that you had memories of and then you see a drastic change – a lot of people have been moved, you don’t know because of their own free will,” Johnson said.

But over the years, Johnson has come to embrace new ethnic restaurants, boutiques and venues like the Bronzeville Collective with 25 local vendors.

“What I’ve seen over the last few years has really started to pave the way for huge improvement,” Johnson said.

At the heart of the neighborhood is Gee’s Clippers.

Owner Gaulien Smith was one of the first new business owners in the Bronzeville redevelopment. He opened his shop in 1995 in Sherman Park and moved it to the Bronzeville neighborhood in 2006 at the request of a client, former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. He then moved to a larger location in Bronzeville.

“Guess I’m a trailblazer,” Smith joked as he cut his cousin’s hair. “It’s good to see the growth. It’s also going to bring a whole new culture to the area.”

Stepping into Gee’s is like stepping into another era. The waiting room has 72 chairs from the former Milwaukee Bucks arena, placed in the middle of a life-size basketball court. Customers and barbers rap songs from another era, while haircuts fall to the ground.

On what is described as a “slow Thursday”, a dozen men and teenagers are waiting for haircuts.

James Flippin has been a barber at Gee’s for five years. He calls it the neighborhood haunt. And it feels like that.

“This gives you a chance to get back into the city center a bit more,” Flippin said. “See a little more of what we have to offer and then it stretches downtown a little more now.”

In addition to smaller black-owned businesses like Gee’s, bigger plans are afoot for Bronzeville.

A former Schuster’s & Gimbels department store building that has been closed since the 1970s is being redeveloped for the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The American Black Holocaust Museum will reopen on Friday. The museum was founded by lynching survivor James Cameron. It closed in 2008, two years after Cameron’s death, and has struggled to reopen ever since.

The new Bronzeville Center for the Arts will also host the region, after it was announced that a new building will replace a 3-acre parcel previously occupied by the southeast regional headquarters of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Della Wells is an artist and Vice President of the Bronzeville Center for the Arts Board. She lived in the neighborhood as a child, before the highway project forced her family to move.

“No one in Wisconsin really talks about African American art and Afro Diaspora art,” Wells said. “By that I mean his story. The artists, you know, in different periods. So we’re going to take on this mission.”

The decade-long effort to restore Bronzeville to its former glory is garnering national attention. Last month, The New York Times featured Bronzeville on its list of “52 Places for a Changed World.” The list highlights places around the world where travelers can be part of the solution.

One of the people working behind the scenes is Deshea Agee. Agee served as Milwaukee’s first project manager for Bronzeville in 2007. He then led the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District until June 2021.

He says it’s not so much that Bronzeville has changed, but people’s mindset about the neighborhood’s place in the city has.

“It’s just a place that has so much meaning, has so much history. It really inspires me to keep going,” said Agee, who now works for a black-owned real estate group based in the neighborhood. “I know there’s more to do. And there’s more stories to tell. And more stories to tell with our Bronzeville right here in Milwaukee.”

About Marc Womack

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