23,000 vehicles per day drive along North Avenue near I-43. Another 137,000 zip by along the freeway itself. However, if the high number of vacant lots and buildings - especially between 5th and 7th Streets - are any indication, not many of those cars stop so that their drivers can shop.
The City is hoping to change all that. On September 27 the Common Council unanimously passed a $3.5 million initiative called the Bronzeville Cultural and Entertainment District. A week later Mayor Tom Barrett signed the new bill at a public ceremony inside the Black Holocaust Museum on 4th and North.
According to the new legislation, the goal is to initiate “a series of public improvements to create a distinct character for the commercial streets in the Bronzeville District and to serve as a catalyst for private development and redevelopment.” These improvements will be financed mainly through the formation of a new Tax Increment District (TID). The basic idea behind a TID is that capital investments in a neighborhood can be paid back over the course of 20 to 30 years by redirecting the subsequent increases in property tax revenue.
In the case of the new Bronzeville District, named after the old Walnut Street area several blocks to the south, which was the center of Milwaukee’s African-American community from the 1930s through the 60s until it was torn down to build housing projects and freeways, the TID money will be paired with TIN (Targeted Investment in a Neighborhood) money. “This is the first time we have combined these two tools in our toolbox,” explained Barrett during an April community meeting at the DNR building on King and North.
Roughly speaking, the TID money will focus on commercial improvements and development and the TIN money on residential properties, although there is overlap. The City currently owns 26 vacant lots in the neighborhood, where it is hoping for new home construction. In addition, current homeowners can receive up to $10,000 in grants for façade improvements. The City will finance streetscape improvements such as new lights, benches, and trash cans, and will offer incentives to commercial developers.
The local alderman, Michael McGee Jr., is an enthusiastic supporter of the plans. “This will empower the Bronzeville area,” he told that same April meeting. “It’s a good deal for the stakeholders in the community, without moving people out like what happened in Brewers Hill.”
It was exactly the kind of gentrification showcased in Brewers Hill – and the subsequent racial changes – which concerned several residents at a later August meeting, also held inside the DNR building. “Most people in this neighborhood are on senior aide and own homes,” cautioned local business owner Jewell Currie. “They don’t want to go back into debt and get foreclosed on and then in 6 months the neighborhood looks different.”
McGee was quick to dampen those fears. “I’m taking full responsibility for gentrification,” he reassured the standing room only crowd of about 100, “and you can run me out of town if that is the case in five years. I don’t want your concern over losing your homes to eliminate enthusiasm for this project. We are going to work hard to make sure you’re not gentrified out of here.”
Barrett acknowledged that there was a potential downside to any investment. “We are trying to raise the value of the neighborhood and increase wealth in the area,” explained the Mayor. “No question, a side-effect of that is more taxes. Is it worth the trade-off? I would like to know what you think,” he prompted the audience.
“Mr. Mayor,” piped up local resident Larry Reed, “when displacement is the side effect, then it’s not worth it. In Brewers Hill, who was there?” he asked rhetorically, “and where are they now?”
The room hummed in agreement with Reed’s comments, but exploded in applause when Roshonna Clark, a third-generation neighborhood resident, expressed a more optimistic view. “I think it’s about time somebody put some money into our neighborhood,” encouraged Clark. “A lot of times we get passed up, so we need to take advantage of this.”
Riverwest Currents online edition - October, 2005