Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2021-08-02 11:18:27 –
I wanted to know if the distressed corridors of the oppressed central city are progressing. I thought Robin Reese could help me. She is the manager of Fondue Lac and North Avenue Business Improvement District # 32. BID # 32 is a map from highway 43 in the east to 27th Avenue in the west, and from 17th Avenue in the south to Fondue Lac in the north. These blocks include the neighborhood of mostly black residents dealing with social and economic issues, crime and reckless driving.
I met Reese at Columbia Savings and Loan in the north and von du Lac. This is the only black-owned financial institution in the state and the location of her BID # 32 office. From there, she began a walk-and-talk tour of her district heading east on North Avenue to Interstate 43. She admitted that the district had criminal activity and collapsing infrastructure issues, but wanted to show her progress. Two and a half years as the person in charge of BID 32. Through her warm personality and spontaneous sense of humor, I felt like a lost friend for a long time. In leisure, Reese is an R & B singer and her voice is audible.
Are you from Milwaukee?
I grew up in the general area we are in now, and I consider this my community, my neighborhood. I grew up in the Brewers Hill section. My grandparents are from Texas and Oklahoma. My grandfather was a veterinarian and my grandmother was an RN at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital. I went to Rufus King High School in UW-Milwaukee for an undergraduate and Cardinal Stritch University for an MBA. In the process, I raised two sons, now 22 and 14 years old.
There are many vacant buildings and houses along this corridor. What are the biggest challenges you face in your improvement efforts?
I’m trying to attract businesses and developers and match them with tenants. Not all of these free spaces are city owned. Some buildings are privately owned, but not owned.
As we walked east on North Avenue, she pointed out a new mobile lubricant express business installed in a long low-rise building that was recently refurbished but still lacking tenants.
Leasing: The goal of the space is to allow owners to add tenants if the oil change business is successful. Through our partner, Brew City Match, we seek to connect real estate and business owners with financial institutions that may offer low-interest or interest-free loans.
We stopped in front of the currently vacant Cobra building. Once upon a time, it was home to the historic Milwaukee branch of Chicago Cobra, a group of drug criminals in the Midwest a generation ago. For eight years after walking this block, he said the Cobra building was vacant.
Reese: There’s a problem here. It’s nice to see this old building occupied, but it’s privately owned and there’s only so much we can do. As long as the owners pay taxes and keep the outside clean, they are not obliged to do anything further. At least there are signs for sale. However, I try to keep track of all the buildings owned by the city and help them renovate or occupy them.
We arrived at an abandoned house, lined with duplexes, swaying porch, and wooden windows. Unoccupied houses are a big problem in the city center.
Reese: Unoccupied houses cause social problems. I don’t know if this is privately owned or taken over by the city. The city probably owns more properties than it needs to. When residents stop paying taxes, the city takes over the property.
The Milwaukee City website lists hundreds of buildings and homes owned by the city.
And that may not be all. They are just the ones that have had the opportunity to appear on the list.
Why can’t the City Construction Commission give some of these homes and buildings to poor family and community organizers when all these vacant city-owned assets are available?
Reese: It’s not that easy. If they give up the building, can the beneficiary build the building, build it, make it code compliant and pay taxes? Then do you want to keep the property? It costs money.
We moved down North Avenue east and each block looked more attractive. The historic Garst Food Market has been refurbished with new rehab buildings such as the Social Development Commission and its welcome windows, the Walnut Way Development Commission, and the Wellness Commons office building. Perhaps the healing process had begun. I noticed that the landmark Jake’s Deli is still open.
A few years ago I was taking a picture of Jake’s deli. An older man, a white man, comes out of the door. I said, “What are you doing here? I thought I was the only white man around here.” He said, “I am the last Jew left in the neighborhood.”
The region has changed significantly since the days of families of different ethnicities. A big supporter of my BID # 32 district is the Gilber Family Foundation. Milwaukee real estate businessman and philanthropist Joe Gilber is white and he grew up in Lindsay Heights around here. His plan was to use some of the Foundation’s funds to maintain the prosperity of the area. My district received a grant two years ago, but I just applied for another grant.
We stopped by a newly restored four-story legacy building to cover the block. The lower floors are for corporate offices and the upper three floors consist of legacy lofts that include affordable living units at market prices. This will occupy all units. Robin took me to 17th Avenue in my house. The street has an old-fashioned porch and has blossomed as an oasis of beautifully restored double-decker colonial homes owned by a black family. In the middle of the block, I arrived at a nice old house surrounded by a garden.
Reese: This is home to the Walnut Way Center, a non-profit community organization. Sharon Adams and her husband Larry are the founders and they live on this street. They are big supporters of our community. Larry is a contractor and has added new restorations along the North Avenue corridors, including Wellness Commons and Adams Garden Park. If we can get together and do what happened here on 17th Avenue, I think the citizens of our neighborhood have great power. We need to unite and have elected officials listen to us.
I commented on the sidewalk planter with colorful flowers and the garden on the premises. I stopped by in front of the property that was renovated in the garden. Sign read Hoop House, Eco Tour.
Reese: Those signs are everywhere. There are rain gardens, hoop houses, soil growth and orchards. You can take a self-guided tour to see these attractions. These are the gems hidden in this area. Lindsay Heights is Milwaukee’s first eco district.
Then, as I walked around the corner of Lloyd, the atmosphere became dim. I came across a dilapidated one-story building. The walls were painted with graffiti and were probably empty, but it used to be a day care center for children. A restaurant with shutters, just around the corner of Fond du Lac, has announced “Fish Fried Friday” and “Soul Food Sunday”. Reese has indicated that he has a new owner and the restaurant will open soon. As I walked along the busy Fondo du Lac Avenue, I found more flowerpots.
Reese: We use Blue Skyes Landscaping to beautify blocks and neighborhoods regardless of the season. We strive to welcome visitors and residents in the chaos.
Noisy cars rushed past, some screaming from the boombox, others exceeding the speed limit.
Reese: This is one of the problems in our neighborhood and it’s reckless driving. If you drive our city, we don’t want you to deal with bad drivers and accidents. We would like to welcome you. The city needs to manage this issue.
After the walk to Fondurak, I came across vacant buildings and vacant lots, and the atmosphere was depressed.
Reese: My goal in this block is to make one major development to absorb these plots and buildings. This all requires patience and tenacity.
If you could summarize your work in a few sentences, how would you do it?
To find a business in a vacant commercial building and attract developers to the buying site. I deal with safety and security, transportation, infrastructure, and beautification. I talk to the developers and help them choose the sites they can. I sell my neighborhood. I am a big champion in Business Improvement District # 32.