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88Nine Radio Milwaukee

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Inside Milwaukee's Bronzeville Neighborhood

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For the first half of the 20th century, if something was happening in the African-American community, it was happening in Bronzeville.  For nearly 70 years the neighborhood was Milwaukee’s Harlem, a place where African-American arts, entertainment and commerce boomed. 

After years of steady decline, Bronzeville is now a mixture of thriving businesses sitting alongside abandoned buildings in a neighborhood still trying to figure out its new identity.    

But with that uncertainty comes the opportunity for possibilities.  Those closest to the area have big dreams of what Bronzeville’s future could be.  In an effort to bring more attention to the area and attract new business and patrons, 6th District Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs and Friends of Bronzeville hosted a week-long festival honoring both the neighborhood’s history and future.  

An opening ceremony kicked off the week on August 2, with a variety of live performances and a range of food vendors.  There was even a special appearance by the Milwaukee Flyers tumbling team.  The rest of the week offered panel discussions, trolley tours of the area and free health screenings.  The week inspired hope for Bronzeville’s future but also paid tribute to its historic upbringing. 

“The Bronzeville of old was an economic hub which centered around arts and entertainment but also there were law offices, book keeping companies and all of that as well that together with the arts really made Bronzeville a center of commerce for Milwaukee’s African American Community,” said Coggs.

Back in the early 1900’s African Americans migrated out of the south into the North and built communities within larger cities.  Escaping southern racism, many African Americans traveled to Bronzeville in Milwaukee to find manufacturing work and a better life.  

According to Bronzeville’s official website, its main focal point was Walnut Street.  It was filled with barbershops, cafes and stores that were frequented by not only residents but ALSO other immigrants.  The neighborhood continued to grow, and by the 1930s, it had the most African-American owned businesses of any area in the city.

The neighborhood’s real distinguishing feature was its art and entertainment scene.  Starting in the 1920’s, venues like Metropole and Moon Glow attracted jazz and blues greats like Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.  These big name acts also attracted a white clientele and made the shows Milwaukee’s first instances of integration. 

Then in the late 1960s much of Bronzeville’s residents were displaced and its businesses flattened by the city’s freeway construction for I-94/I-43 which ran right through Walnut Street. 

Now the once thriving neighborhood is trying to pick itself back up.

“It’s interesting going to neighborhood meetings because it’s a mixture of people who’ve been here fifty years and people who just built here a couple years ago but the shared value is the investment into Bronzeville and wanting to see it be successful,” said Coggs.

A targeted reinvestment plan put in place by the city will work to make Bronzeville a new inviting destination for Milwaukeeans and tourists, Coggs said. 

The project would make the neighborhood a cultural and entertainment district focused on African-American culture.  Included in the project are plans for beautification, galleries, and increased retail opportunities among other initiatives, according to data released by the City of Milwaukee. 

To learn more about the redevelopment plan visit the City of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville website here.  To hear Nate Imig’s interview with Alderwoman Coggs click the player above.