EXPERIENCING THE INNER CITY
For almost five years, 2014-2018, I’ve spent hundreds of hours walking the streets of Milwaukee’s inner city neighborhoods, the residents mostly African-Americans. My goal was to get to know some of the street people and record their stories as they would allow. I am an older middle class male, and I felt vastly out of place, was not always welcomed, but I wanted to connect.
If I had an agenda, it was to show the 3rd world reality of what people's lives are like in the hardcore inner city. The two zip codes I covered represent some of the poorest in this country. My only bias was to show outsider people living "normal lives" about this reality.
Much of the social activity takes place on streets and on porches, talk loud, humor high, vehicles fast-moving, music everywhere. Communities center around church activities. Like many of the inner city areas of the large fading industrial cities, the economy operates on its own terms, cash exchanged. A percentage of the economy is based on drug dealing among gangs of young men. Another percentage is based on welfare, free bus tickets and cell phones, food stamps, Quest cards, debit cards, and the trading of these items.
As a sideline, I have talked to the social workers and African American religious leaders who are involved. I have also visited churches and houses, and attended flea markets and block parties. I’ve heard the stories about fear of gangs and lack of respect for property. Twice, I was threatened to be killed. Once, I had a gun pulled on me. I’ve had my tires slashed, and I have been chased. I was also wrestled by two teen women trying to get my camera bag. To get inner city people to talk to me, I had to spend time with them, take chances, gain their trust. There is almost no eye contact among pedestrians. However, some people were willing to stop and have a chat with me.
Over time, I developed empathy, and many of the people I’ve photographed were grateful for my taking the time to listen to their stories. The Inner City people have a wonderful sense of humor, and this infectious trait expanded my own effort to deal with the ups and downs of life. In truth, I cannot escape my ordinary middle class background, and I was reminded of that many times in feeling somewhat alone walking the streets.
The images that follow are all about about my personal observations. I suppose almost all experiences are anecdotal.
Inside this old abandoned McKinley School, I found Patrick, who told me he was a scrapper, that he collected metal, school desks, heating vents, and copper wire. To get into the school, Patrick picked the lock. He gets seven cents a pound for the scrap metal and was trying to support his family through this business venture. "I'm gettin' my family out of this neighborhood soon as I can," he told me.
Stanley Merriweather is 75 and lives in the heart of the inner city. “I grew up on a farm in Kentucky,” he told me. “My dad beat on me. I was 17 when he broke my teeth with a shotgun. I hopped a train and ended up in Chicago, then I came to Milwaukee. I hate what’s happening around here. All the young folks hate the white man. I’m sick of this racial shit."
Child care is one of the few businesses that survive in the inner city. These Day Care Centers are government-backed with the idea that mothers will be working while their children are at the Center. Unfortunately, the mothers can make more money off their welfare incomes than off most menial jobs they qualify for. Many mothers I spoke with feel bad about this, but is there a choice?
In the inner city, sometimes an old building is devoted to Child Day Care and qualifies for government funding. Child rearing is sometimes left up to young mothers or welfare caretakers, the fathers too often absent.
At 10:30 on a Sunday morning in front of the Restoration church, I came across a gathering of folks. They told me the church was closed, but one woman said, “We waitin’ for free lunch.” I asked when lunch was served. She said. “At noon. Every Sunday, we all just hang here for a couple hours till the doors open.” I hung out with them for a while. They were having a good time, laughing and needling.
Once an aspiring fashion model, Maisha is now 29 years old and the prisoner of a chemical substance that won’t quit torturing her. She wants to get back to her former self. Perhaps, the reflections show the self she had left behind.
Eugene collects discarded cans from waste containers and garbage cans. He makes 65 cents a pound, and his goal is $14.00 in a day. On this day, he said he had to carry his bounty 20 blocks west to the drop off point on 44th Street, then backtrack 25 blocks east to the 19th Street Rescue Mission where he would get a bed for the night.
I found William eating canned sardines off the rim of a garbage dumpster, his lunch habit on good weather days. “There used to be a lot more kids around this neighborhood,” he told me, "good families. Now there are criminals and troublemakers.”
I met Yolanda on 13th street on the east side of the inner city. The block is lined with mostly vacant buildings. I asked where she was going. “To the welfare building,” she said. “I been on welfare my whole life.” I asked if I could walk her there. She shook her head, moved on.
Beverly has lived in this neighborhood for 43 years. Her husband died violently long ago. She has five grown children. When she saw me pointing my camera at a deserted building, she said, “Yeah, take a picture of that ol' wreck of a building. They ought to rip down all the shit on this block.” She waved her hand in anger.
In the summer of 2016, a policeman shot and killed a fleeing African American man near a gas station. Through social media, the word went out, and gangs of protesters organized, rioted and burned several buildings and a few houses. The next day the police reported the shooter policeman was also an African American man. Melvin’s house was located across the street from the gas station. He told me that he and his wife Alicia hid in their garage until the riot subsided. When they emerged, they found their house gutted from fire damage.
Harvey Mathis is 75 and owns his own home, but won’t let anyone inside. “I don’t trust people,” he said. He told me he was retired Air Force. “When I was 17, my mom told me to join up or I’d end up in jail.” He said he got divorced twenty years ago. Now he likes to sit on his porch, watch the neighbors and drink Pepsi.
NICK AND FAMILY
In many neighborhoods, residents often hang on their porches, socializing, talking, laughing, wheeling and dealing. I interrupted this family activity, asked, “Mind if I photograph your dog?”
The big guy yanked the cell phone off his ear, said, “What the fuck for?”
I said, “I like dogs.” He gave a hearty laugh when he saw my picture. Humor is a big part of the African American culture.
BLACK POWER SALUTE
The man said he was called “Jutown.” He gave me the black power salute. When most everything else is lost, there is still pride.
In Milwaukee’s inner city, a common sight is the arrest. This man had been caught running a drug house, often an abandoned residence converted into a refuge for drug sales.
In a dangerous Milwaukee neighborhood, I met the policeman, Todd Johnson, and his police dog, Dasty, who lives with Officer Johnson and his family. I asked, “Is Dasty’s job to sniff out drugs?” He said, “Dasty has two jobs. Find drugs and chase the bad guys.” I said, “Has Dasty ever caught a bad guy?” He nodded. “More bad guys than I can count. Dasty’s 10 years old. He’s seen a lot of action."
In this documentary image, Milwaukee police use a spit mask to subdue a violent raging woman. The spit mask stops her from spitting and cursing at the officers. The police don’t like these kinds of photos, but they couldn’t stop me. I was on a public street.
The policeman told me his job is to patrol the streets on a bike. “I get to know the residents, ease the tension between the cops and the blacks.”
Swat team member Doug and his dog Ecco are from Detroit but are sent to urban trouble spots. They were prowling the streets and alleys in the aftermath of the Milwaukee police protest riots. Doug told me, “If we suspect a criminal has invaded a home or building, I send Ecco inside to subdue the suspect. Ecco won’t attack unless I give the command.”
The Word of God Worship Center was holding a flea market to raise funds for the church. Denise Davis is the preacher. She told me her husband had been head preacher until he died several years ago. In this image, she is trying to get rid of a tow truck who had squatted in her church parking lot
MAN OF GOD
John told me he was a man of God. He attends the Word of God Worship Center ten blocks from his residence. When leaving the house, older African American men often dress up. I saw John as an extension of his neighborhood garden.
The two gentleman in this image worked at an audio store. I asked them to pose in front of an abandoned store window that showed the African American slave at work. There are four faces, each pair facing one another. In the creation of this image, I was hoping to symbolize the African American male experience.
Elnory Burey is 67. She has lived on this block for 40 years and is one of only two residents who still own their homes. The other homes are either condemned or rentals. She said, “Folks used to be nice back then. Now there is too much robbing and violence."
I met Conrad Burges in the alley next to his rented home. He’d come from a family of 12 kids and never left the neighborhood. Conrad said he lived with three female dogs and a wife. He laughed. “I live with four bitches. Sometimes, I need to come out here and drink a beer.”
In the summer, many children do not get the meals provided by the schools. I walked around back of them to portray their experience of waiting on a busy street for their meals to arrive.
Pride in African American tradition. The hands of an artist at work.
Today’s helicopter parents rarely let their children loose unsupervised. In the inner city neighborhoods of Milwaukee, children sometimes roam free range through the urban landscape.
Mo works for the cell phone company Stand Up Wireless and administrates cell phones given to needy people by the government. Mo grew up in the Chicago projects and wears a T shirt commemorating Ida Wells, an African American Civil Rights activist and journalist from the early 1900s.
Mike owns a food cart where he fries bratwursts, hot dogs and chicken, cash only. He works from 10AM to 4PM six days a week. His cart is located opposite the welfare building on Vliet Street. The diners told me they like hanging on the street for food and conversation.
Over time, I have learned that many of the younger, inner city men refuse to return eye contact with me, the outsider. In this image, I waited until they passed by to capture the complete scene of their environment.
A young gangsta takes a drive. In the “hood,” traffic laws are sometimes ignored.
I asked this gang member to pose in front of the deserted Cobras building on North Avenue. He called me a motherfucker before I had a chance to explain. Finally, he posed but did it his way.
Reminders of racism are never far away.
Cheddar and Ronnie are volunteers. They spend time off work picking up discarded waste in their neighborhood. “Somebody’s gotta do it,” Ronnie told me. “The streets and alleys can get messy.”
Over the last few generations of inner city African Americans, the belief in a Christian God and the church itself was a community experience. Many of the churches were small and led by a single preacher. At present, many churches have been closed due to lack of parishioners. I find it sad because the traditional religious experience provided a moral and ethical framework for the community.
Bishop Ellis Murchison of the Pentecostal Power of the Apostolic Faith Church on Center Street.
Music can mean joy in the inner city. Bishop Ellis Murchison of the Pentecostal Power of the Apostolic Faith church invited me to attend his block party. I was there when the festivities began.
Many churches are just storefronts and barely hanging on.
He introduced himself as Don Jones, said he was 78 years old and a free lance preacher. “I’m part Jewish, Irish, Cherokee, and African American. I don’t tout no ethnicity. I’m a child of the Lord.” He was saved at the age of 32 in Newark where his family lived. They were Episcopalian. He moved to Milwaukee in 1974 and started preaching the Lord. He has a pulpit in his backyard and several homemade shrines. “To find God, you have to ask forgiveness,” he told me.
Music, humor, and dancing are integral parts of the inner city culture. It was the 4th of July, and these partiers put on a spontaneous dance for me.
Vernon Castle Townsend served for 3 1/2 years in World War II, repairing Army vehicles. In 1950, he became an auto mechanic. In 1979, he constructed the building that houses his auto repair business on Martin Luther King Drive. In 2016, he was still working at the age of 96.
Most mornings, Troy visits this little neighborhood garden and drinks his coffee. He said, “That mural up there is a tribute to the two women who were murdered in this neighborhood 30 years ago. The others pictured are people who helped improve our neighborhoods.” Milwaukee’s violent crime rate has been among the highest among large cities. In 2014, there were 8,864 violent crimes, according to the FBI figures.
He said he was Curtis, and he was in his last semester at Milwaukee Tech, majoring in business. “What’s your python’s name?” I asked. He said, “His name is Isis. I’ve had Isis for over a year. He’s barely two years old.” It dawned on me that pythons live to be 30 years old. Isis’s home consists of a large wooden box with a bed of newspapers. Isis eats one small live rabbit a month. When he has the time, Curtis takes Isis for a walk through the neighborhood.
There are many handicapped people in the inner city. I don't know why. In this documentary candid, I tried to capture the irony of the man with no legs passing the House of Sacrifice church. I spoke to him but he only nodded and smiled.
Mr McBride saw me taking a photo of his lone rose bush, a rarity in his neighborhood. “I’ve lived here since 1988,” he told me. “The neighborhood has changed for the worse. Drugs came in, robberies, shootings, murders. I’m just lucky to be alive.” He said he still owned the house, that his son, the son’s girlfriend and the girlfriend’s daughter are also residents. Suddenly, he looked toward the little garden in the sideyard. “God, somebody stole my collard greens!”
These little girls seemed to confine their playtime from upstairs porch and into apartment. It’s a two story drop to the street. There is no lawn.
Unprotected sex is a problem in the inner city of Milwaukee. That’s why a few black leaders act as advisers for safe sex. An additional problem is that in some inner city high schools, being pregnant is the sign of status.
Politics is the least of this young mother’s worries. We talked. Eventually, she told me she had three children by three different fathers. "I get by," she said, "but it ain't easy."
LC Stephenson is 81 years old. LC told me he was retired after working 47 years at Coca Cola Bottling. He grew up in Memphis, came north to get a decent job and later married. His wife died a few years ago. He has several children and many grandchildren and owns his own home in the inner city. “My neighborhood has changed,” he said. “Too many troublemakers now, too much violence. Children lack fathers.”
Every morning, Shoeshine Willie totes his shoeshine satchel downtown and tries to earn a living near the banks and insurance buildings where the executives and managers might now and then stop for a shine and a conversation.
Larry works at Repairers of the Breach. “We take donations for welfare people. The welfare building is across the street.”
Michael Adams is the Director of JobsWork, a non-profit whose mission is to teach inner city residents how to prepare themselves for job interviews. More important, Michael and his staff also help the pupils re-establish self-esteem.
Roz Evans operates her hair salon, ROZ, on 27th in a dangerous neighborhood where gangs operate.
“You live around here?” I asked.
“Hell, no,” she said. “Too much shit goes on here. Lots of robberies, beatings, even killings. You’d better get the hell out of here or they’ll steal that camera right off your back.”
A year later when I returned, the ROZ salon was closed up. A sign said Roz Evans had moved her salon to a safer neighborhood.
Warren Harper has owned and operated Warrens Lounge for 48 years. The lounge is located on the rim of one of Milwaukee’s hardcore inner city neighborhoods where crime creates constant fear. Over the years, Warren has watched almost all the businesses on his block close down including a church. But his bar is still doing all right.
Rico is only 47 but he is disabled. In Atlanta, he repaired air conditioners and furnaces. The physical work wrecked his back for which he takes prescription opioids. He now lives in Milwaukee with his cousins and sells perfume oils across from the welfare center.
Lou, an ethnic Mexican, paints cars at Not To Worry Body & Paint. It’s located in a hardcore, northside neighborhood. “I live in south Milwaukee,” Lou told me. “I’ve been driving up here for 25 years. This neighborhood’s falling apart. Gunshots. Drug deals. Store closings.”
Cheryl has been an inner city postal carrier for five years. I asked her how much territory she covered. She got out her smartphone and showed me. The device counts her steps. She averages around 27,000 steps a day. I figured that to be about one foot per step. That means she walks over five miles a day along cracked sidewalks, potholed streets and warped porch steps, carrying that mail pouch.
Willis Jenkins, 53, was raised and still lives in Milwaukee’s inner city. He works as a restaurant dishwasher and janitor. He regularly attends a Baptist Church. He told me, “Everyday, I read my Bible. In fact, I can tell you something about every one of Jesus’ disciples. They weren’t all saints, believe me.” A few years ago, Willis’ daughter was killed in a car accident. He explained that his pain over that loss has brought him closer to God.
I found Henry Finschis taking a break in front of a corner store. He said, “I came up to Milwaukee from Mississippi by myself at 25. All these years since, I worked construction. I even laid the concrete for these here sidewalks.” I asked if he thought the neighborhood had changed. “Hell, yes. Too many law-breakers now, reckless drivers, got no respect for others. They should be locked up.” I said, “I’ve been walking these streets on and off for six years, talking to folks. Some resent me cause I’m white.” He said, “Just keep doing what you are doing. We’re all of color.”
The police call it the 1,000 yard stare, a criminal suspect’s eyes glowing with hatred. This criminal sat in handcuffs on the stairs of the house he had just robbed and wrecked. The arresting officer told me, “There are too many break-ins around here. The old people are scared.”
Al Capone Johnson, 49, has been to prison 4 times, twice for bank robbery in Chicago. He was now on probation for punching a Milwaukee bus driver in the face. Mr Johnson gave me a history on famous criminals he greatly admired, from Al Capone to John Dillinger to Christopher Scarver, the black man who murdered white supremacist Jeffrey Dahmer in prison because Dahmer had killed and eaten black boys.
It’s difficult being alone in the city, jailed by your own demons.
Nina is a street walker. She told me she had been raised in this neighborhood. She said, “The streets are dangerous. Too much violence. You have to stay away from stupidity to survive. You have to stay within your “ram.” I wondered what a ram was. “Your personal zone,” explained Nina.
Marvin is 51. He grew up within a neighborhood now classed as one of Wisconsin’s poorest. “The ghetto is like a slow cancer,” he told me. “First you lose faith in your community, then in your church. Your dad gets killed or put in prison, or he leaves, and then you lose faith in God.” Marvin now lives in a Christian Fellowship House and does odd jobs to get by. He said he never married but hopes to meet the right woman someday.
In the heart of the inner city, I found a small church converted from an old liquor store. The sign read Faith Harvest Outreach Ministries. The service was being held in the parking lot. After a while, the singer turned to sermonizing. She shouted, “I am no longer an adulterous, I have given my heart to Jesus.” The listeners yelled, “Hallelujah, Sister!” Later, I told Pastor Ken I found the performance inspiring. He gave me a brochure, a list of Peace Covenants. Two covenants stood out for me ….. I WILL PUT NEIGHBOR BACK IN THE HOOD and WHEREVER THERE IS VIOLENCE I WILL MEDIATE PEACE.
I met Edgar Jackson in a community garden surrounded by buildings and blacktop. He said he came to Milwaukee alone from Louisiana in 1971, that he worked at a tannery until he retired. At 77, he now uses a cane to get around, but he carefully tends his garden plot or relaxes in his chair and gazes at his flowers.
Clifford Ray is retired from his 28 year job at General Electric. He is also a hoarder. A resident of inner city Milwaukee, he has lived in this same house for over 30 years. I asked him if he’d seen changes in his neighborhood. “Big changes,” he said. “No gangs back then. No violence. Couple months ago, a guy got murdered just up the street. It’s dangerous here.”
Reggie Jones Smith III told me that his dad and grandpa grew up in Memphis and they were bootleggers who eventually migrated to Milwaukee to continue in bootlegging. Reggie worked at Pabst Brewing until he was laid off years ago. Here in front of his home, Reggie wears a sweatshirt to pay tribute to his dad, Robert Lee.
Inside the Milwaukee ghetto, old Andy spends his days at Bernie’s Auto Repair, talking shop, remembering the past. I told him I’d seen a lot of store-front churches, many closed. Andy nodded. “I grew up in this neighborhood. Used to be a church on every corner, and a bar next to it.”
“I grew up in the black ghetto,” Paul Sanders told me. “You better stay away from the ghetto. Cops won’t even go into some areas.” Paul, a man of the streets, now hangs out in the Hispanic neighborhoods. “The city’s screwin’ me up, the loud noises. I can’t hear too well anymore.” I had to yell my request for a portrait.
Ronnie grew up in the Milwaukee inner city, raised by aunts and relatives. He went to Bradley Tech High School and studied photography and medicine, neither of which he was later unable to earn a living. He now survives on welfare benefits.
George Brown, 50, is still alive after 3 strokes. As a younger man, he worked at Galst Foods market. “My old neighborhood has changed for the worse,” he said, shaking his head. “Too many drugs and thieves, even murders.” Most mornings, he stops by the liquor store to visit with his cousins.
Aportier Weeks, told me his mother came from New Orleans. A while back, she had died of breast cancer. Aportier hobbled along slowly, and he walked with a cane. He explained his condition. “Four years ago, I was robbed and got beaten with a baseball bat. My ribs were busted up, and my leg was broken. For a couple years I got around in a wheelchair.” He hesitated. “But I’m gettin’ better.”
Kevin X, 34, is a student minister of the Louis Farrakhan religion, Nation of Islam.
In the words of his leader, Mr. Farrakhan: "We want our people in America whose parents and grandparents were descendants from slaves to be allowed to establish a separate state or territory of their own. Our former slave masters are obligated to provide such land, and the area must be fertile and rich with minerals. We want freedom for all Believers of Islam now held in federal prisons."
As of 2016, there were 13 closed public schools in Milwaukee, several located in the inner city, this one at 27th and Wisconsin. Around the corner were several multi-story public apartment buildings also closed.
Isolation can be a way of life in the inner city.
It sometimes puzzles me how inner city young people dress, but then I am a white man. If you want to stay undercover, why flaunt yourself? Then again, bold visual statements can give you a feeling of power and belonging, a logical need when your people have lived under suppression.
WE BUY JUNK CARS
An inner city business that has some success is the purchase of junk cars for cash. There are advertising signs posted on several walls and buildings, terms of the deal stated plainly. Some needy residents might sell a car and replace it with a bike or a bus ride.