INNER CITY MILWAUKEE
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."
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.
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?
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.
The man said he was called “Jutown.” He gave me the black power salute. When most everything else is lost, there is still pride.
I saw the woman limping, stopping, shaking her leg, limping again, and I asked if she was all right. She said she had an arthritic leg in constant pain. She coughed hard and long, then spit in the street.
“Hey, would you have a quarter? I want to buy a cigarette.” I gave her a quarter. She said, “Be careful of this neighborhood. It’s full of criminals and beggars.”
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.
A man was walking in circles, eyes on the sidewalk. searching for something. I asked what he was looking for. “Cigarette butts,” he said.
We talked, but he did not say too much. “Can I take your picture?”
He held up one finger. “One dollar.”
I gave him a dollar, took his picture, then asked for a closeup. “Two dollars,” he said, raising two fingers. He glanced at my photo and nodded, then moved on.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
It’s difficult being alone in the city, jailed by your own demons.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
A man down on his luck and a street in need of community.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
The old cat once spent his days keeping the old barber’s clients company, but the barber died , and the shop closed. But he still hangs around, probably wondering if anyone will ever get a haircut again.
His name is Amos, and his owner told me she sometimes takes him to church. “Pray for him,” she said, and laughed.
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.
Ed carried a 16 ounce beer in a black paper bag.
“I was once in the Air Force,” he told me, “but I got kicked out.”
“Why did you get kicked out?” I asked.
“Too many reasons to count,” he said through a sly grin.
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.
David lived in Wausau for 27 years, and then, saddled with chronic neck and back problems, “I escaped to Milwaukee for the welfare benefits,” he told me. He was still waiting for disability payments. David sleeps under the 26th Street & HWY 94 bridge winter and summer.
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."
Throughout their adult lives, Cecilia and her friend Edward have lived in rooms in various subsidized public houses. Each morning, they meet at Mike’s Bar for smokes, drinks, and conversation.
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.
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.
I asked the gentleman what he was looking at. He said, “That word ain’t spelled right. No wonder they went out of business.” Despite their circumstances, the inner city people still retain their humor.
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.
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.