'It’s a new era that continues to grow': Efforts to revitalize Milwaukee's Bronzeville community seeing results

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- If the streets of Bronzeville could talk, they'd speak about its Black History.

"The use of the word Bronzeville is a gray area," said Kitonga Alexander. "Historically the African American community didn't always, sometimes at all, didn’t go buy Bronzeville. The African American community in Milwaukee became centered around Walnut Street."

Alexander is the lead researcher for Milwaukee Bronzeville Histories. The organization's website describes itself as an interactive virtual platform to enrich and expand the history of Milwaukee Bronzeville.

Clayborn Benson is the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Executive Director.

"Was Walnut Street the mecca for black business? I'd say yes it was," said Benson. "There were businesses on Walnut Street from Third Street all the way to 12th Street and then up Fond Du Lac Corridor."

Milele Coggs is the Alderwoman of District 6 which is home to Bronzeville. "I fight for this neighborhood because I want Bronzeville to be a place of inspiration."

Coggs says Bronzeville was a place of black commerce, where you could find black attorneys and black accountants.

The thriving community grew and was home to multiple businesses throughout the 1930's and 40s but something happened stopped that growth.

"It depends on who you talk to, but whichever way interpret it, whether its urban renewal or the highway that you blame due to the development of the area, many of the businesses we're displaced or closed down and for years this area was a bit blighted, said Coggs.

"We had the urban renewal policies, which I won't argue destroyed the community, but they impacted the community when you had structures torn down. But nothing built up," said Alexander. "One part of urban renewal is to take away what isn’t good. The second part of urban renewal is to put back something better. We got the first part which was the takeaway but we didn’t get the second part."

According to the city of Milwaukee, after congress passed the housing act of 1949, the city targeted rundown housing in Bronzeville for redevelopment. Rebuilding fewer, more expensive, homes to replace slums. Interstate 43 was built directly through the heart of the neighborhood. It destroyed more than 8,000 homes with Walnut Street essentially destroyed.

Currently, those who know the Bronzeville neighborhood say it's on the rise.

"I think Bronzeville is at a position of growth," said Coggs. "The reemergence of the Holocaust Museum, with so many great restaurants and business that continue to grow here. There's great stuff happening but there still more potential."

Paul Whigham is the chef and owner Mi Casa Su Café Bronzville he says as a youngster, he says was always in love with area and would play in the parks.

"Bronzville, to me right now means revitalization. To me, it shows that black businesses are thriving in his area. A lot them are opening. New ideas are coming to this area. Which is also going to help this area flourish," said Whigham.

Thriveon King, which will feature a wide range of neighborhood resources is under construction. It will be home to early child care, community space for the Medical College of Wisconsin, apartments and more.

"I think arts is great and culture it great but we have to be healthy enough to enjoy it all. So hopefully their presence here and the resource they are able to share will help to keep us health," said Coggs.

"At one point in time, this area was once a place for black businesses, this entire area of Bronzeville and I want to see that happen again," said Whigham. A lot of people that are older than I am, they tell me about it, but I wasn't here to witness that because I wasn’t even born yet. But it’s a new era.

It’s a new era that continues to grow. It's bringing the area one step closer back to black epicenter of commerce.

"The hope is that we will have even more successful black owned businesses of all types in the area," said Coggs. "The hope is just like years ago, it was a place for national entertainer to come. They would want to come; that we would do that again."

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