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How Milwaukee's Martin Drive defies segregation, according to residents who live there

Charlene Jackson and Arlene Chambers grill brats and burgers at the Martin Drive neighborhood picnic.
Eddie Morales
Charlene Jackson and Arlene Chambers grill brats and burgers at the Martin Drive neighborhood picnic.

Milwaukee is known as a racially segregated metro area. That is, unfortunately, not incorrect, as segregation persists in many neighborhoods. But, there are areas of the city, pockets on the on the south, west, and northwest sides, where that is not the case.

In these areas, there is no racial majority, and two neighbors picked at random are more likely to be of different races. One such neighborhood Martin Drive, on Milwaukee’s west side. It’s not just diverse, it also has a strong sense of community. WUWM reporters spoke with residents and former residents to get a profile of the area.

Martin Drive's history and geography

Milwaukee jazz singer Adekola Adedapo was outside her Martin Drive house during a community-wide rummage sale. “It's a working-class community,” says Adedapo. “We've inherited our properties from the workers in the breweries. [Historically] the upper management was down on McKinley drive, those brick homes and fireplace homes. But most of the community here is working. And we have very intentionally through our very strong Martin Drive neighborhood association made this a very diverse neighborhood.”

Adedapo says she feels very safe walking at night. “I'm 75. I live alone, but really I have no qualms other than the [Milwaukee-wide crime] that's going on. But in our neighborhood, we're pretty safe.”

Martin Drive is nestled between Washington Park on the north (there used to be a zoo there in the old days) and Miller Valley on the south. It’s bookended by 35th Street and Hwy 175 (the stadium freeway) on the east and west.

Google Map of the Martin Drive neighborhood
Google Maps
The Martin Drive neighborhood in Milwaukee spans from Vliet Street and Washington Park on the north, to Miller Valley and Martin Drive on the south and 35th street and Highway 175 on the east and west.

Affordable and varied housing

So what else has made Adedapo stay? She bought a home. Like many others who say that the housing market there is affordable. “Again, that's all intentional work by the community organization to keep the homes in a reasonable marketable way,” she says. “And we go around and make sure that we are keeping the areas up. And if we see someone's maybe having a rough time, we'll go to the neighborhood association and find somebody that will come and cut their grass or help them paint their steps.”

She says Martin Drive is a very active community. “But like I said, it's intentional. And we have all races, we have all ages. It's a really nice place.”

There’s Martin Drive West, which is closer to Wauwatosa and has more single-family homes and duplexes. Then there’s Martin Drive East which has more renters. This varied housing — and the fact that it’s relatively affordable — has allowed diverse groups to move in. But both these areas work in tandem, and under the same neighborhood association. That’s according to Arijit Sen, a UWM urban studies professor who’s been bringing students to engage in Martin Drive for a decade.

“Housing stock is extremely important for diversity,” says Sen. “Because diversity is not just a racial issue. It's not just racial diversity, there's gender diversity, there's age diversity, that intergenerational issues happening, economic diversity. And when you do not have appropriate housing which fits different economic groups, then you tend to have problems.”

Martin Drive is 40% Black, 31% white, 11% Asian, and 10% Latino. Sen says that this diversity is created, in part, by the stock of housing. A mix of low income and more moderate housing. “The ability to choose to live in a place which has resources, which has transportation and which has urban guardians, I would say all these together in this particular case, work very well,” explains Sen.

Looking to the urban guardians

Urban guardians are people that step up and choose to do things for the community. The neighborhood association, that Adekola mentioned above, is full of Martin Drive residents who are stepping up. It’s consistently mentioned by residents as a main factor in improving the community.

Pat Mueller has been described as a main Martin Drive urban guardian. Professor Sen also described her as the neighborhood’s “energizer bunny.” At a community picnic, she explained what makes the neighborhood special.

Pat Mueller is a longtime "urban guardian" of Martin Drive, helping organize the neighborhood association and other leadership and community efforts.
Maayan Silver
Pat Mueller is a longtime "urban guardian" of Martin Drive, helping organize the neighborhood association and other leadership and community efforts.

“It's the constant communication. So, through the first group that we had, we got $1,000 a year for things, and we wanted to have a newsletter,” she says. “So, we did newsletters. and we did monthly meetings. And so everybody got to know each other. And we had very dedicated, they were called 'block reps' or 'block counsel.' Their names were published in the newsletter. So, you knew if you lived on 46th Street, if you were new, you could go to whomever and their phone number was there. And you could ask a question. And, so, we just kept building on this connection.”

In addition to the rummage sales and community picnics, the neighborhood has a Halloween extravaganza and other events. Pat Mueller lights up when she talks about the latest art project: 44 art boxes that neighbors have made that are placed around the neighborhood.

"The model for Martin Drive’s Neighborhood Association is through projects and planning,” says Raymond Duncan, who’s part of the association. “We embrace and foster a sense of belonging and common purpose so that it results in a neighborhood that's diverse, secure and fun for everyone.”

Groups with a stake in the neighborhood

What else helps the neighborhood have a strong social fabric? Well, there are corporations in proximity, like Harley Davidson and Miller Coors. There’s also the Near West Side Partners, a business improvement district. There’s the Hmong American Friendship Association. All these entities have a stake in the community, says Daria Mueller (who’s of no relation to Pat Mueller). She’s lived in Martin Drive for nearly 10 years. We caught Mueller standing in front of her crème-colored bungalow with children’s books scattered on the lawn. She was participating in the rummage sale.

Daria Mueller says no neighborhood she's lived in, whether it's Chicago or Milwaukee, has had more of a neighborhood feel than Martin Drive.
Maayan Silver
Daria Mueller says no neighborhood she's lived in, whether it's Chicago or Milwaukee, has had more of a neighborhood feel than Martin Drive.

“There are some different community groups outside of the neighborhood association, I think that help us know what opportunities are available and events that are going on, and things that we can do to come together,” says Daria Mueller. “I often see surveys about the neighborhood and the near west side, and how we can make improvements. So, I feel that investment constantly going into the neighborhood.”

Miller Coors has a security car that circles the neighborhood in the evening sometimes, and Harley Davidson helps Martin Drive east with street lighting and other crime prevention. There’s also a police department very close by.

A deep social fabric

Daria Mueller says there’s a stronger sense of community and neighborhood feel in Martin Drive than anywhere else she’s lived —including other parts of Milwaukee and Chicago. “I know, so many of my neighbors by name," she details. "And I feel like if I need to help with something, I have people I can turn to. For a long time, I didn't have a lawn mower and would borrow neighbor's lawn mowers. And just people looking out for each other, like, ‘Hey, you left a car door open’ or something, you know, getting groceries out and you forget something. So yeah, I definitely feel like there's a real community feel here.”

“I can say that you know when neighbors are in need,” says Arlene Chambers, who has lived in Martin Drive for 25 years. “For instance, if there is a crisis, like a fire or somebody loses an animal, things like that, people chip in. Try to help. Make sure the neighbors feel like they they're going to overcome that obstacle.”

“I know neighbors on different blocks. I know neighbors with different jobs, different occupations. That's something that's unique, because if there's a problem anywhere it becomes the outlier everybody knows about,” adds Raymond Duncan.

Overcoming white flight

Linda Thomas was at the community wide rummage sale with her mom. Although she doesn’t live in Martin Drive anymore, she once did. WUWM asked her what factors she felt were encouraging diversity here.

Linda Thomas and her mom at the Martin Drive community rummage sale.
Maayan Silver
Linda Thomas and her mom at the Martin Drive community rummage sale.

“So I think historically, right, and especially when you look at major cities, one of the things that you always hear about is like white flight, right? Anytime you have other groups of people who aren't white moving into a neighborhood, majority of the people leave, right,” assesses Thomas. “But I think in this area, you still have a lot of maybe we call them the ‘OGs,’ who have lived and grown up in this neighborhood who are still here. And rather than leaving, not only stay, but provide a welcoming environment for those who are coming in, and overall, given that that's the case, are the ones to kind of like organize a sense of community. And, so, I think Martin Drive kind of provides a template to be like, you know, it is OK to welcome people into your neighborhoods and to work together to make it better.”

Lynn Grages, who is white, is one such “OG.” OG stands for “original gangster” and it’s now slang for one who is original and highly regarded. She has lived in Martin Drive for more than 76 years, inheriting her family’s house decades ago. It’s a house that was once her grandparents. But once it became hers, acquaintances had something to say.

“And some of the people I knew, said, ‘Oh, you should think about getting out of that neighborhood.’ And I kept saying, ‘No, it's a great neighborhood. I am not scared of anything. It's a very comfortable and nice place to live.’ So I stuck to my thinking and I am still there.”

A place to grow old in

But it's not just white homeowners who are staying in Martin Drive. People from all backgrounds are putting down roots.

Adekola Adedapo, who is Black, has been there for 28 years. Teng Thao, who is Hmong, grew up in the neighborhood and inherited the house he grew up in. Thao was with a large group of family members playing cornhole and eating BBQ at his house during the community wide rummage sale.

Teng Thao's family barbecue in Martin Drive.
Maayan Silver
Teng Thao's family barbecue in Martin Drive.

“I've known this neighborhood my whole life,” says Thao. “So that's, that's it, you know, it's home, this neighborhood is home. I've seen people come and go, but my neighbor right here has been here, I think a little bit longer than I have."

Thao marvels at how they've been neighbors like this for over 30 years. "And he's much older than I am, so he's watched me grow from a kid to where I am now. And it's great. Every time he works in his garden, he always waves hi to me. That's the great thing about it, the neighborly love. To have that, that's beautiful.”

Diversity is really good for community, says Thao. "So everybody knows how everybody else lives. Everybody kind of sees everybody as humans, you know, it's like, everybody eats, everybody sleeps, everybody lives. So that's why I love it. You know?"

We asked Linda Thomas to sum up what it means to live in a neighborhood with people of all backgrounds. “That's a very good question,” she says, “So I think that, irrespective of the city, I think when you have a neighborhood that is diverse, I think it allows for people to truly get to know people who might not come from the same background. And I think, in the broader scheme, allows for less biases, less hate.”

She says it's harder for you to hate someone if they look like your neighbor.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
Eddie is a WUWM news reporter.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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