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What we can learn from Milwaukee's Martin Drive, a diverse neighborhood with a strong social fabric

a colorful house with flowers
Maayan Silver
Martin Drive is a mixture of single family housing, duplexes and apartment buildings — including this bungalow-style home.

Many of us can tick off the reasons why many parts of Milwaukee are very racially segregated — structural racism, poverty, redlining, white flight. Indeed, in parts, that’s true. But what you may not know is that there are also neighborhoods with no racial majority, places where two people chosen randomly would be of different racial backgrounds.

One such neighborhood is Martin Drive — on the city’s west side. It’s thriving — as both a racially diverse neighborhood and one with a strong sense of community.

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.

WUWM reached out to Arijit Sen, a UWM associate professor of history in the urban studies department, to find out why that is.

Headshot of a man
Courtesy of Arijit Sen
UWM professor Arijit Sen has been working with students in Milwaukee's Martin Drive neighborhood for years.

Sen has been working with students in the neighborhood for about 10 years as part of UWM’s Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures field school. The project was built around finding the urban guardians of a neighborhood — the people who were stepping up to make a neighborhood better — and ask them what is it that you're doing? How are you stewards of this neighborhood? What is stewardship?

“Then we would follow up, after having heard the answers, with the architecture and design studio,” Sen explains. “[We’d work with] these community residents as our mentors, and we would build something. Our role was catalytic. We facilitate what already exists in the neighborhood. And that is the proof of the kind of human resources that exist in this neighborhood.”

Sen says Martin Drive is an example of a neighborhood that has a strong social infrastructure. “So just like we talk about road infrastructure, a strong social infrastructure means a neighborhood that is diverse, intergenerational and where people talk to each other."

The following are excerpts from that interview, some portions edited, paraphrased or consolidated for clarity.

Why is diversity important in a neighborhood?

I think in terms of our contemporary times, diversity does one thing for us — it allows us to move out of our echo chambers and see each other, who are all different from each other, as humans, as having a family, having real lives and not as a moniker that we always say, ‘This guy's that.’ No, we are actually much more complex. That, for me, is what’s important in having diverse neighborhoods.

I feel like diversity is a bottom-up project, you create the situation, you set up the infrastructure for it, keep all the policies ready. But then whether it's really diverse, really means that people know how to talk across differences, through differences.

Can you describe Martin Drive?

Martin Drive originated as a working-class neighborhood. It’s broken into east and west as Vliet Street cuts through it. Martin Drive east is right next to the 38th Street corridor, abutting Harley Davidson. And if you go back in history, the streetcar line would come all the way up there from the city. And the zoo was there, Washington Park is right there.

In Martin Drive east there are lots of apartment buildings and duplexes. Martin Drive west has more homeowners and single-family dwellings, but there are still duplexes there too. West is a little more economically upper class. It’s called by some as a growing edge of the city, an emerging landscape of the middle-class.

Note: According to 2020 U.S. Census data, Martin Drive is 40% Black, 31% white, 11% Asian, and 10% Latino.

What makes Martin Drive so diverse?

I think the reasons are very, very complex. It's very layered and the reasons for diversity in one neighborhood is not necessarily replicable in another neighborhood.

Here are some contributing factors.

Location —In Martin Drive, the industrial, the residential and the commercial comes together along with Washington Park, which brings leisure. I don't think there are many places where all these four things come together.

Urban guardians — Martin Drive has incredible leaders in the sense that, not only did they bring people out of their houses to come together as community, which they do through meetings and events, but also they have a vision that they build on. This is a lot of hard work.

Transportation/things that make it a destination — Through history, Vliet Street had the streetcar that brought people to Washington Park. Vliet Street still is a very highly traveled artery. If you put in destination spots, people stop — like if you have a good school, a good grocery store, parks, public spaces. A lot of our neighborhoods have suffered because of not being connected to these resources.

Housing choice — Housing is extremely important for diversity. Because diversity is not just a racial issue, there's gender diversity, there's age diversity — intergenerational issues happening and economic diversity. When you do not have appropriate housing. which fits different economic groups, then you tend to have problems. Traditionally, low-income neighborhoods only have low-income housing, which stigmatizes the neighborhood even further. So, with housing, choice is the most important. Choice produces diversity, the ability to choose to live in a place which has resources, which has transportation and urban guardians.

How important are outside stakeholders in helping a neighborhood— in this case entities like the Near West Side Business Improvement District, the Harley Davidson offices and the Molson Coors corporation? And what roles do they play?

They're very important. Harley Davidson has assisted Martin Drive east in various forms of street lightning and crime prevention. They would also host Martin Drive neighborhood meetings. In order for any neighborhood to be strong, it needs to have a place to meet. I have worked in neighborhoods where the only public meeting space is someone's porch or a garden. And every time it rains, you disperse. So having a having a real public space to meet is important to create a vibrant neighborhood.

There are also arts organizations.Artists Working in Education is located out there. There is the Hmong American Friendship Association, which is not just serving Hmong people living in the neighborhood. As a result of HAFA, lots of people from outside come in. There’s the senior center in Washington park, too. There is the farmer’s market. Also, in terms of urbanism, just having people on the streets actually attracts more people in the streets. If you go on Vliet Street now, that part of the street actually five years ago was pretty deserted, you'll see how it's changed.

So you're talking about a confluence of factors. What do you think is the top factor that allowed Martin Drive to become one of the neighborhoods to defy segregation and encourage community?

I think it's people and resources just happening to come together. There are neighborhoods we've been to where there are incredible people working all day long trying to improve the neighborhood, but they have no money. So, in this case, the key is driven residents, politically savvy residents and also having these institutions that are willing to spend some money there.

You’ve said the business improvement district funding mechanism is a little bit outdated as a way to improve neighborhoods? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yeah, oftentimes, how funding works is that a local community organization would get money from their business improvement district, and the organizations do great work. But, at the same time, they do nine to five work. They go back home at night, whereas there are these people in the neighborhood, they're not gonna have a nine to five life, that's 24/7 for them. These urban guardians are essentially working for free and they're putting in a lot, but they don't really have access to money.

And then if you think about it, how would urban guardians get money to do stuff? They either get it through the government, through the city or through grants. Every grant requires you to write something. Most people do not know how to write grants. So, grant writing becomes an obstacle towards getting money. So I think that's what I meant when I said that there are these incredible urban guardians who are making their neighborhoods successful, but they don't have access to the kind of money that they should.

A sign on a street corner in Martin Drive
Maayan Silver
A sign on a street corner in Martin Drive that reads "Love is stronger than hate. Hope is stronger than fear. Creativity is stronger than destruction."

So it's this institutional connection with people on the ground who are living there who are really invested in their neighborhood, would you say that's kind of the glue that's holding this together?

I'm an architecture historian. So, I think it's the place that holds it together. The institutions and people are fine, but you also need to have the setting where the institution and people work. In the case of Martin Drive, if you think of the duplexes that characterize the neighborhood, they form two houses on top of each other — a porch and back stairs that connect. That is a very intensely social space. So, the street line, with duplex houses then opening up into a large major street with these multi-use buildings for stores below and housing above, all that contributes. If you don't have this infrastructure, then you cannot have stores and people living above it.

So Martin Drive’s diversity is decades and centuries, even, in the making. Are there any lessons that someone could take away from Martin Drive to create a more diverse neighborhood in their own community?

Yes, very simply, yes. There is a very clear way of creating public and private spaces that engage with each other — porches and front yards that are open for people to hang out and talk to each other. That infrastructure is the first thing that you need to have a good neighborhood. The second infrastructure is having the right amount of different kinds of people to make sure that people have a choice to come in, to make sure that you're also guarding against gentrification, because that's a very strong possibility in places like Martin Drive. The people on the ground have to guard against gentrification. They do that through all kinds of ways, through policy as well as through infrastructure, holding on to their houses and making sure residents of the neighborhood stay and don’t go away. Those are the kind of steps people could take in order to keep the spaces diverse.

Assuming that you can't just flatten the housing that’s in a neighborhood and start from scratch and build porches and do those kinds of things, what's your advice on how to diversify and improve neighborhoods?

1. Understood the architectural history of a neighborhood — how its spaces have grown over time.

2. Look for residents who are urban guardians.

3. Find out how the money flows and set up a system that empowers urban guardians.

4. Rethink intergenerational communication — listen to young people and encourage them to talk to elders, and visa versa.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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