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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

53206, The Evolution of a Zip Code

WUWM has begun a series of reports on youth violence in Milwaukee. That’s in light of the upcoming summer months, which are often a rough time for the city. Friday, we visit what is arguably the most dangerous zip code area for both kids and others. 53206. In 2005 and 2006, 51 homicides were recorded there. That’s more than twice as many as in neighboring areas. A few decades ago, residents say 53206 was thriving. WUWM’s LaToya Dennis explores the changes that have taken place.

The majority of people who live in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code area are African American. Claiborne Benson says fifty years ago, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone here not of European ancestry.

“Mainly Germans…the building we’re in was a German theatre or a German fire station…city fire station with German fire fighters in it, Benson says.”

Today, this building houses the Wisconsin Black Historical Museum, which Benson founded more than two decades ago near 26th and Center. He grew up nearby.

“I would past this intersection as a young kid and how nice it was 40 years ago, 50 years ago,” Benson says.

Benson says there was a thriving black community just south of the 206 zip code along Walnut Street. But in the 60s things started to change when the government began demolishing homes and businesses there to build the North-South Freeway. Thousands of people were displaced. Many moved farther north into the 206 zip code. Benson says people in the African American community lost more than their homes.

“It diffused our identity by moving us out of our clusters. The expressway divided us straight in half and where we had families together it created separate clusters of neighborhoods so it caused irreparable harm to the African American community,” Benson says.

As the area saw an influx of minorities white flight began. That led to the area becoming mainly African American. Another big change that followed was the loss of manufacturing jobs. Until then, they had allowed people with little education to earn family-supporting wages. In fact, 53206 had been home to major manufacturing employers such as AO Smith. Elmer Anderson used to live in the neighborhood. He showed me around the old factory that for the most part, sits vacant with broken windows and trash strewn about.

“This is just one of the buildings that comprised this plant. It extended from 27th over to 35th street and from Townsend up to Capitol Drive as you’ll see in a minute. This is one of the railroad lines that went into the plant…,” Anderson says.

As we drive through the neighborhood at 10:30 on a weekday morning, the massive homes, some of which have been kept up nicely, appear to be the only visible sign of what the area used to be. A half-dozen young black men who don’t look any older than 25, are sitting on front porches or walking down the street. Anderson says unemployment is a problem. Perhaps that explains why crime and violence have gotten out of control. According to a U-W Milwaukee study, 53206 has one of the city’s highest incarceration rates, in addition to being one of its poorest areas. Barbara Moore says most people couldn’t fathom what it’s like to live here. She’s Executive Director of Project Respect. It works to improve the Amani district, one of three distinct neighborhoods in 53206.

“Could you imagine being in a neighborhood with not so good housing, lack of jobs, lack of education, the prison population increasing. In the 53206 zip code, look how many children are not living with their biological mother or father. The numbers are overwhelming. And you wonder why is crime rising so high,” Moore says.

Yet Moore says, even with all its problems, the Amani neighborhood is a good place to live. That’s thanks to spirited residents like Mary Pickens. Pickens says her block isn’t as safe and family-friendly as when she moved here nearly 40 years ago. But she doesn’t plan on leaving.

“I’m paying for my house. Ain’t nobody go move me out of this junk house and that’s just the truth. I like my house, I like my yard and I don’t know. The lord make a way for everybody to do whatever they want to do and I just…one place might be worst than the next. I’m staying here. When they put me out they’ll be putting me in the ground,” Pickens says.

Recently built mixed use housing and commercial development.

In recent years, there has been a push to redevelop parts of 53206. Pickens says she’s noticed. She’s seen drug houses closed, new businesses developed and even a few homes being built.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.