Milwaukee's Diverse Sherman Park: Community Built Through Mutual Respect
Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood has attracted its share of attention during the past year. Much of it negative. But, some point to Sherman Park as a success story, it’s one of the most diverse in a metro area considered one of the most segregated in the country.
The Kosher Meat Klub and My Barbershop are two businesses that sit side-by-side and reflect a peaceful co-existence of the African American and the Jewish communities.
Alan Borsuk is a congregant of Sherman Park's Orthodox Jewish synagogue Beth Yehuda. He’s lived in the neighborhood a long time and says that the notoriety Sherman Park inherited from all the coverage of last summer’s unrest does not reflect life there.
“Many people in the city and worldwide have an image of Sherman Park that I would argue is not the reality of it," he assesses. "In reality, we had problems before last August, but we really had some really big plusses in this neighborhood.”
One of those plusses is an African-American hair place called My Barbershop.
“When you walk into a barbershop, you know what’s going on by the owner, and the tone of the barbershop. This is comfortable, family, safe," says Jackie, a regular customer, who is sitting in one of the shop's maroon swivel chairs getting a trim. "We’ve earned it over the years, we’ve been here 20 years,” agrees Dell Tatum, the shop's owner.
Tatum takes obvious pride in his business, and although it’s mostly frequented by African-Americans, the shop has customers of all sorts, including some members of the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jewish community. "I’ve cut a couple of the kids, fathers, gentlemen," says Tatum. "They have certain religious rules. I’m not sure about how the rules go, like who grows the beard and who grows the sideburns. I just follow the directions that they give me at the time."
But Tatum has learned a few things about the religion, including its holiday schedule, and he even gets Jewish calendars from time to time. Barber Nathaniel Brown says the Jewish cultural influence is a welcome part of the neighborhood. He's been giving haircuts at My Barbershop for a few months but has a lot of years as a barber in Sherman Park under his belt .
"When you have different cultures in the neighborhood - how folks going to get along with one another is just by respecting one another," he says. "Like the kosher place over here - we respect them, they respect us. And that’s how a community is built, it’s built out of respect. Basically, it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, red brown, it doesn’t matter as long as everyone’s getting respected."
So why might respect sometimes be lacking? Shop owner Dell Tatum says that it comes from lack of exposure. “You have people in Milwaukee that just don’t like people that they don’t know," he observes. "If you take time to get to know the people, you learn that they’re just regular people like you.
"I live right in the area too and I have a lot of Jewish people as neighbors. They seem to be just as pleasant around the house as they are up here at the store," he adds.
The store he’s taking about is the Kosher Meat Klub, just a few steps from the barbershop, where co-owner David Eisenbach works the front registers. He owns the Klub with his wife Marsha. They’ve put their life’s work into the business – this is its 40th year. They expanded the place by buying out four other stores. Today, the aisles are laden with kosher wines, cases of dairy and frozen foods and a deli in back with a chocolate and candy section.
David says that the neighbors are very nice, and Marsha talks fondly about Dell Tatum, the barber next door. "He’s a sweetheart," she says. "When they had the riots here, it was a Saturday night, my grandson was getting married in Los Angeles. He stood outside with a couple of other guys and watched his store and our store. We kind of look out for one another."
Customer Rabbi Avraham Kramer is buying mini cookies at the checkout. He travels from the east side to shop there. “You get all your basic food needs," he says, "and a little love, that might be more important.”
The store is a family affair, even to some of its non-Jewish workers. The Eisenbachs hired Demetrius Ford to help out during the Passover rush 10 years ago and he’s been in the kitchen ever since. “It’s interesting. I learn a lot of new stuff and a new approach to life from another side I guess," he says, adding that Marsha is "like my mother."
"People are people," says Marsha. "Most of us want the same thing, to see our children grow, to raise a family and to be able to support them and give them an education."
So what does Marsha want to say to those who think Sherman Park is a dangerous neighborhood because of what they saw on the news a year ago? "Unfortunately things happen all over," she says. "We’d just like to encourage people not to be afraid, and to come!"
Rabbi Michel Twerski heads Sherman Park's Beth Yehuda synagogue and has spent most of his life in the area. "I think that everybody here in the neighborhood is interested not only in getting along, but also in making a statement that it’s possible," he notes. "That it's possible for the races and different faiths to cooperate together all kinds of activities that will benefit the neighborhood. And I think that there's a possibility for Sherman Park can become a showcase for the nation of the ways in the ways in which all of these different cultures can get along and respect each other and do well together."