Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A student leader in India fights discrimination — and is charged with sedition

Delhi — Across India, students are organizing against an increasingly intolerant, right wing national government. A soft-spoken 28-year-old doctoral student at India’s top public university has unexpectedly become a focal point for the growing protest movement.

Two months ago, Kanhaiya Kumar was focusing on his dissertation on “Social transformation in South Africa.” Today he is charged with sedition and facing a possible life sentence for allegedly shouting “anti-Indian” slogans at a February protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.

The controversy is about far more than freedom of speech. Kumar has become the face of opposition to policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that are seen as furthering Hindu nationalism and religious intolerance, exacerbating caste and class divisions, and undermining India’s commitment to democracy.

Protests in Mumbai in mid-March, part of nationwide actions supporting the student movements against discrimination and intolerance.

Kumar, in person, is soft-spoken and deliberative, far from the media image of a rabble-rousing revolutionary eager to foment the breakup of India. In a recent interview on a quiet Sunday afternoon, in an outdoor courtyard at JNU, Kumar discussed a range of issues, from the crisis of finance capitalism, to his hopes for equality and democracy in India, to the need for international solidarity.

Addressing the sedition charges, Kumar replied, “We are asking for freedom inside India, not from India.”

Kanhaiya Kumar
The charges against Kumar stem from a February 9 protest at JNU, held to mark the anniversary of the still-controversial hanging of a Kashmir activist for participating in an attack on India’s Parliament in 2001. Kumar was arrested three days later for allegedly shouting “anti-national” slogans, such as supporting self-determination for Kashmir. Subsequent evidence has strongly suggested that the slogans were shouted by agent provocateurs, and that social media videos linking Kumar to the chants were fabricated.

Kumar grew up in a low-income, leftwing family in Bihar, India’s poorest state but known for its political sophistication. He is a member of the All India Students Federation, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India, and has a decidedly wide range of interests. He is an enthusiastic singer, and in college ran a small film society known for showing movies such as The Bicycle Thief and Schindler’s List.

He is also president of the JNU student union, which has been central to protesting discrimination and planned budget cuts at India’s universities that would disproportionately affect low-income and low-caste students.

“There is a student upsurge here in India, as everywhere in the world,” he said in our interview. “The students are very organized, and the government is finding it difficult to manage the student community. So they are trying to suppress it.”

An international outcry has erupted over the sedition charges against Kumar—including a statement by almost ninety prominent academics that Kumar’s arrest is a disturbing example of the Modi government’s “culture of authoritarian menace.” Signers range from Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.

India’s sedition law was enacted by the British in 1860 and used against Indian independence leaders, most famously Mahatma Gandhi. In contemporary times, it has been used to silence dissent and jail activists, thus derailing the political momentum of protest movements. Writer Arundhati Roy is among those charged with sedition, in her case in 2010 for advocating the right to self-determination in Kashmir. The charges subsequently dropped.

Protests link the attack against Kumar and the suicide of Dhalit (untouchable) activist Rohith Vemula

In our interview, Kumar stressed the importance of linking seemingly local controversies. Befitting his academic roots, he went into an extended explanation that involved theories of finance capitalism and neoliberalism—the term widely used outside the United States to describe pro-market, austerity and free-trade policies embraced by both conservatives and liberals.

But he ended with a clear and specific message to students in the United States:

“There should be three things. First, peace. And when we are demanding peace, we have to oppose the concept of war, any kind of war.

“Second, progress. This financial capitalism is empty progress . . . . When there is economic surplus, it should be put into production of goods and services, not the system of gambling known as finance capitalism.

“The third thing: I am not talking about a communist state. But there should be a just society, an equal society . . . . There should be equal education. There should be equal health facilities for all. There should be equal access to every kind of basic service.”

“So this is my message to the students of the U.S.A.: Please fight for peace, progress, and equality.”

The protests at JNU are part of a growing student movement across India. They also take place in the context of intolerance fueled by the Modi government. Among other concerns, Modi is close to the rightwing Hindu movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which calls for Hindu supremacy in what is a religious and culturally diverse nation.

Bans on selling and eating beef (cows are sacred in Hinduism) have increased since Modi came to power in 2014 with 31 percent of the popular vote. One of the most disturbing incidents occurred last fall when a Muslim man in northern India was lynched after rumors circulated that his family stored and ate beef.

In October, a number of India’s most famous authors issued a statement deploring “growing intolerance” and returning awards or resigning from Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters. “All spaces of liberal values and thought, all locations of dissent and dialogue, all attempts at sanity and mutual trust are under assault almost on a daily basis,” the writers said in a statement.

In November, students started an “Occupy UGC” movement, referring to the University Grants Commission and its attempts to curtail financial aide and potentially make it all but impossible for low-income students to continue their studies, particularly at the graduate level. Kumar’s family, for instance, makes about 3,000 rupees a month, or the equivalent of about $50.

Then, in January, protests erupted nationwide after Rohith Vemula, a Dalit (untouchable) research scholar, committed suicide. He did so after he was expelled from Hyderabad University following an incident with rightwing students aligned with Modi’s party.

Kumar also spoke of the international context of the rightward drift in India, in line with similar authoritarian movements in Western countries. Emphasizing the importance of unity, he said:

“We have to break the categories—that we are students so we do not support in the trade union movement, or are not in support of the ecology, or we are middle class so we will not fight for the poor class. ...

“If I am communist, I have to talk to the social democrats, I have to talk to the liberal forces. If we want to establish a powerful movement, first of all we have to unite the opposition.”

As for his vision for India, Kumar speaks clearly and succinctly. “First of all,” he said, “I want to refer to our Indian constitution and our wonderful preamble that India should be a socialist, secular, democratic republic.”

“Second, there is a huge gap between the rich and poor. This should be the primary concern of the government, to resolve this gap. And we can. We can do that.”
— — —
This blog was originally posted at www.progressive.org.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Life and death along the Varanasi Ghats

There are 87 Ghats in Varanasi, India — steps leading down to the river Ganges. Most of the Ghats are for cleansing and prayer rituals, but a few are for cremation.

I had incredibly mixed feelings when I first walked by this corpse. My first reaction was part denial, part repulsion. After walking by several times during the course of the morning, and seeing the reactions of Indians, and trying to better understand the Hindu approach toward life and death, my feelings became more complicated.

And then two Indian women were nearby when, on what was my final walk past the corpse, I bowed, put my folded hands to my forehead and mumbled “Namaste.” The women immediately and prominently motioned to me, and gave the universal symbol for me to take a photo. Which I found strange. But then I realized that most of the Euro-American tourists, especially older tourists, don’t walk along the Ghats but stay at a safe, antiseptic distance, watching from boats along the Ganges.

There is so much I don’t understand about India, and so many contradictory feelings and concerns. If one were to ask me what I think of India, I’m not sure I could articulate all that is swirling in my head.

But one thing is clear. India is a deeply religious country, where one’s religion is practiced in public. And Hinduism, the dominant religion, approaches death as a normal part of life. I came to see the corpse not as a corpse, but as a person going through their life cycle.

I worried about taking what might be yet another “exotic” photo of India. (I have come to hate that word, too often redolent with connotations of viewing anything different from the European-American norm as somehow strange or inferior — or, at the other end of the spectrum, an example of “the noble savage.”)

But after a while, many things that at first seem strange or different are, in the end, mostly that: different. Not better, not worse, just different.  

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Mumbai is the world's future. One of the world's "megacities," Mumbai has 25 million people and counting.

Befitting a world dominated by finance capital, Mumbai is a bundle of contradictions. People without potable water or toilets live in shacks built in the shadows of billionaire penthouses. Garbage is omnipresent, and it is left to poor people who dominate the recycling business to deal with the throwaways of the rich. Money exists both in real time, mostly in dog-eared rupees, but also in electronic transfers that live in an increasingly powerful parallel universe. 

Bob and I had the good fortune to see a fascinating exhibit while in Mumbai, by artist Chandrakant S. Ganacharya, that speak to these contradictions in new ways that force the viewer to question and think. Isn't that one of the purposes of art?

Titled “#MONEY*FOOD@LIFE,” the exhibit uses the language of daily life to explore themes of hunger, struggle and power.

Like many, Ganacharya is a transplant to Mumbai. His work speaks to the city’s realities, in particular the omnipresence of money. Those who have it, and there are many, flaunt it; those who don’t are, of necessity, preoccupied with getting enough to live.

The exhibit, at the Jehangir Hirji Art Gallery, uses a variety of everyday images and realities — grocery bags with calculations, mostly subtractions; ATM slips; LED-lit text messages; rusting mess plates; historic Indian coins and denominations, now preserved in terracotta. In one work, gold-plated peanuts are refigured as ants marching in line, forming a question mark.

Pictured here is a photo I took of “A Dictionary of An Empty Belly” — a multilingual reflection incorporating variations on well-known phrases and painted on rusting, metal food plates that evoke memories of India’s colonial history. Some of the English phrases:

• Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what is for supper.

• No man can be a patriot on an empty stomach.

• Paris is the only city in the world where starving to death is considered an art.

• Hunger never saw bad bread.

• When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

I often feel alienated from some gallery exhibitions, a combination of a lack of formal background in art, a preference for publicly accessible art (rather than art sanitized and hung in eerily silent museums or galleries), and a predilection for art that resonates with the concerns of the day. At Ganacharya’s exhibit, I was mesmerized, both by the quality of the art and how his work powerfully spoke to the Mumbai reality we saw on the streets.

While at the exhibit, we met Ganacharya. He seemed surprised, and pleased, to see U.S. visitors. (There don’t seem to be many U.S. tourists in Mumbai, and those we saw invariably were part of large tour groups with scripted itineraries). Ganacharya asked to take photos of us, and in turn he agreed to be photographed.

If you get the chance, visit his Facebook page: Chandrakant S Ganacharya. Here are several more photos, by the artist. 

"Evolution of a Transaction" 

Gold-plated nuts, transformed into ants.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

LESSONS FROM MEDELLIN: How the murder capital of the world became a poster-child of urban innovation

By Barbara Miner

In early September, days before my husband and I were to leave for Medellín, Colombia, for three months, we watched the Netflix series Narcos. In graphic detail, the series shows how drug king Pablo Escobar unleashed an era of death and destruction that made Medellín the murder capital of the world.

Bob and I turned to each other, wondering, “Are we nuts?”

A few weeks later, we travel to Comuna 13, once considered Medellín’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhood. We use Medellín’s bike-share system (which is free) to get to the metro. We pay about seventy cents to take the metro to Comuna 13, then another forty cents to take a bus to a free escalator system that zigzags up the neighborhood’s steep hills, climbing the equivalent of a twenty-five-story building. Later, we ride up a 1.7-mile gondola system in another hillside section of Comuna 13, which has cut travel time for workers from more than an hour to less than ten minutes. An integral part of the city’s mass transit system, the gondolas can transport more than 3,000 people per hour.

Medellín was the first city in the world to use gondolas for public transit, and also the first to use escalators in a residential neighborhood. Its mass transit also includes a metro, dedicated bus lanes and, beginning recently, light rail.

In Wisconsin, where Bob and I are from, one of Governor Scott Walker’s first acts was to reject the federal government’s $810 million subsidy for high-speed rail. It’s impossible not to ask why this city in a supposedly “developing” country is so far ahead of some places in the United States, including my own city of Milwaukee.

The gondola/metrocable system in the San Javier neighborhood (Comuna 13.)

It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon—every day seems like spring in Medellín, where daytime temperatures hover in the seventies the entire year. Carolina Andrea Ramírez, a high-energy thirty-four-year-old single mother of Afro-Indigenous descent, is taking us on a tour of Comuna 8 in the city’s eastern hills.

Medellín, whose 2.4 million residents make it Colombia’s second largest city, has sixteen Comunas, or sections of the city. Comuna 8, with a population of about 135,000 people, is one of the poorer sections.

Ramírez was born in Comuna 8, lived on the streets from fourteen to twenty-eight years old, and now lives again in Comuna 8 with her mother and two teenage sons. About a year ago, she formed a local nonprofit, Corazón de Leon (Heart of the Lion), which focuses on “providing another option than drugs for young people,” such as art, music, sports, and Saturday afternoon classes.

On this particular day, we meet Ramírez beneath the construction of a gondola transit system that is to begin in Comuna 8 next year. We walk up, the roads giving way to stairs, which give way to dirt paths. As we hike, we pass homes that many might dismiss as shanties. Before long we enter a green-belt area with “eco-parks,” playgrounds, organic garden plots, and a cobblestone-like path to the top of a hill known as Pan de Azúcar (Sugar Bread), which has one of the best views of Medellín.

The projects are part of El Jardín Circunvalar, loosely translated as The Circular Garden, which in turn is part of a green belt being built in Medellín’s hills. As we walk, I try to think of a similar, multi-faceted project in a poor Milwaukee neighborhood, especially a publicly funded and controlled project. I can’t.

What come to mind are the Civilian Conservation Corps projects of the New Deal. Like those projects, El Jardín Circunvalar focuses not just on the final project, but on providing jobs; of the roughly 780 people employed in building the project, 600 were neighborhood residents. The plaque commemorating the opening of an eco-park in Comuna 8 lists not just the usual government officials involved, but also the names of the workers.

Three years ago, the eco-parks, playgrounds, garden plots, and stone path to Pan de Azúcar did not exist. They reflect what is termed “social urbanism” in Medellín, which refers to comprehensive, holistic public projects that link public transit to green-space to libraries, cultural projects, parks, sports facilities, schools, and daycare centers.

These efforts have drawn international recognition, including a 2013 “Green Prize” from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a 2012 “Innovative City of the Year” award from the Wall Street Journal and Citi. But what makes Medellín stand out is that its most ambitious projects have been in poorer neighborhoods.

Government-sponsored websites explain the city’s projects, invariably in glowing terms. But I wanted to get the perspective of a local resident. Bob and I return to Comuna 8.

As we sit on a hill overlooking Medellín, Ramírez explains that “everything in Medellín is very complicated.” Echoing a widely held belief in a country infamous for political corruption, she believes that all politicians “are rats.” The difference, she says, “is that in Medellín the rats are also doing good things.”

Asked for specifics, she mentions improvements in education, in daycare centers for working mothers, in public parks, in the gondola that is being built. “Most of the people in Comuna 8 work far away, so the transit is very important,” she says.

But, she adds, it’s more than the specific projects; her experience living on the streets taught her the importance of believing in a better future. “Now,” she says, “there is more hope. There are smiles on the faces of the children.”

Carolina Ramírez in the hills of Comuna 8, overlooking Medellín.

When Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, Medellín was in disarray. Besides the violence, the city was sharply segregated. Entire neighborhoods were considered “no-go zones,” dangerous for residents and visitors alike. There was a growing consensus that Medellín, an industrial and economic linchpin of the entire country, had to change.

The push for a new Medellín got a significant boost with the opening of the metro in 1995. But the election of reformer Sergio Fajardo as mayor in 2003 was a watershed, and Fajardo has become an iconic symbol of Medellín’s transformation. Even today, political candidates seek votes by proclaiming: “I am a Fajardista.”

Fajardo is a charismatic professor and journalist turned politician who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a doctorate in mathematics in 1984. He was elected as part of a civic movement independent of the major parties.

Fajardo’s status is partly due to the pace of change during his mayoral term from 2004 to 2007, before he went on to become governor of the state of Antioquia. Most important, Fajardo and his civic movement disrupted the normal way of doing business in Medellín. They weren’t interested in showcasing architecture or splashy projects designed to give Medellín a new international image. They saw architecture, design, and innovation as tools of social transformation.

Upon taking office, Fajardo highlighted three main problems: inequality, violence, and a culture of corruption. He pledged a commitment to education, transparency and anti-corruption, and the importance of public spaces and civic involvement. Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas,” he noted.

The electric escalators in Comuna 13.
Some of the many projects initiated during Fajardo’s administration include rebuilding the city’s Botanical Gardens (which are free); building and renovating schools; expanding public parks and plazas; completing and extending the gondola system; and developing library parks, which combine libraries with green space, a concept that has since spread to other Latin American countries. Many of the projects were developed with input from publicly funded community councils.

One of the many murals in the areas surrounding the escalators.

Homes in Comuna 13, just above the escalators.
In Medellín’s San Javier district, up the hill from the metro station in Comuna 13, is a library park “Parque Biblioteca Presbítero José Luis Arroyave,” named after a priest who advocated for peace and was gunned down by paramilitary forces in 2002. Murals along the street give way to a winding path and green space, which give way to an organic garden, sculptures and, at the top, the library’s entrance. Inside, the complex is part library and part community center, with initiatives ranging from young children’s art projects to an oral history project involving long-time neighborhood residents.

Today, Comuna 13 is known for its range of innovative public projects. But it has a darker history. In a country where military/paramilitary/rebel/gang/drug violence has been the norm for more than half a century, the neighborhood holds special significance as the site of Colombia’s most infamous military invasion of an urban area—Operation Orion, in 2002.

At the time, Comuna 13 lacked even the pretense of government control. Leftwing rebels had gained a foothold and provided a semblance of oversight, but were constantly under attack from military and right-wing paramilitary forces. In October 2002, Colombia’s conservative president ordered a military offensive to oust the rebels. Thousands of soldiers and police attacked, supported by armed helicopters in the air and paramilitary forces on the ground. The area’s roughly 100,000 residents were caught in the crossfire. After a week of intense fighting and house-to-house searches, right-wing paramilitaries took control of the neighborhood.

No one knows exactly how many people died in the attack and its aftermath but figures range upwards of seventy people. Several hundred were injured, many of them civilians. During and after the offensive, the paramilitaries adopted a practice of “disappearing” people suspected of leftist sympathies. Estimates of “disappeared” civilians range as high as 300 people.

Today, Comuna 13 is home to not only the library park but also the metro, gondola, escalators and increased social, education and cultural services. Street-level murals at the base of the library park speak to the neighborhood’s history. The art is stunning and the messages are clear. “No more military intervention,” says one mural. “We are Comuna 13, where memory and life are present,” says another. Referring specifically to the disappeared, one of the murals pointedly asks: “Where are they? Truth, justice, and reparations.”

Murals near the Library Park in Comuna 13

Comuna 13 is just one example of how the Medellín of 2015 is significantly different from the Medellín of 1995. Foreign investors have taken note. Adding to Medellín’s history as an industrial center, the city’s tech sector is now the third largest in Latin America. Hoping to take advantage of Medellín’s increasingly educated but still low-paid workforce, companies such as Google, Facebook, and IBM have set up shop.

Some critics have dismissed Medellín’s changes as window-dressing that leaves basic structures intact. Cocaine is still a big business. Unemployment, drugs, and gangs remain huge problems. Poverty has decreased, but the gap between the rich and poor has increased.

Still, there is no denying the progress and the disruption of business as usual. And at a time when privatization and public dollars for private projects dominate government initiatives across the globe, Medellín is an anomaly.

Where will it lead? Nobody knows for sure. For now, Medellín’s past and the promise of a new future co-exist; the outcome is not clear.

San Antonio Plaza, in the city’s downtown, provides an apt symbol.

Botero's two birds in the San Antonio Plaza in downtown Medellín.

In 1995, a bomb was placed in the plaza inside a ten-foot bird sculpture by Fernando Botero, a well-known Medellín artist. The bombing killed an estimated thirty people who were attending a music festival at the plaza and injured hundreds more. No one claimed responsibility and no one was ever arrested.

The destroyed artwork was left standing, a reminder of Medellín’s history of violence. In 2000, Botero made a new sculpture similar to the original, calling it “Homage against Stupidity.” The two birds stand side by side.

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based writer and photographer.

This article originally appeared in the December-January issue of The Progressive magazine. The Progressive has been writing about issues of peace and social justice since 1909. To subscribe, go to: www.progressive.org

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Dream Deferred

ZIP CODE 53206 is often dismissed as the poorest and most troubled neighborhood in Milwaukee. But the labels overlook the everyday lives of the people who make it their home.

A glimpse beyond the stereotypes.

Stories and Photos by Barbara J. Miner. 
Milwaukee Magazine, February 2015.

On a spectacularly sunny afternoon in October, I approach a gorup of people along Hopkins Avenue on Milwaukee's North Side. 

I walked the streets and talked to residents, community advocates and religious leaders for several months. It didn’t take long to realize 53206 is more complicated than I had thought. It also became clear that trust is a huge issue. And not just because of the ever-present racial tensions in Milwaukee, one of the country’s most segregated metropolitan regions. The residents of 53206 may have differing opinions on issues such as police/ community relations, parental responsibility and Milwaukee schools, but distrust of the city’s major newspapers, television and radio stations – “the white media” – is rampant.

Follow the mainstream media for any time, especially talk radio and television, and one begins to understand the distrust. More often than not, Milwaukee’s central city is portrayed as a black ghetto filled with victims and villains,

They are wary, and I am nervous. I explain that I am working on a story about the 53206 ZIP code. “Oh, you want to write about all us poor people,” one woman on the sidewalk says. Her sarcasm is unmistakable, and I also detect anger and disgust. She walks away.

I turn to two young people sitting on a nearby porch. They intro­duce themselves as Andrea and Berrion. I joke about the problems of a white person walking around 53206 and asking questions. But, I add, I am a gray-haired older woman and hopefully not mistaken for a cop.

As Berrion and Andrea remind me, an unknown white person may be greeted warily even if they aren’t a cop. I could be with child protective services. Or a reli­ gious proselytizer. I’m not even sure of all the possibilities.

What I do know is that 53206 is often written off as Milwaukee’s poorest ZIP code, an epicenter of drugs, violence and joblessness. But it is also home to some 29,000 people – more than the cities of Stevens Point or Superior.

For almost 30 years, I have lived in Riverwest in 53212, east of 53206. I get frustrated with people who look only at the numbers – the crime, the poverty – and assume that I live in a “bad” neighborhood. Spurred partly by that divide between perception and reality, I began working on this story on 53206 with one main focus: Look beyond the stereo­types. What might you find?

I walked the streets and talked to residents, community advocates and religious leaders for several months. It didn’t take long to realize 53206 is more complicated than I had thought. It also became clear that trust is a huge issue. And not just because of the ever-present racial tensions in Milwaukee, one of the country’s most segregated metropolitan regions. The residents of 53206 may have differing opinions on issues such as police  community relations, parental responsibility and Milwaukee schools, but distrust of the city’s major newspapers, television and radio stations – “the white media” – is rampant.

Follow the mainstream media for any time, especially talk radio and television, and one begins to understand the distrust. More often than not, Milwaukee’s central city is portrayed as a black ghetto filled with victims and villains, good guys and bad guys, all caught in a web of murder, mayhem and government handouts. There are few stories of everyday people doing their best, just like folks in Wauwatosa or West Bend, to earn a living, raise a family and find some happiness in life. People like Warren and Shirley Harper, Patrice Townsend, Lester Carter Jr. and countless others in 53206.

Warren, hanging out at his favorite spot along Green Bay Blvd.

Warren Harper is the 81-yearold owner of Warren’s Lounge on Hopkins Avenue, just east of the now-defunct A.O. Smith complex that once churned out auto and truck frames by the thousands. He is a sports fanatic partial to the Green Bay Packers, an avid card player partial to Spades, and a kind and gentle host who speaks his mind. 

On one of my visits, Warren explains that his wife, Shirley, is not there because she had cataract surgery and has had to go to the hospital twice. 

“Twice?” I ask, surprised. “I hope everything’s OK.”

“Of course twice,” Warren says. “She has two eyes, one right and one left.”

The laugh is on me. But it’s good-hearted.

For many white people, walking or driving around 53206 presents many reasons to be uneasy, even during the day. Too many businesses are closed or have imposing metal bars and padlocks. The corner grocery stores are small, with a plethora of liquor and cigarette advertisements and notices for the govern­ment-funded WIC and Quest food programs – all telling you that, no, this wouldn’t be like walking into a Pick ’n Save. And what about that group of young men on the street corner? Should you worry? Sometimes, the answer might be “yes” – especially at night, when even neighborhood residents take precautions. But what happens when fear becomes the dominant response, all day, every day, even when there is no reason to be afraid?

The first time I visited Warren’s Lounge, a friend had invited me. But it was still intimidating, and not only because of the small, dark doorway and the fact that all the buildings across the street had long ago been abandoned. What kind of tavern has a heavy metal grate on a locked door with a bell that must be rung to get in?

Once inside, however, Warren’s reminded me of “Cheers.” Even if they don’t know your name, they’ll treat you well. I soon understood why people routinely travel in from outlying ZIP codes and suburbs to spend a few hours at the lounge.

And the doorbell and locked front door? I ask Warren, assuming it had to do with being robbed. “It was kids being mischievous,” War­ren explains. During the summer, kids would open the door, throw a tomato or egg, laugh and run away. By the time Warren ran after them, they were long gone. The doorbell solved the problem.

Warren tries to be at the bar seven days a week, beginning in the afternoon. Shirley opens up at 7 a.m. and works five days a week till noon. More often than not, Warren is wearing his 2011 Green Bay Packers Super Bowl hoodie, while Shirley prefers her Wisconsin Bad­gers sweatshirt. They’ve been married 59 years, with four children and nine grandchildren. One of their sons died last winter after a series of illnesses exacerbated by diabetes. It’s been hard on them.

Warren and Shirley moved to Milwaukee in 1957, part of the Great Migration of African-American farmers and sharecroppers traveling north in search of jobs and a better life. They moved to North 26th Street in 1963, the first black family in a neighborhood dominated by Jewish and German residents. Their home skirts the eastern edge of the 30th Street Industrial Corridor in 53216, which, in its heyday, employed many of the neighborhood’s residents and spawned a host of businesses nearby. They bought the bar in 1970, a chance for Warren to do more than work in the city’s tanneries.

“Business was really booming, and we had fun,” Shirley says. Facto­ry workers would stop in for a quick lunch of chicken or a burger, or relax at the bar after their shift. When the Green Bay Packers played at Milwaukee County Stadium, which they did until 1994, players would often stop by Warren’s.

“And now it’s all gone,” Shirley says. “First A.O. Smith left, and then Tower. For a while, we had the train, but now even that’s gone.” (Talgo Inc. had moved in to build modern trains. But the company left after Gov. Scott Walker rejected federal funds for rail travel, and the Re­publican- led Legislature canceled Talgo’s contract with the state.) 

Warren and Shirley’s son, Warren Jr. – called Wayne by everyone except his dad – retired after 30 years in the U.S. Air Force and recently visited his parents. He worries about the ZIP code’s demise. “I could take a picture in Turkey, or other places, and you would say, ‘Oh, that’s the Third World,” he says. “But you take pictures here, it’s similar. And we are in the United States.”

The problem goes deeper than the neighborhood’s loss of factories. “There’s investment out
there, and there are jobs,” Wayne says. “But they’re in New Berlin or Waukesha. There’s no bus, so how are people going to get there?”

At the same time, Wayne considers the neighborhood his first and favorite home. When he walks past the red brick building on the corner of 26th and Keefe, he can’t help but remember the German bakery where he bought donuts for a nickel. He has a home in New Mexico, but his wife passed last June and his two children, one a lawyer and the other in law school, have their own lives. He sometimes thinks about moving back to Milwaukee.

“People think I’m crazy,” he admits.

Shirley and Warren, meanwhile, don’t plan to close the lounge. It’s their life. Their children and younger relatives have pushed them to bring in hip-hop bands in addition to the jazz and blues bands that occasionally play there. In September, Vet Spencer, 40, opened up PoGurl Cafe in the back of the lounge, serving everything from soul food to tacos, seven days a week.

“We struggling, but we’re still here,” Shirley says.

Asked what would help the ZIP code most, Shirley has a half-century of experience behind her answer. “We need some businesses,” she says. “People can’t have a job if there aren’t businesses. Back in the day, we had everything we needed, including a George Webb’s. But now, even the corner mailboxes are gone.”

Granny's, 19th and Teutonia Ave.

ZIP codes, established in the 1960s as part of a national system to deliver mail efficiently, also evolved into a profiling system for marketing, real estate and data collection. (ZIP, an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan, was chosen to imply speedy delivery.) 53206, with a perimeter of almost nine miles, runs from North Avenue to Capitol Drive on the north, and from Interstate 43 to 27th Street on the west. It is home to such historical landmarks as Union Cemetery; St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, the state’s oldest African-American congregation; and Borchert Field, which hosted the minor league Brewers baseball team from 1902 to 1952. Made obsolete when County Stadium was built in 1953, Borchert Field was demolished to make way for I-43.

The ZIP code includes distinct neighborhoods, from Franklin Heights to Amani to Arlington Heights. Sections near Capitol Drive were once a stronghold of the black middle class, with stately brick homes. Farther south, it’s not unusual to find two homes on a lot, one off the alley and another fronting the street. Some 97 percent of the ZIP code’s residents are African-American. 

Overall, the statistics are sobering. According to a recent report on 53206 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development, only 36 percent of working-age males in the area are employed. The poverty rate for children is about 66 percent. Although the percentage of people with high school diplomas and college degrees increased significantly between 2000 and 2012, median household income declined during the same period. On average, workers in 53206 have longer commutes than other Milwaukee workers, and rely more on public transportation. 53206 has also been shaped by the war on drugs, which morphed into mass incarceration policies that disproportionately imprison African-American men. Today, Wisconsin locks up a higher percentage of black men (1 in 8) than any other state, in a country that incarcerates more people than any other nation. Most of the

African-Americans jailed in Wisconsin come from Milwaukee's poorest ZIP codes, 53206 in particular.

It is politically acceptable to attribute the problems of 53206 to an inner-city culture that has abandoned a sense of personal responsibility. Last March, for instance, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) said in a radio interview that there is a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular…[of] generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” 

The statistics belie Ryan’s remarks. Spend any time in 53206, and the question soon arises: Who has abandoned whom?

Leaving aside the loss of family-supporting manufacturing jobs, consider: There are no public libraries in 53206. No major parks. No Walmart, Kohl’s, Home Depot or Ace Hardware. No prominent restaurants, not even a McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Burger King. No Jewel-Osco, Sentry, Aldi or Pick ’n Save, with only a small Lena’s grocery off Fond du Lac and Meinecke. Child care centers, which have a median hourly wage of $8.64, are the fastest-growing business. Social service agencies have made a commitment to the area, but charity is not an economic development strategy.

Even the feds seem to be abandoning 53206. The U.S. Post Office, still in operation on Teutonia Avenue, stands small and forlorn, with cracks in the foundation and red brick walls. No one has bothered to fix the broken window facing the street.

I am about to enter a meeting at St. Matthew C.M.E. (Christian Methodist Episcopal), and I hear a friendly voice. “Hey, white lady. How you doing?”

I look over and see Cheryl Smith, whom I had met two days earlier at the church’s Sunday morning meal program.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Smith quickly adds, worried I might be offended at her spontaneous hello.

“No worries,” I respond. She has perfectly captured how I often feel in 53206.

Throughout the fall and early winter, I talked with Smith several times and she came to laugh about her “white lady” comment. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can call you Ms. Barbara,” she says.

Smith, 54, moved to 12th and Chambers streets four years ago, attracted by the area’s low rents: “I live in this ZIP code because, frankly, I can’t afford to live anywhere else.” She had been an office worker processing insurance claims, but chronic cardiopulmonary problems forced her to go on disability. “Trying to balance with that one disability check of $900 every month, that doesn’t go a long way,” she says.

The last few years have not been easy for Smith. In addition to losing her job, she and her husband separated, and he is now incarcerated. But she is thankful for St. Matthew’s. “It’s a good place to start
to get back on your feet,” she says.

Located on Ninth Street off Locust Street, St. Matthew’s is best known as home of the Community Brainstorming Conference, held monthly since 1986 to discuss concerns within the African-American

community. In recent years, many members of St. Matthew’s have moved outside the ZIP code. The building is old and the issue came up: Should the congregation rebuild or move? “It was a very short discussion,” says the pastor, Rev. Richard Shaw. “The church members want to stay here in service to the community.”

Through St. Matthew’s, I also met LaVale Henry, who lives nearby and works part-time at the church in security and maintenance. He also has part time jobs in landscaping and home repair, and helps
out his father, who is on dialysis.

Henry, 44, attended Madison High School, dropped out and soon found himself in trouble with the law. “I had been in gangs since I was 14,” he says. “I was in and out of prison three or four times. You know, gang-related stuff, fights. Silly stuff.”

Henry remembers his epiphany. He was 33 years old and serving time in the state prison at Waupun. One day, he watched an old man slowly and carefully walking with a cane. “I made a vow to myself that day,” Henry says, “that I would get out of prison and never come back. I was not going to die in that place.”

After prison, Henry got his high school equivalency degree through MATC, where he also took classes for a certificate as an appliance technician. He is hopeful about his future. But he looks at today’s youth and sees a younger version of himself. It worries him.

“There’s nothing here for the youth to do,” he says. “And when there’s no future and nothing to do, what happens? You get in trouble.”

Similar concerns – will our children get in trouble? Will they be safe? – haunt parents throughout 53206. There is a higher percentage of children 18 years and younger in the ZIP code, compared to Milwaukee County. In addition, roughly 64 percent of all families in 53206 are single-parent families headed by women, double the county average. Women such as Marquita and Melissa Smith.

Twin sisters, Marquita and Melissa were born 30 years ago at a time when factories began disappearing from Milwaukee and instability became the new norm. From the ages of 5 to 15 years, the twins’ family moved about 18 times. They were evicted four times, lived in four different shelters, and attended six different schools. The one constant was the support they found at Hephatha Lutheran Church at 17th and Locust streets.

Two years ago, Marquita got the chance to buy a home near Hephatha through Habitat for Humanity. She was nervous, but determined. “If my childhood struggles taught me anything, it’s that I never want my kids to experience Some of the things I did,” she wrote in a statement celebrating the Habitat program.

Ever since she was 16 years old, Marquita has had a job. For the last nine years, she has worked at the Aldi grocery store on 67th and Capitol Drive. Working is a matter of dignity and survival, and helps offset decisions she made when she was younger that, she admits, “I am not proud of.” Marquita has four children, ranging in ages from almost 2 years old to 11. She remains close to their father, who often stays at the home.

Melissa and her two children, ages 8 and 9, moved in with Marquita after an electrical fire in her rented flat about a year ago. A beautician, Melissa also works part time in a parent project at the Hopkins Lloyd Community School a few blocks away. The twins don’t dream of being rich or famous. They just want their children to be safe and have a better childhood than they had. “My dream is for my children to grow up without a lot of crime around them,” Melissa says, “for them to finish school without bullying, and to have positive role models.”

Cinammon,  near 23rd and Chambers.

North Division High School, located on 10th and Center streets, has always reflected the neighborhood’s demographics and dreams. Golda Meier, the late prime minister of Israel, graduated from North Division in 1915. Vel Phillips, who holds so many “firsts” as an African-American woman that it is hard to keep track, is a 1942 graduate. U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore graduated from North in 1969.

On a recent Monday afternoon, I talk with North Division students in a social studies class who are studying 53206 as part of a geography unit. There are about 12 students, slightly more young women than men. It doesn’t take long for differences to emerge.

“The police, I can’t explain it, but they don’t like black people,” says Rueben.

“That’s not true,” D-Andrea replies.

“I agree with him,” Teyonda says, nodding toward Rueben. “The police don’t help us.”

The back and forth escalates: “They’re just doing their job….” “People can be innocent and still get intimidated by the police….” “Why did they kill that guy Downtown?”

Before long, the discussion is at an impasse. Roderick Rush, the teacher, switches topics. What might the future hold for 53206?

“It ain’t got no future,” says one young man.

“Nothing’s going to change, ’cause nobody cares,” another says.

Finally, D-Andrea, one of the more outspoken students, has had enough. “If you’re not going to try to make the change we need, and put in the effort, then just shut up,” she says. “And don’t complain.”

Soon, it’s D-Andrea against three of the boys. The teacher again steps in, and I ask a question: If you were interviewed on television about the ZIP code, what would you want people to know?

The sharp differences yield to a common plea.

“Notice that we are here, that, like you, we are human, and we deserve the same things you want.”

“We got talent, all of us in the ZIP code. People need to see that.”

Later that night, I think about the discussion and how many of the young men said they lack hope. A poem by Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” written in 1951, comes to mind.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

In the 1960s, moving to 53206 especially the more affluent north end was a step up, a chance to move away from the inner core just north of Downtown. By the late 1980s, that was no longer the case, as factory jobs disappeared and whites moved to the suburbs.

Living conditions got worse with the nationwide collapse of the housing market in 2007, triggered by predatory and subprime lending practices. In 2008, as the recession escalated, unemployment grew and foreclosures skyrocketed. As with deindustrialization, 53206 was forever changed by decisions made in banks and boardrooms far removed from Milwaukee.

Overall, the foreclosure crisis in Milwaukee was not as bad as in some cities. “But the foreclosures were concentrated in certain areas, making the impact greater than one might think,” notes Maria Prioletta from Milwaukee’s Department of City Development (DCD). One of those areas was 53206.

The perception is that the housing bubble affected people who perhaps should not have bought a home in the first place, Prioletta adds. “But a lot of the people who lost their homes in 53206 were long-time owners. They were the backbone of the neighborhood.”

The area near 24th and Burleigh is an example of how the foreclosure crisis has altered neighborhoods and made progress difficult. In 2005, the Children’s Outing Association (COA) opened a 54,000-square-foot facility at 2320 N. Burleigh St. Among its amenities: three full-sized gyms, an arts room and performing arts studio, computer labs, a family resource center and a medical clinic. It’s a terrific facility.

But the housing bubble burst two years after the complex opened. Today, if you walk along the north side of Burleigh from COA to 25th Street, there are six boarded-up homes and two more appear unoccupied. By the time you finish your walk, the shine is off the COA facility.

In 53206, there are 7,052 residential properties with one to four units, according to DCD figures. Since 2007, about 30 percent have had foreclosure filings, and about half of those have been sold in sheriff sales. Currently, more than 10 percent of the ZIP code’s properties are vacant, according to city figures.

Seen in this context, perhaps the real story of 53206 is in the people who remain committed to the neighborhood and refuse to give up.

One of the many homes in 53206 devastated by the foreclosure crisis.

Patrice Townsend is parent coordinator at Milwaukee Public School’s Auer Avenue, a K4-8 elementary school. She is getting ready to escort a group of young students to their after-school transportation. She touches base with each student.

“LaQuan, how was your day?” she asks. “Good, OK, or not so good?”

“It was OK,” LaQuan answers.

“Well, I’ll give you something because you were honest with me,” Townsend says, “and maybe tomorrow will be better.” She hands him a foil-wrapped piece of chocolate.

Townsend, 47, has lived on 24th Place south of Burleigh since third grade. She attended Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, one of a handful of African-Americans at the school, and graduated in 1985. Ever since, she’s worked in child care and elementary education.

Townsend lives in the same house where she grew up. She can close her eyes and, one by one, list her neighbors. There are the Lees across the street, and the Turks, the Mitchells, the Davis family and the Bufords, whose son Rodney played in the NBA. The Simpsons, who live next door, moved in about the same time as her family. 

She’s never been robbed and knows of only one house on the block that has been burglarized, about three years ago. I find that hard to believe. “We watch out for each other,” she says.

About five years ago, Townsend reached a point in her life when she knew she would not have children. She became the foster mother of two children, Ahjah, 12, and Charles, 15. Both have medical problems and had been bounced around the foster care system before living with her.

Of her four siblings and her mother, who lives in a condo out past Mayfair, Townsend is the only one still in the neighborhood.

“My mom gets on me constantly about moving,” she says. “But I won’t. I’m grounded here. I’m connected… I won’t deny it, I hear shootings almost once a week. I hit the floor and call the police. But I still believe that people in our neighborhood are here because they want to be.”

It’s not just her job, her neighbors and her foster children that tie Townsend to 53206. For 28 years, she has worked part time at Carter’s Drugs on 24th and Burleigh, about halfway between Auer Avenue School and her home.

Townsend suggested I stop by Carter’s Drugs to meet her boss, Lester Carter Jr. Known as Dr. Carter to people throughout 53206 and many beyond its borders the pharmacist is a living legend. When I posted a picture of Dr. Carter on Facebook, it generated hundreds of shares and comments. Typical posts: “This man is a sweetheart.” “The neighborhood protects him out of respect.” “When I couldn’t afford a prescription for my son when he was little, Dr. Carter came thru for me. Bless this icon!!!!!!”

Dr. Carter has run Carter Drugs since 1968, when he bought it from a German pharmacist who became one of his best friends. He is called “doctor” in recognition of his knowledge of preventive medicine and herbal products especially his line of pain relief and cough syrups and his willingness to share advice that some customers value more than their physician’s.

Befitting a man who is 83 years old, Dr. Carter is decidedly old-school. He has gentlemanly manners and a quiet speaking voice, and in winter, he sports a knee-length wool coat and an Irish driving cap. When on the job, he wears a “Carter Drug Store” white medical coat, as well as a white shirt and a hand-tied bow tie, usually red.

“I’m one of the few left in the world, it seems, that still ties bow ties,” he says. “Years ago, during senior prom, the young men would be lined up out the front door, waiting for me to tie their ties.”

Dr. Carter loves his job, loves his customers and, make no mistake, loves his neighborhood. “When Channel 4 or Channel 6 come here and ask me if I’m worried about all the crime, I look them right in the eye and I say: ‘This is a beautiful neighborhood.’”

Dr. Carter says he has never had to call the police. There has been occasional shoplifting, but nothing he couldn’t handle, he says. I ask his secret.

“It’s very simple,’ he said. “I made a rule when I first started, that I would treat everyone with respect and courtesy. I don’t care if someone is 2 years old, or 22, or 102. They are Miss so-and-so or Mr. so-and-so.”

Then Dr. Carter tells me a story, one of an endless supply.

“The other day, young man comes in,” he begins.

“‘Remember me?’ the man asks.”
‘“I sure do,’ I tell him. ‘“You were one of the biggest hoods on the street.’”

‘“I’m a preacher now,’ the man says. ‘“And you’re the one that straightened me out.’”

It didn’t hurt that Dr. Carter knew all the parents in the neighborhood and would let mothers know if their children misbehaved. And that Dr. Carter had been in the military and knew how to box.

For almost half a century, Dr. Carter and his wife, Irene, lived upstairs from the store. Irene died in October, and he now lives with his daughter in St. Francis.

Forced by health concerns to cut back, Dr. Carter has turned over the fulfillment of prescriptions and the store’s ownership to Hayat Pharmacy, an independent, Milwaukee-based chain. But his heart remains in 53206. Three days a week, a transit van brings Dr. Carter to 24th and Burleigh, where he is readily available to tell stories, suggest remedies and do whatever he can for his customers.

“Once I get to be 100, I might start thinking about retiring,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, all but daring me to disagree.

Dr. Carter.

In some ways, Carter’s Drugs represents the end of an era, and not only because Dr. Carter bought the store at a time when African-Americans in Milwaukee believed in the promise of a better life. With the sale to Hayat Pharmacy, yet another black-owned business is gone.

The future of 53206 is unclear. And if there’s any nationwide lesson to be learned from the past several months, it is the fragility of social relations in our unequal and divided metropolitan areas.

As I finished this article, the Langston Hughes poem kept echoing
in my mind: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Closer to home, one particular conversation I had stands out. Clayborn Benson, head of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society at 26th and Center and a former photojournalist at WTMJ 4, talked about how the media and powers-that-be are always asking people in 53206 the same question: “Aren’t you fed up with the shootings?” It’s a meaningless question, Benson said, because the answer is obviously yes.

“What people really need to be asking is, ‘Do you want this job that we have for you?’” he said. “And that would make all the difference. The difference is a job.” ■

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer.