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Martin Luther King Drive: Looking Back…Moving Forward

by Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle Stores on King Dr.

Driving down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive today, one encounters a world of contrast and contradictions. The neglected remnants of what used to be, next to glimmers of hope on the north end… the concentrated hustle and bustle at the intersection of North Avenue and King Drive… the economic promise arising from the south end. The Victory over Violence Park and the colorful mural at Clarke Street, a powerful symbol that illustrates the dream of what the area could be. Many area residents have a soulful connection to King Drive and are anticipating its revival. Formerly known as Third Street, it is the center where African-Americans first settled in Milwaukee and was once a hub of thriving businesses, owned and operated mostly by Milwaukee’s European immigrants. Eddie JacksonIt was a high business area,” says Eddie Jackson, a lifetime Milwaukee resident. He has witnessed and been a part of the changes of King Drive. “I shopped there at least once a week! We had lots of black and white people shopping together. Blacks owned bars on the lower end of Third Street.” Jackson recalls fine retail stores existing alongside five and dime joints. “There was a lil’ something for everybody.” Mary Ann LenzMary Ann Lenz moved to Keefe Ave, just off Third Street when she married in 1956. She says her neighborhood was integrated and people took pride in their homes. Kept things up. Naturally, she shopped on what was then Third Street. “Saturdays were so crowded. There was a mixture of people shopping,” she exclaims. Reflecting on bargain meals at Third Street’s cafes: “People would stand behind you while you ate at the counter so they could get your seat next.” That’s just how busy it use to be. Schuster’s had a nicer restaurant upstairs, but Lenz couldn’t afford to eat up there. Most of her memories are fond ones. As a child she enjoyed the Schuster’s Christmas parade that featured live reindeer. “It was a thriving neighborhood. I used to work at a five and dime store…you remember the places, but forget the names…all kinds of grocery stores, butcher shops, jewelers.” Upscale department stores had bargain basements. Lenz worked during the summer on Third Street and was able to put nice school clothes on layaway at places such as Gimbles and Lerners. Garfield Park was known for ice skating. And when asked of segregation, she replies passionately, “Everybody skated there…Most of the business owners were white, but later on, blacks had shops too.” King Drive is home to several historical buildings To the newcomer driving down the street, it may be hard to imagine such a vibrant strip ever existed. While there are still a few establishments for night time entertainment, a handful of fast food places, retail stores, and specialty shops, it is not the Grand Street it used to be. Lucille Barrien“Sunday evenings were for dancing!” shares Lucille Barrien, a Milwaukee resident since 1953 and the first African-American and woman to run for Mayor of Milwaukee. “Folks put on their finery…looked good and you didn’t have to go downtown to spend your money. You spent it right here where you lived.” “Most black owners had night clubs and taverns. All up and down Walnut Street there were fish markets, restaurants and barber shops.” Reminiscing with a smile full of pride. Things changed. Not all memories bring smiles. The deterioration of King Drive is a passionate issue. Civil Rights movement activity in Milwaukee brought about Third Street’s name change, but it is also blamed by some for the economic despair the street has experienced for decades. King Dr.The summer of 1967 is viewed by many as the key element in its demise. On the night of July 30, amid mounting racial tensions centered around the push for open and fair housing, a skirmish erupted because someone allegedly threw a rock through a window, and the area became plagued with unrest that turned into what people refer to as the Milwaukee riots. Mayor Henry Maier imposed a curfew that lasted several days. Jackson, who is a retired food and beverage director and army veteran, no longer makes his weekly trip to King Drive. “The riot happened and killed everything,” he said. Jackson was “caught up” in the riot. Driving home from his job at the Pfister Hotel, he found himself in the middle of the fighting and had to spend the night in a friend’s basement because of the imposed curfew. He believes the redevelopment that is occurring on the southern end of King Drive is a good thing, especially if it will provide jobs for residents and nice places to shop. Equal opportunity if you have the money. North King Dr.Barrien, who describes herself as a Black revolutionist, puts it this way: “After that so-called riot, blacks were blamed for the deterioration of Third Street, but you can’t blame people for something they didn’t have in the first place.” Barrien’s reflections are heated with the pulse of those times. On the night of the riot she was at a civil rights meeting in the neighborhood. There had been some warning of what was to come. She suggests that perhaps the “riot” was organized by city officials to rebuild and push black people out. Without hesitation she expresses her view of the development and “rejuvenation” in the works, benefiting only a few privileged people. “They are not redeveloping for black folks. Black folks are going to have to move.” Lenz moved out of the neighborhood in 1968. “Little by little everything moved out.” King Drive was no longer a destination. “Blacks and whites moved out of the neighborhood. But [King Drive] is coming back now.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 2 – February 2003 468x60_justinbua