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What Does It Mean To Say Riverwest Is Integrated – Is It Really?

by Jackie Reid Dettloff

It was Saturday afternoon when I read the January issue of Riverwest Currents with Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle’s “Living a Life Mosaic: Diversity in Riverwest.” The question, “how shall we live together?” was fresh in my mind the next morning, when I opened the Sunday Journal Sentinel and found the first of several articles on segregation in our city and its surrounding suburbs. Whether one agrees or not with Lois Quinn and John Pawasarat’s definition of an integrated neighborhood as being “20% white and at least 20% black,” the publication of the results of their study has opened a spirited dialogue. I see that as good. For one thing, I think it’s about time that the hyper-segregation of Milwaukee’s suburbs is identified as a social problem. It’s not just our urban census tracts that are blighted. Racism poisons affluent communities as well as struggling ones. On the maps that accompanied the summary of the Quinn-Pawasarat study, the Riverwest neighborhood showed up as pretty successfully integrated. That is not news for readers of this newspaper: part of the reason we live here and not someplace else is that we appreciate diversity. But what does it mean to say that our neighborhood is integrated? My husband and I have deliberately lived in “integrated” Milwaukee neighborhoods for thirty years and yet I have to admit that I’m still not sure what integration looks like. For example, if I go into the Holton Youth Center, I find almost all African Americans. If I go into Fuel Cafe five blocks away, I find all white people. At the Christian Faith Fellowship on the 2000 block of North Holton, 90% of the congregation is black. At St. Casimir’s or St. Mary Czestochowa, you might find one black family among a hundred whites and the Spanish-speakers have their own service two hours after the English-speakers. I do not give these examples to make a judgment but to point out that even in a neighborhood as “diverse” and “integrated” as ours, it is possible for people to have very little personal contact with people of different cultural and linguistic traditions. We have ways of using words and tastes in music, movies, clothes and style that separate us. Tanya put it this way: “Frankly, I need my own identity. I don’t want to blend or fade into the mass.” So how do we live together? That is the question I want to put out. There is a whole cadre of realtors, money-lenders, marketers and politicians who have worked to keep the races apart in the past. It is relatively new that we live side-by-side as neighbors. So I put the question out to other Riverwest Currents readers: where are the places you routinely interact with people of another race? On what occasions do you regularly find yourself reaching past the boundaries that keep you confined to your own kind? I would like to open up a conversation around this topic.

Where Do You Experience Racial Interactions?

I want to follow Tanya’s lead and open up a conversation among Riverwest Currents readers on this topic. For starters I offer a list of places where I regularly interact not just with English-speaking Anglos but with people who come from other traditions. I find it is a relatively short list. OUR street: There is a good mix of renters and home owners on our block. We have a history of getting together for spring clean-ups and organizing night-time trick-or-treating for the kids. On summer days it warms me to see that black kids and white kids ride their bikes, play catch and shoot baskets together. The Post Office: I stand in line with lots of people at the station on MLK Drive. We all have packages to send and bills that we have to get in the mail. We all need stamps. While I’m waiting my turn, I often find myself in short conversations. The Grocery Store: Whether it’s Pueblo Foods at the southern end of Holton or Lena’s at the northern end, whether it’s Jewel-Osco at Humboldt and North or Aldi’s on Capitol Drive, I shop for food with people who have different eating styles from me, but we all want healthy, reasonably-priced food. At the check-out stands as well as in the aisles, there are easy, natural interactions. Escuela Fratney kidsSchool: I don’t know about many schools but I do know that Escuela Fratney, the public elementary school between Concordia and Auer, has a successful mix of hispanics, African-Americans and Anglos. Parents come together because of their shared concern for their children. The curriculum of the school is based on teaching respect for every family’s traditions. I also know that the school has a generous mix of children who get subsidized meals and those who pay full price. Church: I come from the Catholic tradition and don’t know much about other congregations. I know for a fact that the Catholic faith community in Riverwest wants to be more welcoming and reach out beyond their historically Polish base. But that’s not easy. The most successfully integrated Catholic congregation I know of is All Saints on 26th and Capitol. For me, the highlight of the All Saints service comes when the congregation of two or three hundred people stands up for the “Our Father.” In dashikis and Birkenstocks, nappy hair and straight, we all join to say that prayer. When I look around at the circle that we form, I am invariably flooded with a sense of unity. I get the visceral sense that if we are to survive, not to mention thrive, as a city, as a nation, as a species, it is crucial that we join hands like this. Despite all that segregates us, standing together reminds me that in our humanity we are one. Where are you reminded of these things? Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 3 – March 2003