“Harambee” is a Kenyan word. During Kwanzaa, each evening a candle with a special significance is lit by the leader of the ceremony. Then everyone says something about what the candle symbolizes–unity, for instance, on the first evening of Kwanzaa. Then the leader shouts “Harambee!” (hah-rahm-BEH) which means “Let’s all pull together.” Everyone else shouts it, and then they drink from the unity cup.

Bean Head CafeI was at Bean Head Cafe on MLK Drive yesterday for the first time with the pastor of my church, All People’s. The church is a block east of King on Clarke, so we were both pleased to see a local business owned and operated by young people who are contributing to our neighborhood in a positive way. King Drive has been experiencing new vitality since about 1995, but poverty and all the usual dysfunction that comes with it are still common in the surrounding area, particularly the Harambee neighborhood, which lies between King and Holton. That’s why I want to congratulate the Bean Head crew and wish them well–because of the context of their achievement and aspirations.

You wouldn’t learn anything about that context if you just read onmilwaukee.com’s article about Bean Head–“Bean Head brings relief to Brewer’s Hill coffee drinkers.” When author Sarah Van Harpen writes that “Bean Head’s patrons are a reflection of the diverse Brewers Hill neighborhood, which in addition to long-timers, includes many newcomers thanks to a recent avalanche of home and condo-building,” she’s definitely looking at only one part of the whole picture.

Bean Head is right where Brewer’s Hill meets two historically African-American neighborhoods, Halyard Park (famous for Boobie’s) and Harambee. Both have been economically depressed for a good while, so vibrant new businesses like Bean Head can’t be understood apart from that larger reality. Since Van Harpen doesn’t acknowledge the larger reality, it is easy to get the impression she is stepping around topics a lot of people get anxious about: race and class.

Stepping around touchy topics isn’t good for anyone. When I search for “Harambee” and “Halyard Park” at onmilwaukee.com, I get zero results. How’s that work out for an organization that claims to be “helping Milwaukee help itself” as the city’s “most comprehensive guide?”

For the total picture, you’d learn a lot more from Tanette Johnson-Elie at the Journal Sentinel: “Bean Head is unique in an area where unemployment in the surrounding neighborhoods – from Brown to Locust streets – is as high as 24% and the poverty rate is as high as 45%, according to U.S. census figures…Bean Head is a sign of positive change, and given that you have four young African-Americans who not only are interested in making money but in providing an outlet for people in an underserved market for premium coffee, there’s good reason to support it.”

Johnson-Elie sees what I see right away–businesses like Bean Head are good for Harambee and herald reasons for hope in places where there has been a long-standing hope-deficit. I wish more people understood this in the metro area, and I’m often frustrated that they don’t.

The press doesn’t always help matters. Sadly, when Harambee gets media coverage, it’s usually about something bad that’s happened. For instance, recent Journal Sentinel articles containing the word “Harambee” include a story about a rental building where the mayor did a media spotlight on it in person to shame the landlord. Johnson-Elie and Leonard Sykes recently interviewed Carla Allison, owner of Reader’s Choice Bookstore on King and Brown. Allison is part of King Drive’s comeback, but for her, “the new enterprises are nothing more than a facade masking pockets of poverty to the east and west of the business strip in the Harambee and Northcott neighborhoods.”

Sykes and Johnson-Elie’s article was fittingly, depressingly titled, “Inner city limping along: Losses of families, jobs have hurt says UWM study.” This is a sobering facet of redevelopment we can’t ignore, but I’m with Damon Dorsey, president of the North Avenue Community Development Corporation who responded with the assertion that we have to accentuate the positives as we recognize the negatives: “Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre limped his way to a win over the Miami Dolphins the other day. People say, ‘Man, that Favre is tough’ – and he is. Surely, the Journal Sentinel will print an article about how tough-guy Favre is just ‘limping along.’ But, hey, Brett, if that is the way you play when you’re limping, then limp on.”

At Bean Head I picked up a card that says “Here Comes the Neighborhood!” It announced “An open house for our friends of Halyard Park, Brewer’s Hill, and Riverwest.”

Have you heard of Harambee? They’re our neighbors. I hope they’ll be coming along with the rest of us in Riverwest, Halyard Park, and Brewer’s Hill–wherever it is we’re going. You can’t really leave neighbors behind, can you? And why would you ignore them?

This is an excerpt from Dan Knauss’s Current Media blog.

Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 11 – December 2002