Have you ever walked through a south-side neighborhood and had a sense of its history and mixture of new and old immigrant communities? Have you passed through Halyard Park and been startled to find ranch homes with large yards and few fences in the central city? Exploring and explaining the uniqueness of neighborhoods like these is what Urban Anthropology, Inc. (UrbAn) is all about.

“Anthropologists broaden the public’s understanding of what is possible by raising awareness of what is done cross-culturally.”

Dr. Jill Florence Lackey, PhD. is the executive director of UrbAn. According to its website (www.urban-anthropology.org), UrbAn is “the only non-profit organization in the United States engaged exclusively in the practice of urban anthropology.” An unpaid volunteer for UrbAn, Dr. Lackey teaches in the College of Professional Studies at Marquette University where she directs a new certificate program in applied anthropology. She is also the principal of Jill Florence Lackey & Associates, a firm that does program evaluation and needs assessment. What is Urban Anthropology? It is primarily public anthropology — an effort to use anthropological theory, methods and research to help the public understand urban cultures, constructively address their problems, and celebrate their achievements.

Ivory Abena Black
Ivory Abena Black leads the Bronzeville Tour.

To that end, UrbAn uses the work of students and scholars in many academic disciplines to research communities of people who live or have lived in Milwaukee and who have contributed to its culture. Based on this research, UrbAn has produced a number of video documentaries; some of these have become the basis for cultural tours: The Kashubes of Jones Island, Milwaukee’s African Americans and Memories of Bronzeville, Rhythms in Motion — An African Tradition, and Milwaukee’s Old South Side. Dr. Lackey hopes that, in the future, local businesses will consider using the South Side and African American tours to educate their employees in cross-cultural communication and understanding. “It is one thing to tell people about cultural diversity,” she remarks. “But it is a whole other thing to bring people into the cultural neighborhoods where they can taste their food, listen to their voices, see their homes, and get a general feel for their distinctive neighborhoods.”

DK: How did the tours get started?

JFL: It was one of our early interns, Katy Dineen, and a member of our advisory board at that time, Jim Godsil, who brought us the idea.

Take the African American tour. We get a lot of telephone calls from people interested in the tour but asking if it was really “safe” to go into the central city, and would it be inappropriate for their children to see all the “decay?”

As we considered the idea, we believed it was a good one–it would benefit Milwaukeeans to bring people to these actual neighborhoods. We thought it would be a positive thing if Milwaukee residents actually visited the neighborhoods where the cultural groups we studied lived. It is one thing to watch a documentary on the cultural group of focus. It is a far better thing to have people visit these neighborhoods, eat at their mom/pop restaurants, meet the locals, see the shops and homes and other sites of interest that the cultural groups of focus have developed over the years. We hope to change the stereotypes.

For example, take the African American tour. We get a lot of telephone calls from people interested in the tour but asking if it was really “safe” to go into the central city, and would it be inappropriate for their children to see all the “decay?” In our African American tour, we provide much information about the now extinct “urban village” of Bronzeville and at the same time take people through the beautiful African community of Halyard Park built on the northern tip of the once thriving Bronzeville. (Our tour anthropologist, Abena Black, spends one day a week visiting Beechie Brooks, who developed Halyard Park in its early years by requesting resident donations of $10 a week for a decade.) So many of our tour participants express amazement when they see this community. People see how the past was also re-created through the memories of the older residents in the Lapham Park senior center. This neighborhood we visit has its own aura–Bronzeville had an emphasis on neighbors knowing neighbors. You see this interchange even today as you walk through this area, eat at a soul food restaurant, and visit the Lapham Park center.

“This neighborhood [the South Side] has its own aura–it’s about entrepreneurship at the local family level (both Latino and Polish/Eastern European), and of course, churches.”

We wanted people to visit the “old” South Side neighborhood because people have a stereotype of Southsiders–you’ve heard all the jokes. We take people again to the restaurants of the ethnic communities, to the shops of residents whose families have been in the area for many generations. Again, the participants are introduced to the past through the architecture, etc., but more to the current trends in the neighborhood and the common cultural characteristics of the Latinos and Poles. Along the way, tour participants stop and visit a noted Latino architect who has helped preserve the Polish architecture in the neighborhood, and they meet Neil White, who founded the business association. This neighborhood has its own aura–it’s about entrepreneurship at the local family level (both Latino and Polish/Eastern European), and of course, churches. The major cultural theme of the neighborhood is reciprocity, which is explained during the tour. Tour participants learn about the stability of the residents in the area–Puerto Rican/Mexican-American families who have been in the neighborhood for 40 years, Polish families with continuous residence since 1860, etc. Tour participants also learn about the recent ways that the neighborhood has changed. Each neighborhood we study has a very, very different cultural focus.

DK: What projects are you thinking about doing in the future? Anything in Riverwest? Maybe a study of the various countercultural groups that have been here since the late 60s/early 70s?

JFL: During the next two years, we hope to have tours on the “varieties of Latino experience,” the Germans (including the socialist movement), and hopefully, the Hmong. We have a Hmong documentary and really want to do a Hmong tour. We have even discussed this with a Hmong anthropologist. Right now our constraints are those of “space.” We cannot rent buses for our tours, as the price would be prohibitory. We need to have areas of a mile or less for a walking tour that include major sites of interest of the ethnic group, a sizable settlement of the ethnic group, and an ethnic restaurant. Some cultural groups, like the Hmong, have pockets of settlement areas in diverse parts of the city and do not have all these features in one area. We are really seeking a good site for this one. The logistic problem — and our ability to attract participants–will determine which tours emerge in the near future.

We have the Riverwest cultural history scheduled to begin in spring semester of 2005. Each semester we get 4-8 anthropology interns that help conduct the studies. We usually take a year to do our cultural history projects, and always have several going on simultaneously. We would very much like to focus on the countercultural movements and their impacts on the Riverwest neighborhood. I raised my children in Riverwest (on Fratney) when they were in their teens and early adulthood, and I have deep roots in the neighborhood. The owners of the West Bank Cafe and COA gave my disabled son his first jobs. My daughter hung out at the local west bank pubs and rented her first apartment in Riverwest. My brother was something of a countercultural leader in the area during the early 70s–he had a head shop at the far west end of Brady. (Not that I’m in any way championing his enterprise.) We have it on our schedule to do the next settlement museum in Riverwest, and we’ll try to connect this to the western edge of the lower east side area, as they seem to be culturally integrated.

Just today I am taking a group through the area once settled by the Kashubes around the Brady Street area. We are thus considering a number of settlement groups for the museum–the Hippies surely, possibly the Kashubes, possibly the newer countercultural groups. We’ll see what comes out of our study and what is economically feasible. The museums are contingent on a donation of actual space. We have been ever so blessed by the donation of space by the Rozga funeral home for our south side museum and St. Joe’s hospital for our Sherman Park museums. (However, we still need to get the South Side site re-zoned–so the space is not an absolute until–and if–we get through that process.)

DK: What do you see as distinguishing the tours as anthropological and not merely historical? What do they uniquely offer to tour-goers?

JFL: First of all, cultural traits/practices do not emerge in a vacuum–human populations do not often just “decide” to engage in certain shared practices. Cultural practices emerge as creative adaptations to the external environment. This environment can be physical, social, political, religious, economic, etc. Showing the history of a cultural group is a presentation of those constraints and opportunities to which the group was adapting. For example, our documentaries present information on the history of the group. They then zero in on cultural practices that emerged through adaptation to these constraints and opportunities. They also show how the cultural groups brought forth the “old” into the “new.

For example, the African American documentary discusses the impacts of African practices and the struggle for civil rights on the current African American culture in Milwaukee. The current cultural themes are then discussed in the video. When the tour anthropologist takes the people through the neighborhood, she reminds them of the cultural themes and points out evidence of those themes in the neighborhood the participants are visiting, or in the restaurant where they eat and other sites they visit.

Likewise in the old south side tour. The documentary shows some of the similar historical constraints and opportunities faced by the Poles and Mexican Americans and how these two communities ended up with very similar cultural practices. The tour anthropologist, Michelle Dekutowski, continues to expound on these themes as she takes people through the neighborhood.

DK: Along with the focus on the past, unsurprisingly the UrbAn documentaries I’ve seen (Jones Island and Merrill Park) and similar documentaries by other groups around the US seem to provoke reactions of nostalgia for a lot of people. Why do you think there is this common nostalgia for an ethnic and maybe premodern past? And what do you think people can take from the past constructively in the present?

JFL: I am a great believer in bringing forth the past to inform the future. “Nostalgia” is a common human trait. It just might be a universal human drive. Note, for example, that the origins of nearly all of the religious traditions cross-culturally are embedded in reverence for ancestors and the belief that these ancestors continue to play roles in the present.

“In bringing forth the past to inform the future, one accomplishes much. First, one demonstrates a respect for those that have made sacrifices in the past to bring us to where we are today… Second, you obviously learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. Third, you can follow a path to see how shared cultural practices emerged–it helps answer the question–why are we the way we are today?”

We see this drive manifested all over Milwaukee–in the recreation of Bronzeville in the lower level of the Lapham Park community center and the efforts that various committees are taking through the leadership of Ald. Mike McGee and others right now in the Harambee neighborhood to basically “rebuild” the old Bronzeville.

In the “old” south side neighborhood there is a concerted effort by residents and the Lincoln Avenue business association to preserve the “old” look of the neighborhood. They have been drawing facade and main street grants to restore the storefronts to their original look. You see the popularity of the new Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA) under the leadership of Jean Eske.

In bringing forth the past to inform the future, one accomplishes much. First, one demonstrates a respect for those that have made sacrifices in the past to bring us to where we are today. It is a “good” thing to do. Second, you obviously learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. Third, you can follow a path to see how shared cultural practices emerged–it helps answer the question–why are we the way we are today? Fourth, it explains to some extent why different cultural groups live next door to each other but have limited social interaction with each other. (See Suzanne Zipperer and Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle’s discussion of this topiuc in this issue of the Currents.)

For example, we’ve discovered in our research that some cultural groups have very similar cultural traits–the Latinos and Poles; the African Americans, Jews, and Germans; and there are others. While these communities tend to live relatively harmoniously together in the same neighborhoods, they may not interact much in their informal lives. One of the issues here is that they often do not share the same historical experiences–they do not have these same frames of reference that keep the daily conversations going. We know from our everyday experience that our best friends are likely to be those with whom we share past experiences–perhaps in high school, college, work, etc. We might run across people that seem to be very like us or even share common interests, but when it’s time to just “chill out” with people, we are likely to pick those with whom we share a common history. Likewise with groups that have very close ties to their cultural/subcultural heritage.

Past, Present and Future UrbAn Documentary Projects:

  • The Varieties of Latino Experience (study done/documentary in progress)
  • The Varieties of German Experience (study halfway done/documentary not begun)
  • The Homeless of Milwaukee (100 life histories recorded/documentary not yet funded)
  • The German Socialists (study done–documentary not yet funded)
  • Sherman Park Neighborhood (study in progress/documentary will be scheduled at a future date)

Learn More About UrbAn