Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Rebuilding a Vibrant Bronzeville

Actor Danny Glover and many local notables celebrate new development anchored by Black Holocaust Museum.

By - Jun 18th, 2018 05:21 pm
The Griot Apartments. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Griot Apartments. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Actor Danny Glover. A live band. Spoken-word poetry. The opening of The Griot building wasn’t your normal Milwaukee ribbon cutting.

The ceremony marked the opening of The Griot apartments, a new building that is joined by the redeveloped Garfield Street School. The $17.7 million project, which includes 71 apartments and 7,900 square-feet of commercial space, was developed by Melissa Goins‘ Maures Development Group and Joshua Jeffers‘ J. Jeffers & Co. It’s the most significant development in Bronzeville since the city created a redevelopment plan for the area in 2005.

And while the two apartment buildings are finished, the project won’t be complete until its anchor tenant moves in. America’s Black Holocaust Museum intends to open in the new building this fall.

The museum, founded by James Cameron in 1988, had closed its doors in 2008 following financial difficulties. Cameron, the only American to ever survive a lynching, back in 1930, had passed away in 2006 and the museum was at a crossroads. The idea stayed alive through the creation of an online museum, and for over five years Goins and Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs have been working to reopen the building.

The building’s name, Griot, reflects a connection to the museum. Griots are West African historians, storytellers, poets or musicians. Reggie Jackson, who leads the new museum, has the title of “head griot.”

Dasha Kelly Hamilton emceed a ceremony Monday morning to celebrate the project’s completion and build support for the museum’s comeback. Offering remarks at the event were James Cameron’s son Virgil Cameron, Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Wyman Winston of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, Barb LaMue of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux and Coggs. Goins and actor Danny Glover ended the presentation with a wide-ranging discussion on social justice and the need for inclusivity.

Marcoux’s speech was particularly passionate, even for the often highly-charged commissioner. “This is an incredible inflection point for our city,” said Marcoux, while ticking off a host of nearby projects including the new Pete’s Fruit Market and the expansion of Gee’s Clippers, all led by people of color. “No other region in the United States has as much wealth outside the city as it has poverty in the city. It is Milwaukee’s time, and the only way we change it is to understand where we have come from so that can serve as a bridge for where we are going to be. If people don’t understand ‘white privilege,’ it’s a good starting point for what that is.” Marcoux also praised Coggs’ drive to see the museum reopen before passing the mic to her.

“When I say this is great for the nation and the world, I mean it,” said Coggs. “There is no greater time than now for the resurgence and reemergence of America’s Black Holocaust Museum,” she added after ticking off a list of recent racial tragedies in the United States.

In her brief remarks, Moore told the audience: “Let me tell you, Vel Phillips would be so pleased.” Phillips, who passed away in April, won’t be forgotten at this development. The building is now located at 2235 N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. as a result of the city renaming N. 4th St. Phillips attended elementary school at what is now the Historic Garfield Apartments.

When it was time for Goins to finally take the stage, after receiving multiple breaks for applause during the leadup speeches, she split the stage with a man that knows something about stealing a scene, Danny Glover. The actor, who serves as UNICEF ambassador and Ambassador for the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, wasn’t on hand to discuss his thoughts on Lethal Weapon or its sequels, but instead gave a frank assessment about the condition of African Americans and other people of color in the United States and beyond.

“Poverty is a political choice,” said Glover. The 71-year-old actor reflected on his time as part of the Black Students Union in San Francisco and the need to always push for equality. “What we do with the most vulnerable is the history we make,” said Glover. He did treat the audience to a little of his award-winning acting ability when he read Langston Hughes‘ poem, “The Trumpet Player,” at Goins’ request, but only as a bridge to discuss the horrors of slavery.

Glover was in attendance as part of his work with Sankofa, a social justice organization founded by Harry Belafonte that seeks to connect influential artists with grassroots partners.

Packed House

Monday morning’s celebration was a who’s who event in the Milwaukee non-profit and real estate world. When asked about the length (the event was scheduled to run nearly three hours), one attendee joked that they could get plenty of work done because of all the people in attendance. Joining Goins, Jeffers, Marcoux and Coggs were hundreds of attendees. Council members Michael Murphy, Nik Kovac and Jose G. Perez joined Coggs in representing the city’s legislative branch, Marcoux was supported by a large group from DCD, political candidates Mahlon Mitchell, Supreme Moore Omokunde and Mandela Barnes were on hand to shake hands and ply for votes, King Rick led a contingent of Black Panthers, LISC’s Donsia Strong Hill was in attendance as was most of her staff, including former executive director Leo Ries, Kip Ritchie led a contingent from project general contractor Greenfire Management Services and Mark Ernst led a group from Engberg Anderson Architects. A large contingent of prominent female leaders in the Milwaukee community were on hand to support Goins and celebrate the occasion, including Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley, JoAnne Sabir and her mother Sharon Adams and Michael Best & Friedrich managing partner Danielle Bergner.


Historic Garfield Apartments

Monday’s ceremony marked the completion of the whole complex, but a celebration was held in late October 2017 to mark the completion of the Historic Garfield Apartments. That phase of the project includes 30 apartments, roughly a one-to-one ratio with the former classrooms in the building. The units are entirely affordable, set aside for people making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income.

The building’s hallways are infused with vibrant art, and today a new piece was unveiled for the exterior. Artist Tia Richardson has painted a 20-feet by 20-feet mural entitled “The Rebirthing of the Earth Mother” on the north wall of a 1960’s addition to the Cream City brick building.

Financing for the two-phase development came from a number of sources. According to city tax-incremental financing documents, $8.7 million was raised from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority‘s low-income housing tax credit program. The school redevelopment was financed by $1.2 million in historic preservation tax credits, a $150,000 grant from the Housing Trust Fund, $305,000 from the Northcott Partnership and $300,000 in federal HOME funds. The new construction portion will receive a $250,000 community development investment grant from the state’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, $200,000 from the Northcott Partnership and $525,000 from a Federal Home Loan Bank affordable housing program grant.

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