Interviews

New campaign gives ‘reintroduction’ to Milwaukee’s King Drive district, invites people to explore

todayJanuary 4, 2023 1

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Courtesy: Oh Snap Photography

One of the best ways to get to know a community is by learning about who’s in it.

In the Cream City, residents and visitors alike are getting a reintroduction – of sorts – to Milwaukee’s Historic King Drive BID. It’s home to Bronzeville – listed by the New York Times’ and National Geographic as a top place to visit. The America’s Black Holocaust Museum is one of several businesses that opened in the area last year. And thanks to BID leadership and a Common Council approved border expansion in 2020, the neighborhood will soon welcome the new Milwaukee Public Museum.

There’s a lot happening here….

To help highlight this the BID launched a new campaign called “King Drive Is”. HYFIN’s Kim Shine sat down with the BID’s executive director Ray Hill to learn more about the project and the community.

The following interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

After her conversation with Hill, Kim then sat down with HYFIN on-air host Element Everest-Blanks to hear her experiences growing up in, and around, the district. Listen to their chat below.

Kim Shine: When you walk through the BID, what do you see when you walk through the neighborhoods and you see all the businesses? What do you see? What do you feel?

Ray Hill: Yeah, I feel those are two very different answers, and I feel a level of opportunity. I also feel inspired. There’s also this sense of nostalgia there too, just because I have memories of a kid being in certain areas of the BID. But I also see the vision of the resurgence of it coming back to life, not necessarily exactly the same, but very close to a high level of vibrancy that really elevates and preserves culture. It’s almost like it’s in the building structure. When you look at the buildings…

KS: It’s in the bones.

RH: Yeah, it’s in the bones, and you can’t wipe it away. And I think that’s what makes it so authentic. And it’s less of a geographical location, but more of an energy. And so, you feel that energy walking through.

KS: Now, I don’t want to aid you or anything but your first memories of just being in the BID. Did you grow up there? Or did you just always know about it because it’s part of Milwaukee?

RH: Two things. So my grandfather, back in the fifties, had a restaurant at the time. Of course, when you’re young, you don’t know that. Your grandparents are just Paw Paw, right? He’s just like, okay. But I knew…

KS: To the community, he’s a boss.

RH: He was like a whole thing. So I remember him taking me and my brother to the Clinton Rose Center, which is also in the BID, and he played Santa during the holiday times. And so, I remember sitting on his lap and him like, “Don’t blow my cover.” And me acting like I’m telling him what I want. But just seeing that engagement as a kid in the nineties at the time and being around these people, and he was a legend to them, but he was just grandpa to me. So those memories that I have going specific places with him and spending time with him, those are the ones that I have, specifically around King Drive.

KS: So for some people, the BID just means business and a place to buy, sell, things like that. But for you, it’s family. Yeah. That’s what that brings back to you. Is that why you joined (as executive director)?

RH: That was one of the biggest reasons. I also felt like there was a level of opportunity that I felt I brought to the area, being from the millennial generation as well as having a background in development and real estate and then, also, having just the love and affinity for people. I just felt like it just felt right.

KS: What’s your temperature of the BID now? Where does it stand in the eyes of Milwaukee? Or compared to other BIDs? Or just now, where does it stand in your eyes?

RH: Yeah, it’s in a space where I think it’s an elevated area that gets a lot of attention. There’s a lot of things happening. And comparatively, I think, because of its uniqueness, it’s not downtown. So it’s not oozing of…

KS: It’s not far from downtown.

RH: No, it’s not. And so, that’s the benefit. And I think that’s what elevates it more. But it still has a very large cultural anchor. And so, I think that really sets it apart from a lot of other neighborhoods in Milwaukee, which I love, by the way. Milwaukee, in itself, is just a dope city, but this is just a great opportunity to really showcase us in a dignified way, where a lot of traditionally, primarily African American neighborhoods or commercial corridors look blighted and they look distressed and they don’t look safe. And so, this is a great opportunity for the city of Milwaukee to show the gateway of the Black community.

KS: So the BID this year has actually welcomed three, at least three new businesses. That’s Pepperpot. Then you have the America’s Black Holocaust Museum, and you have HoneyBee Sage. Talk about what this means for the BID.

RH: There’s actually another one too. Spinn MKE. The cycle boutique.

KS: And Spinn. Correct.

RH: And I think I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the work that happens. And I think, anytime you’re dealing with anything that is birthed organically, it just takes time. So it’s a collective effort that I think has been going on for a while. But this also is an example of just the resilience and the work that people have. Dwight Jackson, which is the owner of Pepperpot, started off at a whole different location in the BID. The building caught fire. And so, having to readjust and see his vision differently, but still carry it out.

Same thing with Angela, who originally started out in Sherman Phoenix and opened her first location on Lisbon Avenue and then kept her location and scaled up and opened her second location, which also welcomes a whole vibe at HoneyBee Sage, an apothecary. And just to see it and to see the ups and downs. Because it’s not sweet. Entrepreneurship, it’s a thing. And we love to see ribbon cuttings and balloons and grand openings, but the work that goes in it before it, we try to steward and advocate to continue it as well. So we want to see people, not only at the finish line, but stable, where they’re there for years to come.

KS: What’s the attraction or the appeal for these businesses to come to the King Drive BID?

RH: I think it is a combination. I think it’s a combination of infrastructure. So we just have the historical character and buildings in the location. It’s adjacent to downtown. The accessibility is there. And then, I think, it’s also that community feel. So there’s other smaller local businesses. And I hate saying small, because nothing about none of the business is small, but the local businesses that aren’t necessarily franchised, it feels like home. It doesn’t feel like they’re being swallowed by a strip mall or, you know what I mean? And so, I think that’s really a major piece in when people select to come to the district.

KS: And you guys kicked off the “King Drive Is” initiative back in November, and the first video is you walking through the BID.

RH: I had to be coached to walk. (laughs)

KS: I know. Isn’t that crazy? You think it’s just so natural. “I do this all the time,” but as soon as that camera’s on, “Wait, how do I do this?” (laughs)

RH: Yeah. Am I walking too hard? Am I walking too fast? Am I smiling? Oh, am I looking mean? Yeah. I had to be coached. But yeah.

KS: Well, in that, great job walking. So kudos to you.

RH: Boo Boo.

KS: But the campaign itself, it’s evolved from that to featuring those business owners from diverse backgrounds. Explain what the goal is and why you all decided to launch “King Drive Is”.

RH: Yeah, so we have a social media consultant by the name of Deja Smith from 25th Hour, which is another African American owned business, who said, “Hey, we’ve been hearing a lot about people wanting to share their story, how long they’ve been here, that they’re here.” And it’s a really easy way to broadcast and promote who’s here. Because I think the thing is that King Drive is such a fast thoroughfare, and people are typically using it to get from one end to another. And so, it doesn’t always lend the opportunity for you to know exactly what’s in the area. And so, I think her idea came from “let’s really elevate and show who’s here.” And it just kind of took off. And so, we were a little concerned who would be interested. A lot of people are, but a lot of people were willing.

One of the things that I wanted to make sure that we did highlight was the diversity, not only in race, but intergenerational, how long these businesses have been here, whether they were new or have been here for two generations. And so, I think that’s what makes it really unique. And the focus was to also connect people to the businesses. So often, we may even see promotions or things online, and you don’t know who’s behind that brand. And so, that was an opportunity for people to share, just quickly, 30 seconds of who they are, what their business is, how long they’ve been in the area, and to see them.

KS: A little bit of transparency there. Or, I guess, a lot of transparency. But why now? Why do you think that this idea is working now? I know you just came on. So maybe your energy along with Deja’s is helping out, but what is going to make this work now?

RH: I think one thing that the pandemic shutdown taught us was that time is not owned, but given. And I think, when we are afforded another day, we have an opportunity to really share the gifts that we have, whether that’s time, talent, or treasure. And this time, I think, people really want to be connected, not only to what they have and what they’re doing, but others. And so, this also shows a lot of connection between this four miles, that looks very different from north to south. And so, I think, now, people are like, “Yeah, that’s me. Yes. My dad started this, or this came from an idea from me in my kitchen. Or I was taking this class, or I was sitting in a cubicle and I said, “I can’t do this no more.” And so, I decided to start my business.” People are really connecting what they’re doing with their purpose and sharing it. And I think the point of it is to also be an inspiration for others as well, whether they’re in the BID, the King Drive BID, or anywhere else.

KS: Because trying to get a gauge of what all is in the BID.

RH: That’s the thing.

KS: You said four miles, like, what all have you fit into that four miles?

RH: My gosh. Dance studio, cycle studio, multiple restaurants, a refrigeration company.

KS: Which is great, but also, random.

RH: Yes, very much. A hardware store, a florist. That alone, when you think about just the diversity of businesses, it’s like, yeah, all of that is within four miles. You can literally learn how to dance or exercise, get something to eat, have a drink. You can do it all. And that’s kind of the point is to really share what’s there.

KS: And when we talk about what is there, we also need to talk about what also is coming. There’s two major developments. You have the ThriveOn Collaboration that that’s happening. And then, also, the Milwaukee Public Museum is moving into the BID too. Let’s talk about that, because that’s huge scale. And when you want to talk about diversity and bringing visitors in and showing them that the King Drive BID, it’s more than maybe what they think, it’s more than what they know, let’s talk about the impact of that.

RH: Yeah. The best thing about the BID is that our work is primarily connected to others. So we’re only as successful as our community, our business communities, our properties are as well. And so, with projects, and I have to call it a project, because it doesn’t exist right now, or it does, but just in a different area. So the museum, and just to see even the renderings of what that will look like, changes the face of downtown and that entry point to the BID. But it also lends another global eye to the area, which is, it’s already been designated or recognized by the New York Times, as well as the National Geographic.

But it really gives people a boots-on-the-ground experience, where they come to the museum. And if they want that level of history, they can also go to the Black Holocaust Museum less than a mile away and get additional history and culture. And then, if they want to experience some Jamaican food, they could do that too. So the level is to really just try to keep people in the district as long as we can. By doing that, we have to support the other businesses that are around it. So when they leave the attraction, they’re able to continue to stay.

KS: With ThriveOn, well, both of these are multi-million dollar projects. But with ThriveOn specifically, this is just a mixed-use development project. There’s health, there’s things for families, there’s just so many things under that one project. How did you all get them to the BID? Or was this something that they had their eyes on? Because the medical college is also a part of this.

RH: I think this was a part of their internal strategy to really bring a lot of attention and awareness based around social determinants of health and how to advance the community from within and not from the outside. And one thing that I think isn’t shared enough is the fact that the real estate developers, so the person who’s responsible for building the actual infrastructure, is African American. And so, when people are talking or having those conversations about gentrification on the residential side, at least I can say, on the commercial side, I can list several African American business owners in the district. And so, that is, for me, a celebration. But also, I think their approach of being thoughtful and really building a strategy around their community engagement has been really unique.

Because I think they’re taking their time to do that and their willingness to want to share and be more a neighbor. And it’s hard to do that in this day and age. And it was really hard to do that when mostly everything is remote. But they’ve done really good job of trying to collect and convene people. And they know it’s not, “Hey, it’s not just us coming to the neighborhood, and look what we did.” It’s “Hey, we’re here. This is what we would like to bring. What would you like to see?” And they’ve done a number of listening sessions, community meetings, office hours, to help engage people in that way too.

KS: And going off of that, just with the BID as a whole, you talked about the residential side versus the commercial side. With the work that you’re doing to attract people, to make sure the folks know about the BID, how will all these new businesses, how will all the old businesses, how will the “King Drive Is” project, how do you hope that impacts the families there and the generational knowledge that they pass on, the memories that you have with your family? How do you hope your work and what you’re bringing in impacts?

RH: Yeah, that’s a really great and deep question. And I think I can attribute that to when I started. Of course, when you start something, your momentum is high. So you’re like, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that.”

KS: “I’m ready to go.”

RH: “Okay.” And then, 30 days in, you like, “Oh, okay.” But one of the biggest assets that I found was people who didn’t have a title or they weren’t part of organization talking to some of the greatest neighbors who have been there and they knew the history, but to get the history of the transition. And some of the history is not all good. Some of it is, “yeah, this is what we had to go through or this was happening.” Even when, and I love this story, when Alderwoman talks about when the Dollar Tree was supposed to be on King and North Avenue.

KS: And this is Alderwoman Coggs?

RH: Yes, yes, advocated with a couple of community members as well. And they wanted a grocer. And so, Pete’s Fruit Market was a result of that. And so, to hear that, that wasn’t too long ago, that wasn’t. And so, to really stay connected to sharing the stories and the history, regardless of if it’s good, bad, or indifferent, it’s still being shared. But that intergenerational connection is key. And you can’t just rely on your institution partners or your companies to give you that knowledge. Some of that is just sitting around the table hearing what some of the neighbors have to say.

KS: Getting back to “King Drive Is”, what are your long term and your short term goals?

RH: What I’m supposed to say is we’re going through a strategic framework and we’re going through strategic planning and we’re trying to align the next three years for our future goals and how that fits in with the development.

But I think, immediately, is that we want people to know that we’re here and that there’s a lot of us here. And us, meaning everything from your small business owner to your entrepreneur, that doesn’t have a brick and mortar space, but does a lot of work in the area. Just that sense. Also, we want people to know that we are not what you would think. To lose the assumptions, come experience it for yourself.

Long term, I would love for it to be a real big example of how transformative neighborhoods, and I use that term with the sense of economic prosperity, vitality, in a commercial corridor. Meaning that people, their neighborhood, where it makes up of a library, a school, a grocery store, places to shop, are all reflective of the neighborhood that it surrounds. And so, that is the big long-term goal, without having to sacrifice the culture that it’s a part of.

Courtesy: Oh Snap Photography

Written by: Kim Shine

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