Milwaukee’s Bronzeville & King Drive: A Discussion with Ray Hill and Deshea Agee
As part of our 50th Anniversary theme “Our Neighbors, Our Communities,” Ray Hill, Milwaukee native and CommonBond’s leader in Wisconsin, recently sat down for a conversation with Deshea Agee, Executive Director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District in Milwaukee.
Their dialogue reminds us that strong partnerships and relationships—between residents, businesses, housing developers and managers, investors, and so many more—are critical to creating and maintaining vibrant communities.
Ray Hill: I’m Ray Hill, Regional Manager of Housing and Services for many of CommonBond’s Wisconsin housing communities. Today I had the pleasure of discussing some pretty interesting things about Milwaukee with a former boss of mine who has been an advocate and a great asset to the city of Milwaukee, Deshea Agee. He’s the Executive Director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District in Milwaukee. Thank you for taking the time to connect today!
Deshea Agee: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Ray, and all of the team at CommonBond, for this opportunity to share a little bit about what's happening here in Milwaukee and some of the positive things in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Great to see you again.
Ray: So you mentioned Bronzeville right off the bat. For those who don't know what Bronzeville is, can you describe a little bit about the Bronzeville district?
Deshea: Sure! There is a cultural and entertainment district here in Milwaukee that was legislatively created as a model after a prior era of what we know as Bronzeville, where there were African American business owners, doctors, musicians—it was a place that people came to support and honor African American history and the businesses that were in the Bronzeville community in the 1960s. And so many will know of Duke Ellington and the jazz area of Bronzeville. So essentially it's a cultural destination honoring African American history, arts, and culture.
Ray: Thanks for giving that historic context. So King streets or drives exist across the nation, and can sometimes be seen as a way to further Dr. King's efforts around racial equity and economic justice. In terms of Bronzeville, King Drive in Milwaukee, and the surrounding neighborhoods, how do you see housing fitting into that equation?
Deshea: Housing is critical. When we look at the front door to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive—where we're working to build the best King Drive in the nation—it’s the commercial corridor, and then we have the adjacent neighborhoods. We want it to be beautiful. So if we think about the housing in the Halyard Park neighborhood, for example, those homes were built by an African American developer, Beechie Brooks, and he had a vision to bring suburban style homes right into the neighborhood. So you'll drive through and you'll find beautiful homes there. Many of the people who built the homes still live there. That was the African American working class. From a residential standpoint, we look at both the single family homes and we look at the apartment units. So, as we think about the importance of residential apartment units or housing to the neighborhood, you know, it really brings the focus on the people who live there.
The residents help the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District understand what their needs are, and that gives us a chance to bring necessary business to the commercial corridor. Bringing those types of businesses to serve the residents, expanding walkability, and improving the quality of life of residents is something that we all believe is important. When we talk about live, work, play, worship—the commercial corridor plays a critical role in being that front facing door for those who are venturing through the neighborhood, going into downtown and other parts of the city.
And it's great to have organizations, including CommonBond, that have done a great job of bringing improved quality of life for residents. So, again, it's matching that need for residents to have improved quality of life, improving the commercial corridor, improving the residential housing stock. You asked earlier about how the apartment units play into the equation. It does bring additional people into the neighborhood who can be in a position to create community and support the businesses that are there—again, improving quality of life. I think it all goes hand-in-hand.
Ray: What would you say to individuals who have that stigma associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Drive? Because it traditionally is typically in blighted areas. Whereas here, it seems as if we have recreated the narrative of what it means. When I go, it's an epicenter of Black excellence and a true entertainment and cultural district. So what would you say to individuals who kind of carry that stigma?
Deshea: I always say give it a chance. Don't allow that thought process of blight and disinvestment to stop you from enjoying one of the best drives in the nation. We love to have visitors —that’s what helps our businesses and communities continue to grow. And that's the type of thing we need to have in order for our neighborhoods—any neighborhood and any community—to be vibrant. Help us to build what will be a thriving King Drive that can be a model for other cities.
Ray: Well, thank you so much for taking the time. It's been a pleasure, of course, interviewing. In my former life, I served as Deshea’s Associate Director at the Historic King Drive BID. So I'm well aware of the great news and the work that also has went into that corridor. So thank you so much for joining us and answering these questions, and just giving us that conversation about the neighborhood in the community.
Deshea: So Ray, I actually have a question for you! I think you said you had a relative that had a business in the BID?
Ray: Sure. My maternal grandfather, Larry Lawrence, was a business owner for Larry’s Chicken Shack, is what he called it. It was in 1953. So over 50 years ago, he started this restaurant with $300 that he borrowed from a barber after leaving the Navy, and he was there with his own place just serving the community. And I don't know the exact timeline, but he had it in the Bronzeville district for a number of years until the freeway came. And so when the freeway was built, which is I-94, it caused his business to shut down. And then he reopened on 12th Street, where he was located until about the ‘70s. He spent roughly 20 years serving the community in a way that I think was unheard of back then. So Bronzeville is very special to me because that was my grandfather's staple in the neighborhood.
Deshea: You know, I wanted to ask about that, Ray, because we think about generations. Right? And you come from a line of entrepreneurs and of leadership in the community. And as we look to build the Bronzeville of the 21st century, as Alderwoman Coggs often says, we got to live generationally.
Ray: Absolutely. And now I have a final question for you. At CommonBond, we often say that home is the foundation for everything else—what does home mean to you?
Deshea: Home for me is where I find peace. It's where I find that I can focus on building a dynamic within my family of positive spirits and good energy so that we can move forward in a way that is beyond our house, our physical house where we live, but it’s the peace that falls within us within this building. So to me, home is all about having that peace and that given me that intentional space that I can plan moving forward. And what does it mean to you??
Ray: Home for me is a place of peace, a place of serenity, and a place to just be myself. It’s the ultimate recharge after taking in the rest of the world, and then just being able to download and be exactly one hundred percent authentically me in a space. I think that is really the foundation of just the core of living right, is to be able to be in a space and be one hundred percent authentic. So that's home to me.
Deshea: Oh, that’s a better answer. Can I say what you said? Ditto??
Deshea Agee is the Executive Director of Milwaukee's Historic King Drive Business Improvement District (BID), an agency that works with and on behalf of property owners and businesses from Capital Drive to McKinley Avenue. The BID takes charge of beautification projects, various events, partnerships, business recruitment, and more to help continue building Bronzeville and Historic King Drive into a highly desirable place to live and work.