As a child, Martha Freeman fought for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. She has continued that fight, only in a different way.
Vanessa Plant sits on a yellow, vintage sofa in the living room of her first-floor Riverwest apartment. Plant, whose multi-colored hair and bright, flowered chest tattoo give a bold first impression, has lived around the world but eventually came back to her childhood neighborhood to put down roots. “I was born on Pierce Street, in a home,” she says. “Homeschool and church, those were my things. I mean, I was 6 so I don’t remember a ton — mostly just from old home videos.”
Jamahl Turner sits in the attic of a towering duplex on 57th and Lloyd in Washington Heights. The large, open area has been transformed into what doubles as a recording studio and bona fide hangout spot. Turner — known by many as “Pharaoh Mac,” “King Pharaoh,” or simply, “Pharaoh” — is one half of local hip-hop group Pharaoh Mac & DMT. For him, music, and hip-hop in particular, is a way to express himself, an escape, a way to communicate on a deeper level, to be truly heard. “If you think about it, music … is a universal language,” he says. “How you speak and what you speak of is what people can relate to. And, hip-hop, in a sense has become the more dominant music now. Everybody listens to it so everybody can relate.”
Amos Paul Kennedy sits in Coffee Makes You Black, 2803 N. Teutonia Ave., in Milwaukee’s North Division neighborhood. Kennedy, a printer who has a work of the same name (“Coffee Makes You Black”), is visiting the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) as part of the school’s Creativity Series. But this isn’t his first time in the city. Kennedy’s family moved to Milwaukee — technically, Bayside — in 1995, his sons both attended Nicolet and he earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) from UW-Madison in 1997. For Amos, it was the beginning of a still-blossoming career in printing and a different way of living. But, it was also the beginning of the end of Kennedy’s family, as it had been. “Our values changed. I no longer needed to buy a new car every three years for a degree of satisfaction or as a status symbol,” he says. “I kind of gave up the middle class life.”
Laura Marshall sits in the dining room of her pristine north side ranch-style home. Hardwood floors and chandeliers grace the house’s welcoming interior; but, less than three years ago, no one could have imagined what it would become. The space, which Marshall and her husband Greg nicknamed ‘Mold Palace,’ was in disrepair — there was no heat, no plumbing, plants protruded from the gutters and it needed a new roof. “We basically bought a brick shell,” says Marshall. “The house was so bad — the only place it could go was up.”
Timothy Seeger greets “Mo,” a Muslim employee at Capitol Smoke Shop, 6924 W. Capitol Dr., with the customary greetings of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greater”) and “As-salamu alaykum” (“peace be upon you”). Seeger, who’s there for two packs of Pyramid Blue King cigarettes, which he refers to as “modern-day peace pipes,” pays the bill of $11.50 in dollar bills and pennies. “When you think about it, there’s no fighting and no arguing when people are smoking cigarettes, for the most part,” says Seeger, who only began the habit three years ago, at 58. “They’re calm, relaxed; It’s like weed … but this is legal.”
Calvin Young saunters down the steps of a porch near 37th and Roberts in Washington Park. The 55-year-old, distinguished by his fully grey, mid-length beard and two-tone skin color, walks into the empty, sunlit street to ask for a dollar or two. “I’m trying to change my life around. [The] only thing, right now, is I’m just an alcoholic — that’s it, that’s all,” says Young, who admits he was once addicted to crack cocaine, as well.
Ray Williams Jr. sits on his porch on the 3200 block of North 37th Street in a white, tank-top undershirt, holding a half burnt cigarette. The 49-year-old blues guitarist lounges in a chair as he recalls his playing days in Milwaukee. “Hooligan’s, Murray’s Tap, Central Hall, Chancery Pub, Liquid Johnny’s. I done played with Billy Flynn, all them guys, you know, Eugene and the Soul Gang, Stokes and Eddie Butts, Jim Liban, Mississippi Cactus — that’s me, 38 years of it,” he says.
Joe Guentner leans against what might as well be a white picket fence in front of his home on South 21st Street. The 64-year-old Guentner, who was the oldest of eight, spent the majority of his childhood in Racine, where his mother was from. “I lived on Lake Michigan … literally on the beach,” says Guentner of the place they lived in Racine. “We lived at that place for a number of years before we had to vacate and they tore it down.”
Calip Stephens sits on small pier in a hidden boat landing in Harbor View just off Lake Michigan on an early Friday morning. Stephens is up before the sunrise and, it seems, before the fish, as well; his two poles, two lines cast, heed no bites. Stephens was born in 1950 in East Chicago, Indiana, about 15 miles outside Gary. Back then, he says, the fishing was a little easier. “Oh, it was boomin’, the livin’ was nice,” he says.