Nathaniel Wright leans against a white railing while speaking with family on an Autumn afternoon. Wright wasn’t born in Milwaukee but many of its neighborhoods, like the one he’s standing in, are familiar. Violence, he says, is what links Milwaukee with his birthplace of St. Louis, Missouri. “You tend to follow in the footsteps of the older ones in the neighborhood, and it’s just recycled on down,” says Wright. “You know, some is lucky to get out, some ain’t.” Nathaniel comes from a large family — 13 children, in all. He’s the second youngest. “Just imagine 13 of your siblings all in the same house and you all want something different,” he says. But, from all accounts, his family was a good one. Wright refers to his mom and dad as “workin’ people.” His mother was a registered nurse at the John L. Doyne Hospital, formerly Milwaukee County Hospital; his father got a job at A.O. Smith — where he worked until he retired — after the family moved to Milwaukee when Nathaniel was 9. …
James King picks up trash from a strip of grass between the street and sidewalk on North 12th Street, an idle mower behind him. King, who grew up near 29th Street and Courtland Avenue, has always walked his own path, sought to define life by his own standards. “My father instilled in me … he always said, ‘James, no matter what you do, you be the best. I don’t care what it is, you be the best. If you be a drug dealer, you be the best drug dealer; If you be a doctor, you be the best doctor … If you gonna be a fool, you make damn sure you be the best damn fool,’” he says.
Rochelle Wells walks toward Atkinson Avenue on N. 12th St. in Arlington Heights on a cold, dark winter afternoon. She’s with a friend but pauses for a moment. “I was born and raised in Milwaukee,” she says. “Here in the inner city — Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”
Shauratina Velez waits at the corner of 12th and Atkinson with her four-year-old daughter for the Route 19 bus. Velez, 22, was 17 and a junior at North Division High School when her daughter was born, and it’s been a tough road ever since. “I don’t have any help, I don’t have nobody to show me the way — you know what I’m sayin’? I don’t have nobody to teach me … I had to learn [more from sources other than] my family to know how to make a resume, how to talk to people. I’m still learnin’ to this day — I’m teachin’ myself.”
David Cisney lounges on the stone steps of his home in Arlington Heights. He’s resting, taking a break from raking the yard. On this Saturday afternoon he’s getting some work done around the house because it’s the only day he doesn’t have a church-related activity planned. You won’t often find David sitting still. “I’ve lived a good life,” he says. “You know, when you live in the city, there’s always stuff to do and I can’t understand why the young people today have so many problems.”
Greg Greer grew up on 9th and Keefe. The 50-year-old Greer, who now lives near Teutonia and Villard, had a lot to say about neighborhoods, gangs and the cycle of violence. Greer points down the block. “Been living in that same building over there 20-some years and, I mean, I’ve done seen this [neighborhood] just fall apart,” he said.