Pookie (pseudonym) walks briskly down W. Chambers St. at the south end of Clinton Rose Park as the sun begins to set on Juneteenth Day. A gaggle of Milwaukee police turn down a nearby alleyway but Pookie walks on, un-phased. “Born and raised here, right here on the east side,” he says. “I didn’t have no momma — momma was a crackhead — so, you know what I’m sayin’, I sold drugs.”
Jonathan Groves walks down West Locust Street, toward 19th, carrying a big, black garbage bag filled to the brim with clothes. Groves, who was born in Milwaukee, wears two large sweatshirts, one on top of the other, both draped over his slight frame. Hephatha Lutheran Church looms behind him. “I grew up on the north side of Milwaukee; King Drive, 7th and King Drive,” he says. “I had some good parents and went to school — didn’t graduate. Church, you know, um. Then, as I got older, drugs, alcohol. But thank god I ain’t on that no more.”
Kevin Carlton stands just outside a cluttered garage south of National Avenue in an alley off of 47th Street. Carlton, who displays tattoos from under a cut-off white shirt, has only been in Milwaukee for two years, but it’s been a long road here. “I grew up in a rough family; my dad died when I was 2 — he got hit by a drunk driver on the freeway and mom raised five of us,” he says. “I was the youngest one out of the clan, so, I really didn’t have a chance to miss him. But, you know, earthquakes and the beaches — I love the beaches; that’s all I miss. California is full of people, too crowded.”
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.
Dave Wroten lounges against a concrete sidewalk border on West Chambers Street in the waning hours of Juneteenth Day. The 54-year-old Wroten remembers a time when things in Milwaukee, where he was “born and raised,” were different. Wroten grew up on 10th and Locust. “It was beautiful,” he says. “That’s when black people actually had black establishments and, you know, you neighbor was your lawyer … That’s when black people knew black people.”
Michelle Legener stops to ask for a buck near a bus stop at the corner of 22nd and Greenfield. Legener, who grew up near 29th and National, just left the nearby Victory Outreach Christian Recovery Home, a rehabilitation center that takes in drug addicts, about an hour before. “[There are] a lot of good people in this city,” she says, but adds, “a lot of bad stuff happens.”
Ronald Franks dances, unafraid of prying eyes, on the corner of 35th and Clarke, twirling what he refers to as his “adrenaline stick,” a flexible, four-foot-long cane with a tassel on top. Franks, who sports a double-breasted leather coat and leather fedora, is no amateur when it comes to strutting his stuff. “I’m a dancin’ fool,” says Franks. “Dancin’ is what does it for me.”
Willie Whitehorn walks down Chicago Street in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward on a cloudy afternoon toting three oversized plastic bags, filled to the brim with cans. Whitehorn, a man of modest height and weight, despite the appearance of his baggy coat, stops on the corner and stares through his sunglasses at a young woman crossing the street. Nodding in approval, Whitehorn turns and answers an un-posed inquiry matter-of-factly. “I’m a girl-watcher,” he says.
Sean Yarber stands in front of 1739 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., a men’s clothing store, smoke in hand. Yarber, who’s originally from the Windy City, ended up coming to Milwaukee with his mother when he was about 10 years old. “She was havin’ a hard time down there in Chicago, you know, so, she felt like there was opportunity up here so…I came with her – I had no choice.”
Stewart Dempsey stands atop at painter’s ladder on a Tuesday afternoon touching up the trim of his historic home in Walnut Hill. A 26-year denizen of the home that sits on North 32nd Street, Dempsey says the house was one of the first two built in that area. “It was one of the first in the neighborhood; the very first one is two blocks away, Villa Uhrig, built in 1853. And the Koenigs, who built this house for German immigrants, they bought land from the Uhrig’s widow and in 1883 they built the house here. But it sat in the middle of what’s now 32nd Street, faced Lisbon. And, when the city came through this far…cause this was actually the Township of Wauwatosa, this was the country – the Koenigs owned four acres they had bought from the Uhrigs – and, when 32nd Street was cut through, they basically told Mr. (Frederick) Koenig, ‘Take your house down or move it or we’re gonna do it for you.’ And he decided to, since he owned all …