n the evening of August 13th, 2016, the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin erupted into protest. Earlier that day, a Milwaukee police officer had shot and killed 23-year old neighborhood resident Sylville Smith, prompting hundreds of people to flood the streets of Milwaukee’s north side. For three days, protestors faced down police in riot gear and snipers situated atop nearby buildings. When the dust finally settled, at least 41 people had been arrested and several million dollars in property had been damaged. While conservative commentators from within and outside Sherman Park were quick to condemn the protestors for their “violent” destruction of property, many residents and local elected officials argued that protestors’ actions were legitimate, or at least understandable, given the socioeconomic conditions of the neighborhood. In short, protestors were simply fed up from decades of disinvestment, poverty, and chronic unemployment.

In their attempts to contextualize this latest show of collective outrage over deadly police violence, local and international media rehearsed a familiar story about Milwaukee’s deindustrialization, emphasizing the economic and spatial deterioration of the city’s black communities. So the story went, by the early 1970s, Milwaukee had become a place of black upward mobility as migrants from the U.S. South found good paying jobs in the city’s uncharacteristically robust manufacturing sector. Indeed, black Milwaukeeans enjoyed higher incomes, lower rates of poverty, and lower levels of unemployment than African Americans nationally. But as globalization forced employers to lay off workers or close their doors, black workers were left behind, supposedly lacking the education required to compete in a new knowledge-based economy. Further hindering black economic advancement was exclusion from the expanding and exclusively white housing and job markets in surrounding suburbs, making Milwaukee one of the most segregated regions in the country. By the early 2000s, all of the socio-economic gains made in the nineteen sixties and seventies had reversed. According to an frequently cited report from 2015, Milwaukee had become the “worst city for black Americans” owing primarily to racial disparities in employment, educational attainment, wealth, and incarceration. As one member of the Milwaukee Black Panther Party put it: “When you’re number one in every statistical category that’s negative towards African-Americans, you’re going to have carnage, mayhem, chaos.”

While this telling of the demise of Milwaukee’s black middle class is widely accepted as an unproblematic accounting of events, I want to propose that such narratives reflect and reinforce an insidious racial ontology that has formed the theoretical basis for a century of urban policymaking in the United States (Woods, 2002; Slater 2013). Often absent in both the academic and popular discourse on racial inequality in cities is the role of political struggle and the group exercise of power – particularly via the state – in the production, management, and resolution of economic crises (Gilmore, 2002) like the one experienced across much of Milwaukee. In the absence of a political explanations, a racial conception of urban geographies has provided an explanatory framework and moral cover for the asset stripping (Woods, 2009) of poor, immigrant, and black communities through programs of abandonment and dispursal.[1]

In Milwaukee, the official state response to calls for action following the uprising continued this practice. Specifically, local and state government actors proposed millions in funding for privately run job training programs and the private redevelopment of city-owned homes in Sherman Park to encourage homeownership. At the same time, however, a coalition of local entrepreneurs put forth an alternative response, mobilizing around the creation of a commercial and community space designed to support black self-employment, health, arts and culture in Sherman Park and beyond. In this essay, I explore how the ontological assumptions underpinning each of these economic development initiatives respectively constrained and opened up the possibilities for promoting human life amidst intensifying racial violence in the deindustrialized context of Milwaukee’s north side.

Analytically, I take inspiration from theorizations of black geographies in identifying how a racial ontology is used to mystify the relationally constituted nature of Milwaukee’s black geography. Characterized by discrete “racial-colonial categories” (McKittrick 2011), a racial ontology presumes black spaces as always already spaces “without” (948) – that is, devoid of life and existing “outside” the social and economic “mainstream.” Conversely, white spaces are presumed to be spaces “with”, defined in terms of material wealth, freedom, and independence – a standard against which all other geographies are to be measured. Ultimately, this ontology obscures the processes of accumulation and ownership predicated on violence and exploitation which, in part, produce metropolitan geograhies. (Woods, 2009; Quan, 2014). This racial logic is especially salient in post-industrial contexts, as Pulido (2016) and Rangahathan (2016) show in their studies of Flint. There, the mobilization of associations between race, value, and risk allowed state actors to justify and implement predatory lending practices and, eventually, austerity measures. While these practices helped produce racially inscribed geograpies of uneven development, they simultaneousy served to enrich and protect the interests of real estate, industrial, and finance capital.

I also want to be mindful of Katherine McKittrick’s call for researchers to notice urban sites of “plot-life” that are produced through and co-exist alongside plantation logics (2013). In an effort to contest the “linear tale of white survival” (2011: 955) that is all too common in urban studies researh, I shed light on the invisibilized or devalued alternative worldviews and practices – exemplified here by the Sherman Phoenix – that make black Milwaukee a space of enduring life. Essential to these alternative worldviews is a refusal of the false choice between destitution on the one hand, and participation in an economic regime that depends on racial violence, division, and competition on the other. Ultimately, I show how the Sherman Phoenix’s own (re)imaging of Milwaukee’s black geography enables alternative economic practices otherwise deemed unthinkable within the context of Milwaukee’s deindustrialized landscape.

(B)lack in the City: Unemployment, Blight, and being “without”

In the weeks following Sylvyle Smith’s murder, media reports frequently cited the oppression of Sherman Park residents as an impetus for the uprising in Sherman Park. However, the dominant narrative in public discourse drew attention not to any potential oppressors or relations of oppression, but rather to the helplessness, desperation, and scarcity that such oppression produced. One local politician sympathetic to the protesters stated that, “People are oppressed…They’re not able to lift themselves up and out of the situation that they were born into.” More disparagingly, one city council member representing Sherman Park scolded his constituents, saying, “In a neighborhood where the opportunities for employment are so few and far between already, it is foolish and counter-productive to take out your anger on the few businesses that choose to operate on your block. Looting and burning won’t create opportunities to get a job and get ahead in life.” Referring to segregation in Milwaukee, a prominent community leader on Milwaukee’s north side stated, “It’s not just about boundaries. It’s about access. It’s about access to all of the abundance of life that many white people in this city have that many black people do not.” Despite the desire implied in these comments to see the life chances of Sherman Park residents improve, they paradoxically reinforce the idea of Sherman Park as simultaneously deficient and helpless, and yet responsible for changing their situation on their own.

It was within this discursive context that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced the state would distribute $4.5 million to the City of Milwaukee to “train workers, help businesses and deal with foreclosed homes.” He continued, “At the state, we are going to utilize new methods to market job and health services for people who need them…This is all about helping people move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity that comes from work.” Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett also chimed in, saying he wanted to “initiate an effort that will address both the lack of job opportunities and the condition of neighborhood housing stock in a meaningful way.” The details of the funding package included $1.5 million in federal and state funds for various job training programs, $2 million to hire “young and unemployed area residents” to demolish or renovate city-owned houses and clean up “blighted properties,” and $1 million to pay businesses to train workers in the city. The Department of Workforce Development would also set up job centers at churches and community centers around the city, and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp (a quasi-public state agency), would “assist businesses that were damaged or destroyed during the burning and looting.” Finally, the area around a former bank building that was badly burned during the uprising was designated a tax increment financing or TIF district, which allowed the city to designate the area as blighted, issue municipal bonds to pay for improvements within the area, and divert future increases in property tax revenues towards repaying those bonds, all with the aim of reinvigorating the neighborhood’s property market.

Underlying this public discourse and potpourri of policies is a theory of economic development that is embedded in a knowledge system, which “repetitively constitutes blackness as a discreet (and hostile) racial category that routinely ‘troubles’ an already settled whiteness” (McKittrick, 2011: 950). The intelligibility of the state’s initiative as sensible or logical turns on a racial ontology, which takes black subjection, deficiency, and marginality as given, while valorizing capitalist forms of exploitation and value extraction as unproblematic or even desirable. Thus, “independence” and “dignity” are ascribed to white (suburban) geographies on account of white workers’ participation in the waged economy and a housing market characterized by rising property values, which themselves become naturalized as the only vehicles for advancement and security. At the same time, collective or socialized forms of economic activity become demonized – as in the case of public assistance – or invisibilized, as in the case of the unwaged or differently remunerated labor that makes up a significant portion of world’s economic production (Gibson-Graham, 2006: 68-70).

Abstracted into hierarchical binaries – white/black, independent/dependent, employed/unemployed, business/government, inside/outside, vibrant/blighted – the complex socio-spatial relations and processes that produce Milwaukee’s uneven geography are obscured. Take, for example, the characterization of Sherman Park as “blighted.” Connoting a biological or natural state of deterioration and death, the category of blight erases processes which produce an actually deteriorating and often toxic built environment. To name a few, this may include willful landlord neglect and speculative ownership by banks and other financial institutions, illegal dumping of waste, and the refusal of affordable mortgages or home improvement loans to low-income black homeowners.

Unconcerned with these practices, the state’s policy – underpinned by a racial ontology – performs a similar kind of erasure. Rather than address the crisis of premature death (Gilmore, 2002: 16) motivating Sherman Park protestors’ demands, this policy bolstered relations of exploitation that have impoverished and profited from Milwaukee’s black communities for decades. Consider that most of the state’s funding to the city will not be spent to employ Sherman Park residents or improve housing conditions for those suffering from willful neglect and abandonment. Instead, the city will pay third party for- and non-profit entities to “train” unemployed residents, and developers who will privately appropriate the value produced through flipping foreclosed houses. In this sense, the view of Sherman Park’s residents and land as deficient, defective, and outside of a decontextualized mainstream legitimates, rather than averts, a whole host of extractive economic practices.

The Sherman Phoenix: enacting a black sense of place?

Figure 2: Communal space inside the Sherman Phoenix (Source: Author)

When I first learned that local developers planned to convert a building that was burned during the uprising into the Sherman Phoenix – a so-called “hub for black entrepreneurs” – I worried it might be yet another gentrification scheme couched in the language of economic opportunity and self-uplift. The Sherman Phoenix also received a $225,000 grant from the city, which was funded through tax increment financing, or TIF. This financing mechanism has been criticized for facilitating the neoliberalization of urban governance (e.g. Peck and Whiteside, 2016) and has played a role in nearly every major downtown development project in Milwaukee in the last couple decades, from a professional basketball arena, to insurance headquarters and a streetcar project.

I quickly recognized, however, that the Sherman Phoenix was employing a very different discursive and material approach to economic development. More specifically, the actors involved in the Sherman Phoenix have promoted the idea that within the subordinated categories of “black” and “blighted” exist the grounds for the production and maintenance of human life, life whose invisibility within the state’s official economic development discourse serves to legitimate the enclosure of the collective labor and resources produced by neighborhood residents. Rather than measure the productivity of the Sherman Phoenix in simply economistic terms – that is, profitability and waged work – the co-developers and their small-business tenants view self-employment, social and community “returns”, collective ownership, and redistribution of value as essential to the vitality of the neighborhood and the success of the project. In this sense, the Sherman Phoenix can be seen as an ongoing project to enact a black sense of place, which, in the words of Katherine McKittrick (2011: 960), “re-imagines geographies of dispossession and racial violence…as sites through which ‘co-operative human efforts’ can take place and have a place.”

The Sherman Phoenix is a public market-inspired commercial space that was co-developed by developer Juli Kaufmann and small business owner Joanne Sabir, two self-identified entrepreneurs from Milwaukee who are well-known for their attention to social justice in their business practice. The Sherman Phoenix currently houses twenty-nine small-business tenants, the vast majority of which are wholly or partially black owned and range from yoga and art studios, to food retailers, a barber shop, and an apothecary. According to their welcome page, “The Sherman Phoenix is a model for healing our city by generating positive economic and social returns in communities of color…The Sherman Phoenix offers high-quality space for small businesses-of-color offering diverse foods, wellness services and cultural activities.” A common refrain in the Sherman Phoenix’s public discourse is that their work is not transactional, but rather relational. In other words, there is an expectation that the development will produce more than just profits for the small business owners, developers, and investors. Further, against the dominant view that neighborhood residents struggling economically are individually responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty, the Sherman Phoenix’s relational ontology recognizes that one person’s survival is inextricably linked to that of every other member of the broader community.

A case in point is the work of Truman McGee, the founder and owner of Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, who started a weekly tutoring program for students from his former elementary school. In addition to offering up the building’s common area, McGee donates food from his business to student attendees, reflecting his view that “we as leaders of the community, as entrepreneurs and business people, we almost have an obligation to give back to the community.” The Sherman Phoenix has even (re)appropriated the maligned concept of dependency: the hashtags #WeNeedEachOther, #CommunityOverCompetition, and #TogetherWeRise feature prominently on the Sherman Phoenix social media, suggesting that dependence is understood as mutually constituted and necessary to building up the local economy, rather than a sign of individual failure or weakness.

The Sherman Phoenix also deemphasizes transactional relationships in its financial structure, which is made up of various kinds of relationships and ethical commitments. For example, the co-developers fronted the initial capital costs to build out each individual vendor space, which is uncommon in the commercial development industry. Rents for the project’s tenant businesses will also be on a sliding scale, and relatively affordable and higher quality compared to other commercial spaces in the area. Because Kaufmann focuses her efforts in parts of the city typically avoided by banks and other conventional investment institutions, she has enrolled a diverse range of financial resources in implementing her projects. For the Sherman Phoenix, Kaufmann and Sabir raised a patchwork of state and private funding. In addition to the TIF-backed grant, this included a grant from the state’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corp; crowd-sourced equity investments of between $1000-$10,000; individual donations and philanthropic funding; and a $750,000 grant from the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC).

The contract that equity investors must sign is indicative of how the values of the Sherman Phoenix creators have radically altered the balance of power in their financial relationships. It reads “…note that this is an at-risk investment, with no assurance of return. Additionally, all investments are illiquid. This means there is no planned exit for any capital invested. Investors may offer their interests to sale back to the company, to other investors or to the public…These sales are not assured.” Here, the developers have displaced their own financial risk and that of their small business tenants onto investors, a practice that is unheard of in commercial real estate in the U.S. Sabir has stated that this financial structure allows the small business owners to have a high threshold for failure. In other words, the practices of gifting, no-strings-attached state funds, and highly contingent financial investment have allowed the Sherman Phoenix to re-write the rules for what counts as successful economic development.

Figure 3: Signage inside the Sherman Phoenix


The Sherman Phoenix is not a panacea; the land and building which house the small businesses are still privately owned, and there is no official policy requiring the small business owners or co-developers to provide any community benefits. But despite its limitations, I want to suggest that the Sherman Phoenix is engaged in the production of a black sense of place. While Milwaukee’s deflationary land market and black unemployment are typically framed as problems to be solved through reintegration into the economic mainstream, the case of the Sherman Phoenix demonstrates that perceived exclusion from conventional economic relations of exploitation can open up the discursive and material space for enacting alternative, more life-sustaining economic practices. Key to envisioning a different kind of economic project was a recognition of the inherent value within the community, where life rather than death is presumed. Not only was the project seen to be economically viable – in the sense that the local community had the resources to support small businesses – but the value and output produced by the Sherman Phoenix was understood as not wholly quantifiable. Co-developer Joanne Sabir sums it up well: There’s brilliance here. There’s talent here. We are helping to ensure that the talent, the brilliance and innovation of people of color is lifted. The coming together, that collective action, that’s where the magic happens.”


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[1] For example, Slater (2013) provides a survey of policies predicated on the theory of neighborhood effects, where quantitatively measured concentrations of various characteristics are treated as as causal mechanisms. Also see Fullilove (2011) on the state-driven “serial forced displacement” of poor, mostly black communities.