My next door neighbor Bryan waved me over to his yard and asked, “Have you seen my Facebook post?” I hadn’t, so he showed me the window in his living room. In the center of that lovely, 90-year old leaded glass was a bullet hole.
The previous night around 7pm, that bullet shot through the living room window and then through the glass paned-door that lead into his dining room. It was likely a stray bullet from several blocks away. As you’d expect, Bryan was upset and frustrated; he had been at dinner at a neighbor’s house when it happened and thankfully, there were no injuries.
As I walked home, the news sunk in and my focus became more singular: where was I at 7 pm last night?
I was at the table in my dining room, eating dinner with my family. Right next door.
I want to be able to think well about the complexity and paradox of living in Sherman Park, because when a bullet shoots through a body or through your home, it’s not the time for saying something trite or simplistic. It is a profound moment, when all goes quiet and I feel compelled to process our reasons for living where and how we do. So, what is a fair, mature and wise response to a moment like this?
And this isn’t the first time I’ve been faced with that question.
It was 2008. We had lived in Sherman Park for one year and had two little girls. We were at dinner at a neighbor’s house with several other families and all of our kids were playing outside. My husband Greg was outside with the kids and heard two boys yelling at each other. One boy pointed a gun to the other’s face, finger on the trigger. The one with the gun pointed at him was yelling: “Do it! Do it!”
Greg rushed all the kids inside. The adults moved the kids to the back of the house, called the police, waited and prayed together. We prayed for those two boys, for our safety, for our neighborhood. After we prayed, I was ready to hear everyone’s plan for their exit strategy, to packing up and getting out. This was not my first time seeing a gun pulled on someone, but this incident was the underbelly that I didn’t want to see: young kids already bent on destroying their own lives, thinking they have nothing to lose.
But the conversation that night did not go toward exit strategy. Instead, something unexpected happened. One neighbor asked what we could do to help those two boys: “Does anyone know them? What’s happening in their homes? How can we make sure that young kids in Sherman Park don’t go down that same path?” Those questions began a conversation about mentoring, inviting people into our homes for dinner, and being available to kids. That night also revealed my own underbelly—the parts of myself I didn’t want to see: I wanted convenience and justice and safety for myself and my family; I didn’t really care if other people had those things for themselves and their families also. You see, I believed that I love and pursue justice, but it turns out I only love and pursue justice for myself.
Maybe you don’t think this conversation with my neighbors was unusual, but I did. Perhaps because for the first time, I was afraid—afraid for my life, for my children’s lives—and so was everyone else there. But my neighbors didn’t shrink back in fear. They taught me that day how to respond: to protect, to call the police, to pray, to step forward and engage. More importantly, they taught me to think well about serving, not fleeing our community. In other words, I learned the culture of Sherman Park that night. Sherman Park doesn’t ask, “where do we go?” but “what can we do?”
Over these past ten years, we’ve heard gunfire nearby. We’ve seen people chased, tackled and arrested. A father waited in handcuffs in my front lawn with his four children on his lap. We’ve seen the fires that have claimed the lives of babies. We’ve seen the caution tape around a block after a shooting. We’ve seen the ripples of pain and anger after Sylville’s death. I’ve seen the new gas pumps at the BP gas station on Sherman be kicked down and vandalized, a sign that the ripples of anger remain. And yet, we still choose to live here—why? Are we a better, braver type of person than people who live elsewhere? Or are we are naive, misled people who unnecessarily inconvenience/endanger ourselves and our children? Or maybe we can’t afford to move?
But let me tell you we’ve also seen the drug house closed down, seen the felon across the street open a haircutting business on his front porch and then walk his autistic daughter to the corner store for groceries. We’ve befriended the neighbor on house arrest who sets up the basketball hoop for the kids to play. We’ve sat on the front porch with neighbors while our kids play around us. We’ve dug worms out of the flower beds with kids who want to learn how to garden. We’ve been to each others homes for dinners, movies, concerts, birthdays. We brought pizza, water, ourselves, after Sylville was killed. We’ve invested our money, our families, ourselves into this community. Businesses, art and ideas are blossoming. We’ve done simple things, like shovel the snow and mow the grass and carpool the kids to school. We don’t do these things because we expect something in return; we do these things because we like living here. We’re here to let our kids play, mow the grass, and spend time well. We’re creating culture.
A vast majority of what I write presents a positive picture of our neighborhood because those are the stories that don’t make the news. But if I set out to write about Sherman Park, I can’t avoid writing about the hard, complex aspects. And so I wrestle as I write this, because I know that a bullet through the glass confirms for many of you readers what you already “know to be true” about this neighborhood.
So what is the truth about Sherman Park?
Let’s look first at history: Sherman Park had the grit to battle racially discriminatory real estate practices in the 70s. When white flight began on the north and west side, “Sherman Park residents wore the label of a racially-integrated neighborhood as a badge of honor”.* Sherman Park is where black barbers give haircuts to Orthodox Jews and the kosher shop hires a African American man to prepare food in the kitchen.** According to history, Sherman Park is strong.
I asked some of my neighbors: “Why do you live here and what keeps you here when a bullet goes through your neighbors’ window?” Kevin talked about the importance of knowing his neighbors—for six years he lived in multiple locations in the suburbs and never knew his neighbors. Charonne’s son and his friend next door watched a documentary about race in America and had a vigorous conversation about it from their cross-racial perspectives—in that moment she knew this is the right place for her family. Tischa doesn’t have family nearby and her home has become a gathering place for neighbors who have become family for her. I asked Kara, who grew up in Sherman Park and always remembered her growing up years fondly. Rod moved here for the affordable, beautiful real estate and stayed because of his relationships with neighbors.
Are these valid reasons to remain? Are those things enough when the bullets come?
Or maybe the question isn’t that simple—maybe there’s more to consider than a stray bullet.
A mural has been commissioned for the corner of 47th & Center in Sherman Park, the spot where a building used to stand, the spot where Dominic died. This mural is going to be beautiful— it will tell the story of overcoming, of community, of injustice and struggle and hope. And the Sherman Phoenix is renovating a charred, vacant building to launch several community-enriching businesses. Just as that bullet, Sylville, and those vandalized gas pumps remind us of incredible difficulties we face, the mural and new investment remind us of the beauty and culture being created here. A bullet through your home cannot be ignored. But a mural and the ideas created by a community who has walked a hard road together cannot be ignored either, especially when you see people’s faces when they behold something so beautiful—something that belongs to them. The paradox of Sherman Park is that beauty and brokenness, injustice and the justice-work exist at the same time.
So when the bullets come, or when the mural is being painted, or when we host the Easter Egg hunt, or when we call 911 for that drug house again— what can we say is true of Sherman Park? Should Milwaukee invest here, should people think about moving here, should people think about leaving?
Orson Welles said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” I don’t know how the story of Sherman Park will unfold, but I’m here with many others in a culture that continues to ask, “what can we do?”
This spring, Ms. Pat across the street planted some new flower gardens in the front of her house, a sign that she plans to see them bloom. I took her cue and planted some flowers myself and let my children play in the front yard. The mural artist is inviting residents to help paint next week and I’ll be among them. A Peace Garden may also be planted next to the mural, turning a plot of weeds into a beautiful space. Tonight, we’ll have dinner with neighbors and our collective nineteen children. I’m going to research the Sherman Park Phoenix and look for ways to get involved. We’ll mow our grass and carpool our kids to school and catch up on the day with each other on the sidewalk or our front porches. Because we live in Sherman Park and because that’s how we do things here.