MILWAUKEE — A lot has been said about the 53206 zip code in Milwaukee.
It is considered by many one of the highest incarcerated zip codes in the country. According to the movie Milwaukee Milwaukee 53206, it claims 62 percent of Black men who come from that zip code have served time or are currently serving time in prison.
Well, that number is complicated to measure and depending on how you view the data you could get a different answer. Politifact Wisconsin and UW-Milwaukee looked into this and found varying conclusions.
The point of this My Block story is not to make that determination or breakdown the numbers that people often cite to back up their claim. Rather, it's to take our eyes off the papers and the data and to learn about the neighborhood from those who know it best - the people that live there.
The zip code has gotten a negative, and some would say unfair, reputation from the media along with general hearsay.
“The media has definitely done a bad - irresponsible job at portraying the neighborhood," Rodney Triggs, a long-time resident of the Amani neighborhood said. "I used to work in Mukwonago, and a lot of the people in Mukwonago would be scared to come to Milwaukee and I'd have to let them know it ain’t that bad.”
So what is it really like?
To properly learn about the community, we went to the Amani neighborhood, within the 53206 zip code, to walk along side the neighbors to learn about their experiences. We met with Rodney Triggs and he was our tour guide as we talked with various neighbors. Where we went and who we talked to was all up to him. There was no script to follow.
Welcome to Rodney's neighborhood.
“You hear the term the hood, the hood, the hood, you know. And they slowly start getting away from neighborhood, but this is truly a neighborhood. It’s not just a hood, you know what I mean. It might be surrounded by hood or whatever you want to call it, but it’s one big neighborhood. This family. We all love each other," Triggs said.
He lives on the corner of 21st and Locust Street. Rodney has lived in the neighborhood most of his life. He helps people transition to a life after prison with the Center For Self Sufficiency.
We started the day outside of his house and began to walk through the neighborhood.
It was clear from the moment the interview began, Rodney had a true and deep love for where he grew up. He touched upon that when asked about people moving out of Amani and why he decided to stay in the neighborhood.
"If everybody moved, then who's going to stay here to love the neighborhood. I mean, I understand everybody move to Texas or Arizona or whatever their hearts desire, but if everybody - if the good people leave, who's going to be here to kind of keep everything in order," he said.
In a sense Rodney is like the block ambassador. With this interview opportunity, he wanted to make sure people knew exactly what the neighborhood was like.
“I don’t think it’s a bad reputation. I just think it’s all positive, you know. If you come over here, you will get shown love.”
That's exactly what happened as we walked up and down 21st Street. Rodney waved and greeted many of his friends as they passed by. He would talk with them for a second before moving on. Not everyone was receptive to being on camera, but one person did stop to talk on the condition we wouldn't use his name.
"This is like a family, you know what I'm saying, area. It ain't no gang bang thing. It's a movement for us," the man said.
The Amani neighborhood goes from 20th to 27th streets, from Center Street on the south to Keefe Aevenue on the north. Amani means peaceful/peace in Swahili.
“I mean it has its ups and downs, but for the most part, I mean, I think it’s more ups than downs," Triggs said about what he thinks of the neighborhood.
He did comment that there are some issues the neighborhood needs to address like crime and litter. He mentioned that there are people who still engage in illegal activity, but now, he says some of them are starting to change their ways.
"I mean you got individuals that might of maybe sold some drugs maybe gang banged or whatever you want to call it," he said. "People that might have sold drugs but now they kind of, I don’t know, just improve the neighborhood, you know. Encourage other individuals to love and connect with each other on a positive note. Just kind of getting away from the things that once destroyed the neighborhood."
Rodney beleives the overall character of the neighborhood is good and positive.
“The residents, the people. I don’t know I just kind of feel like since I was a little kid or a lad, you know, we just always kept an eye on each other. Make sure everybody was okay despite the stereotypes.”
Soon after we left his house, we linked up his friend he arranged for us to meet, Dr. Carl Wesley. The two grew up in the neighborhood together.
Quickly, the conversation turned to addressing how the Amani neighborhood got to the point where movies like Milwaukee 53206 created documentaries about it.
"When you have low income, low resources, you have a - when we talk about employment there are not even a lot of jobs in this neighborhood. But then the folks who live in the neighborhood, they don’t always receive the types of resources and trainings needed for them to get the type off jobs that will remove them from engaging in the underground economy in order to pay their bills," Wesley said.
Carl works at the Center for Self Sufficiency with Rodney. He wants to correct any negative stereotypes outsiders might have about the people who live in Amani.
“It’s as if people believe that it’s part of a culture of pathology rather than being systematic things that have been set up to create barriers for individuals who are coming out of places like this.”
Carl said the issues the neighbors deal with start at a young age. There aren't adequate resources to help.
“My first time seeing somebody murdered was at (Moody Park), and I was like 5 years old. I got to go back on the block after that happened. The flight for life - the first time I see a helicopter was at this park coming to get somebody who got shot, and then I got to go back on this block and just hang out and nobody came. Ain't no counselor."
He said that it isn't uncommon for young children to see multiple homicides and crime scenes. The problem is that it can become normalized.
"You become desensitized. At 5 years old, 6 years old, 7 years old like now by the time you ten years old, 'oh yea he got shot.'"
Which is why he is advocating to get more community resources available to the neighbors that live here.
“I just want them to know this place is just as in need of investment as the 30th corridor as downtown as Wauwatosa.”
But Carl isn't just asking for more resources. He is taking the initiative upon himself to improve the neighborhood.
26 years ago, Carl was arrested at 3000 N. 22nd Street. Today, he is the owner of the building he was arrested in front of.
“You know, I got arrested when I was 16 years old on this corner, and that arrest followed me for the rest of my life.”
He is planning on turning the building into three two-bedroom apartments of affordable housing and an organic market.
"It's a pivotal piece in our community. I'd really like to redo it and make it in manner that is so nice that our community has something to be proud of."
Originally, the building was a corner store but has since been left vacant.
"We’re going to do a re-imagining of the mini market concept with organic meat and vegetables.”
Carl echoed statements Rodney made about the media's role in characterizing the neighborhood. He thinks there should be more stories that highlight the work being done to improve Amani.
“There’s also positive. There’s also folks who are inspiring that come out of 53206 as well, and we don’t do a whole lot to talk about those stories.”
After that, we said goodbye to Carl and walked back towards Rodney's house. On our way there, we stumbled upon a game of cans. It's a classic game in various parts of Milwaukee. Two flattened cans are placed on the ground a certain distance from each other. A person will stand behind the can and with a basketball try to shoot and hit the can opposite of them. Players receive points for hitting it and occasionally back up as the game progresses.
“Ey man y’all got big. Where the - you’re bigger than me now. Taller than me," Rodney said as he approached them.
Four kids were outside a house on 21st street playing. Two boys were playing cans while two girls were riding on scooters up and down the sidewalk.
The teenage boy was asked what he thought of the neighborhood.
"Uh I think it’s - I ain’t gone say peaceful. It’s an alright neighborhood to live in," he said. He was interrupted by one of the girls on the scooter.
"It’s definitely not peaceful. Definitely not," she said.
The teenage boy continued, "It’s sometimes like during birthdays and parties it’s peaceful. It be nice, and that's about it."
Running into the group of kids playing cans was unexpected, but Rodney said it made him happy to see kids playing outside enjoying themselves.
“It makes you jolly you know. It’s a happy feeling, you know. I mean cause it’s not the negative that your used to hearing. I know the whole if it bleeds it leads type story. They don’t ever just like - Dr. Wesley was saying, we need to cover more of the positive.”
As we wrapped up the day of interviews and made it back to Rodney's house, I had one final question for him: "Is there anything else you'd like to say about your neighborhood."
“I mean just the fact that, I mean, this was the place that I was conceived. This was the place that I learned how to fight, you know. This was the place, you know, that I got into a little bit of trouble, you know. Also the place where I learned how to be a man, responsibilities, and so forth. So if there anything I can say about my neighborhood, it’s all love. It’s all love," Rodney said.
This is the second time a My Block story has focused on a neighborhood in the 53206 zip code. You can watch that other story here.
If you would like us to come to your neighborhood for a My Block episode or know of someone you think would be a good candidate for this, email email@example.com.