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Biden in Milwaukee highlights infrastructure investment to fix ‘divided communities’ • Wisconsin Examiner



With his visit to Milwaukee Wednesday, President Joe Biden sought to bring together complementary issues his administration has highlighted — rebuilding infrastructure and addressing systemic wrongs that have dislocated urban and low-income communities.

The White House announced $3.3 billion in grants to 42 states under the federal Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant program. Among the targets of the funds are places “that were divided by transportation infrastructure decades ago and have long been overlooked,” according to a White House fact sheet.

The program is included in the administration’s Justice40 initiative, targeting 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate, clean energy and affordable housing to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.”

Milwaukee will receive $36.6 million for its project to rebuild 2.6 miles of the city’s 6th Street corridor from National Avenue to North Avenue, running through Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville Neighborhood.

The White House announced two other Wisconsin grants. One is for $2 million to study design alternatives to reconfigure freeway ramps at a Downtown Milwaukee interstate highway interchange, with the goal of reconnecting areas of the neighborhood. The other is for $1 million to study an overpass that would connect Perry Street on Madison’s South Side to businesses south of the Beltline Highway.

The Reconnecting Communities grant program, funded through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was conceived to undo some of the historic damage brought on by city freeways starting in the 1950s and urban renewal programs in the 1960s.

“The story of Bronzeville here in Milwaukee is one that we see all across the country,” Biden said early in his 17-minute speech. He recounted how interstate highways that were begun in the 1950s were to provide “a groundbreaking connection” that would remake life, work and travel.

“But instead of connecting communities it divided them — these highways actually tore them apart,” Biden said. It was a story, he observed, repeated in cities across the country, including his home town of Wilmington, Delaware.  

A view up North 6th Street at West Cherry Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as it looks currently . (Isiah Holmes | Wisconsin Examiner)

Along with redlining — government and bank lending policies that steered homeowners toward or away from particular districts — urban highways “disconnected entire communities from opportunities, sometimes in an effort to reinforce segregation,” Biden said.

And in Milwaukee, the construction of interstates 94 and 43 intersecting in the neighborhood displaced a “thriving hub” of Black-owned commercial and residential life, leveling nearly 20,000 homes and businesses.

Biden was introduced by Raynetta “Ray” Hill, executive director of the business improvement district that encompasses Milwaukee’s Martin Luther King Drive and its historic Bronzeville Neighborhood.

After completing service in the U.S. Navy, Hill said, her grandfather, Lawrence Hill, opened a restaurant in 1949 a block from where the Boys and Girls Club building now stands.

“But because of racially charged urban renewal policies in the 1960s, aimed at suppressing this community, his restaurant was demolished when Sixth Street was widened,” Ray Hill said.

A conceptual rendering of proposed improvements to 6th Street in Milwaukee. The project is part of the city’s “6th Street Complete Streets Project” and will entail building wider sidewalks, bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, infrastructure to prevent sewage from flowing into the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan, and planting trees. (Rendering by The Kubala Washatko Architects | courtesy of Milwaukee Dept. of City Development)

While her grandfather rebuilt his restaurant in an adjacent neighborhood, she said he would be pleased by the plan to help restore the Sixth Street corridor.

“Projects like Complete Sixth Street transcend infrastructure,” Hill said. “They are commitments to community, to safety, mobility, and equality, especially for the neighborhoods that were burdened by historical disinvestment and the freeway expansion. Seventy-five years later, if my grandfather was alive, he would  be proud.”

The 6th Street project plan calls for a “people-centered design” with wider sidewalks to encourage foot traffic as well as bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes. The street reconstruction will include traffic-calming features such as narrower roadways and reduced travel lanes.

The project also will include infrastructure to prevent sewage from flowing into the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. It will add tree canopy, landscaping and other green infrastructure, according to a Milwaukee Department of Public Works project overview document. Design work is to begin later this year, with construction to start in 2027 and be completed in 2029.

More pedestrian and bike access as well as transit and more green space “means that it’s healthier to walk and be in this space,” said climate activist Abby Novinska-Lois, who attended the speech.

Abby Novinska-Lois
Abby Novinska-Lois (Photo courtesy of Healthy Climate Wisconsin)

“That brings more people to Sixth Avenue, and then businesses can come back,  because unfortunately a lot of those businesses were removed unfairly in those freeway expansions, Novinska-Lois said in an interview. “And so this is allowing those local businesses to return and for people to be safe and healthy.”

Novinska-Lois, executive director of Healthy Climate Wisconsin, said she attended Biden’s talk because the president signed the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which she called “the biggest climate investment in history.” Projects such as the one highlighted in Milwaukee Wednesday  are “exactly what we need in our communities to improve well-being,” she said.

At the same time, however, she voiced concern that another pending project that has won federal approval points in the wrong direction: expanding a stretch of Interstate 94, commonly referred to as the East-West Freeway, on Milwaukee’s West Side. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced it had received final federal approval for the expansion plan to eight lanes.

While a coalition of environmental and community groups have continued to oppose the expansion plans, the Wisconsin DOT has defended its proposal and disputed much of the criticism.

Novinska-Lois said she appreciated Biden’s frank mention of the harm freeway construction had done to Black communities half a century ago.

“So I was a little bit concerned that that history is still happening right now,” she said. “We need to protect Black, brown and lower-income people in Milwaukee right now by not allowing that expansion, either. So although we have these great projects like Sixth [Street], we really need to stop that expansion as well to stay true to the value that was in today’s speech.”


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