Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee has attracted attention for significant development projects in recent years, some completed and some planned. Projects like Bader Philanthropies’ new headquarters, which opened in 2018, the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s $100 million redevelopment plan for the former Gimbels and Schuster’s department store building, the Bronzeville Center for the Arts and the $20.2 million Bronzeville Arts and Technology Hub recently pitched for city-owned land at 6th Street and North Avenue, are just a few examples of major projects that could help lead to a renaissance in the Bronzeville area.
But while those larger scale developments draw headlines, local entrepreneurs and the city have been working hard in recent months on a bevy of smaller projects in the Bronzeville area that are aimed at bringing new housing and commercial opportunities, like a bookstore, to the neighborhood and adding to its revival.
Niche Book Bar
Cetonia Weston-Roy became a bookworm as a little girl. Today, the 28-year-old entrepreneur is on the cusp of turning a historic building at 1937-39 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive into Niche Book Bar, the first bookstore the commercial district has had in decades.
The idea of opening a bookstore in the neighborhood began germinating for Weston-Roy in 2018 when someone asked what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
“I didn’t really think of work like that,” she said. “I liked my jobs, but I couldn’t imagine a place where I would just choose to be. Then I thought of wanting to go to a place with a wine bar and books.”
The journey toward opening the bookstore started in 2019, with Black author pop-ups Weston-Roy held around the city. Then in 2020, in the midst of COVID-19, she designed her own pedal-powered bookmobile – a yellow tricycle with shelves on either side that she would ride to different places and events and use to display books by Black authors.
She eventually learned about the 127-year-old, two-story building that the city had acquired through a tax foreclosure in 2019 and was approved to purchase the structure for $50,000 as part of a redevelopment agreement last month. When it opens its doors later this year, Niche Book Bar will provide Weston-Roy with a chance to share more books by Black authors, while also providing a gathering space for the community and local book lovers.
In Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood, HomeWorks: Bronzeville, a cultural development initiative that supports growth and activity in the community, has purchased a pair of vacant properties at 322-340 W. Meinecke Ave., with plans to transform them into their second arts-focused development in the neighborhood.
The nonprofit plans to transform a duplex at 322 W. Meinecke Ave. into a single-family, live-work space for artists and demolish a two-story, four-plex next door so the site can be used for year-round art installations and programming. The association purchased the properties – both tax foreclosures – from the city this year for a total of $1. HomeWorks’ first project, a nearby live-work space for local artist Vedale Hill, was completed a few years ago.
Melissa Nicole Allen’s Bronzeville Estates project will transform 17 formerly city-owned tax foreclosed properties into a scattered-site housing development.
The project will rehabilitate severely distressed single-family and two-family residential properties and build new duplexes on vacant lots.
In addition to the housing development, Allen’s company, Maures Development Group, is also planning two mixed-use commercial redevelopments at properties it purchased from the city’s Redevelopment Authority. The company has purchased a 136-year-old Italianate building at 540 W. North Ave. for $52,000 and a vacant lot at 1940-48 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where it plans to construct a two-story storefront-style building.
For Raynetta Hill, executive director at the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District, the most recent neighborhood-led redevelopment projects are prime examples of the kind of grass roots collaborations shaping Bronzeville for the better.
“Everyone has really taken the time to invest in themselves and others, and that is the focal point,” Hill said. “They want to be here, and they also want to be sustainable.”