Milwaukee’s First Aldermanic District always represented strength and conscientious citizen participation. A defining area for home ownership, higher educational attainment and civic/social stability, it continues to be a healthy illumination of the Black Middle Class.
Many of the homes were built in Milwaukee’s industrialization heyday with sidewalks, tree lines streets and porches perched atop manicured lawns. Homes are nestled neatly side-by-side and a large portion of the area once had a large Jewish contingent.
As they moved further eastward, the area came to be called, colloquially, Blackfish Bay, in satire to the Whitefish Bay area where many of the Jewish population relocated.
As integration moved rapidly north and westward, this enclave soon became the preferred residential setting for the Black nouveau riche. Doctors, educators, clergy, administrators, lawyers and postal workers were interspersed with strong blue-collar workers making the community a phenomenal place for children and an upwardly mobile haven for those continuing to achieve. It is highly understandable then how this district bred the first African American Mayor in the history of Milwaukee; and it intrigued the current Alderman, Ashanti Hamilton, now in his second term, to run for elected office.
Alderman Ashanti Hamilton is our “Second Line” honoree for 2010. Deeply involved in a number of major projects within his district, Alderman Hamilton considers himself, first and uppermost, a teacher who wants to make a difference. Making a difference is his classic MO (mode of operandi) as he continues to play more significant roles in the city of Milwaukee, and for his constituency.
Trained initially as a teacher of high school English and Literature, Alderman Hamilton thought the classroom would be his venue. He felt, deeply, the need to give back, to be accountable, to be an integral part of bringing about change. So for four years, he brought the “ transformational power of language to his students at Riverside University High School.”
However, he soon realized he needed more to transform their lives beyond poems, poetry and personal masterpieces he was encouraging them to create. “A lot of what we were studying had been penned generations before and yet the human experiences were the same. I was no longer satisfied just chronicling the past. There was an urgency to do more, which led me to Texas Southern University Law School, in 2003”.
There he attended with interim Mayor Marvin Pratt’s son, also a law student. When he and other fraternity brothers learned more about the mayoral campaign and what was required to make the run successful, he joined the Pratt for Mayor team; “ and I was bitten by the bug”, he said.
“I thought I just wanted to help through the campaign but he suggested that I consider running for the vacated seat. So I recruited some former students of voting age who were living in the district, by then, and they, along with others, mounted a vigorous campaign. The rest is history! I continue to mentor a few of those guys today”.
This is the Alderman’s sixth year and his contributions have become more evident, each year. “We have transformed the workforce environment and introduced projects and new programs like Earn and Learn, where 3000 youth are involved in city government through jobs in the summer. And in my district, Alderman Willie Wade and I worked extremely hard to get production jobs for new wage earners at the Tower Automotive site, on 35th and Capitol Drive. These are jobs in the central city for people with low-trade skills. It will not produce 2000 jobs but it is bringing new jobs back to the central city. And, Tower Automotive will create other service-related jobs. Jobs that will be dependent upon production at the new site.”
Continuing, he said, “ The Common Council is focusing on green jobs so that industries entering the city will have an eco-friendly experience. These things are going to put us on the map for new technology and green tech strategies. We are piggybacking on the President’s initiatives. Good government leaders do that, we see the direction things are going and we ride the waves and try to get ahead of the tide so the city benefits once the dollars fall. These steps will lead us to a prosperous future. Our President has vision. And our Council is not afraid to capture opportunities that will better our city. These are exciting times in Milwaukee.”
The City and the Council will no doubt experience a great shuffle because the Mayor is running for Governor; and that slot is opening again. While a number of names are already being mentioned, Alderman Hamilton expressed his reluctance about any major moves, at this time, because he has several projects he personally wants to see to completion. However, politics require many shifts and changes, dependent upon candidates’ interests, so he believed it was premature to rule out anything.
“I am involved in several national models designed around mixed-use development”, he excitedly explained. “Villard Square, between 33rd and 35th and Villard, will have affordable housing for seniors who are parenting their grandchildren. You know, this is a growing dynamic and we must be able to support these grandparents who, in their late life, take their grandkids and provide security and nurturing. We project 44 units for them. My grandparents raised me so this project is personal to me. There will also be a brand new library; we’ll close the other one. There will be computer labs and reading centers, all that our kids need today. And, there will be retail shops.”
“Bishop’s Creek, the major development of Bishop Daniels abuts Villard Square to the south and its mixed-use design must be seen to completion, as well. It has provided major housing/retail and supportive services for that neighborhood and removed decades of blight within the central city. “
And, previously mentioned, there’s Tower Automotive “which is taking off with great speed. That project represents the optimum intergovernmental cooperation for a common vision. The Federal government; State Representatives; the Mayor’s Office and the Common Council worked together to take advantage of this opportunity. We only had one month to make it all come together, and we had to go to court to gain control of the property. It points up the importance of timing and working together to benefit the community. This continues to be a bell-ringer in governmental interdependence of which we can be proud.”
When asked about the new focus on the lakefront and water environment leadership, Alderman Hamilton said, “ Milwaukee is becoming nationally known as an environmental leader of the whole nation. Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, along with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and other universities, have pioneered water management and waste water return. It trumps any other part of the world. The fact that we are on Lake Michigan, with some of the greatest natural resources, has again put us in an exemplary role. We are able to sell to many other communities and still bring the water back to the lake basin.”
He sat on the MMSD board for about four years. The members of the board saw the vision and worked to ensure that these eco-studies succeeded while maintaining the indigenous rivers, streams, wildlife and natural habitats. “Alderman Kovac’s district has several areas that they plan to codify so that they remain natural spaces and parks, as well,” he said.
Looking at the Alderman’s future, I sought his long-term vision. “ I went to school for law, one day I hope to return to law,” the Alderman shared. “Law school brought out some legal research talents; it sparked a desire for more information and being able to share. Ultimately, I still plan to teach. Yet some of the legislation that we go through is very similar to practicing law.”
After thought, he responded, “ I would like to see Milwaukee become a national leader in terms of education, progressive politics and improved race relations. We continue to be behind many cities in working cohesively. Perhaps it is a deeply entrenched history that continues to stagnate us, but until this city sees itself as a melting pot with skills and talents in many ethnic groups, we will continue to get lost in dialogue instead of progress. I hope I can be a bridge between ethic groups, generations and political offices. Milwaukee has much potential but we must continue to bring our bests forward.
My grandparents taught me to never give in or give up! Each day, I think of how they lived with dignity and respect and that inspires me.
Alderman Ashanti Hamilton is neither a prognosticator nor a procrastinator, he will teach, use his legal skills and legislate until he fulfills his vision of Milwaukee’s best. We congratulate his present endeavors and look forward to his future. He is a Second Line honoree who respects his heritage and celebrates his strengths.