Four years have passed since the violent unrest that birthed Sherman Phoenix, the entrepreneurial hub on Milwaukee’s northwest side.
Sherman Phoenix would be one legacy of the unrest, sparked by 23-year-old Sylville Smith’s death after being shot by police. The Sherman Park neighborhood cried out for justice. Protesters marched. Buildings burned.
The unrest in 2016 exposed systemic disparities between the city’s Black and white communities. The idea for Sherman Phoenix was to create an entrepreneurial hub that could foster a more inclusive economy.
“We rose from the ashes,” said Sherman Phoenix General Manager Clyde Anderson. “It was burned to the ground. And now, in the midst of everything, we’re still rising.”
As Sherman Phoenix reopened its doors this month after closing because of the coronavirus pandemic, protesters were in the streets again calling for justice. This time, it was for George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis.
“It’s been four years since the uprising that birthed Sherman Phoenix,” Anderson said. “The challenge for us is feeling like déjà vu.”
What was once a fire-damaged BMO Harris Bank branch, now serves as a hub of around 30 small businesses. The branch was one of six businesses set on fire. Sherman Phoenix opened in 2018 in one of the buildings damaged during the unrest. Nearly all of the businesses at Sherman Phoenix are run by Black entrepreneurs.
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The management team, already navigating the pandemic, is now grasping onto an opportunity to continue community dialogue about economic justice.
“In the past we’ve had these things happen and they just sort of go away,” Anderson said. “Everyone goes back to normal life. Now it’s a little bit different because the world has stopped. There’s no football, basketball, vacations. The world has slowed down. Now you can pay attention to the hurt that has happened. You can feel the pain that a lot of people are feeling.”
Sherman Phoenix and its mission of economic justice is continuing to lift up entrepreneurs who have been discriminated against.
“If no one else is looking out for us, we have to look out for ourselves,” said Jan Anderson, director of programming and events at Sherman Phoenix who is married to Clyde Anderson. “We did something that would help our people with Sherman Phoenix.”
Sherman Phoenix has been closed to the public during the pandemic and reopened in early June. Rent was waived in April, May and June for the tenants.
The pandemic canceled events, but Sherman Phoenix has added more outdoor seating with its patio with plans to host outdoor events.
With heightened attention on systemic racism and its effect on economic outcomes for people of color, Sherman Phoenix has received new financial donations and increased orders from businesses.
The project has been community-driven. Sherman Phoenix’s initial $4 million financing package included $250,000 state grant and $225,000 from the city. But much of the funding came from around 50 individual investors.
“My hope is that because of that we’ll make real strides toward change — sustainable change — that’s going to help my children,” Clyde Anderson said. “Not for tomorrow or for today. I want to make sure my kids don’t go through the same things that I went through.”
Sherman Phoenix is working to expand its reach to more entrepreneurs, host more community events and provide more educational experiences.
“We’re still trying to pull people up,” Jan Anderson said. “There’s still so much more to do. So much work we need to do.”
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