The Invisible Net

by Danell Cross posted 6/18/2014 9:00:27 AM
In 1970 the factory industry was at its peak in the Metcalfe Park neighborhood. From Center Street to Wright Street ten factories lined the 30th street corridor. These included Berber Kelling, Standard Leather, Findly Adhesives, Clark Manufacturing, Carry Lite, Helwig Carbon Products, William F. Filchfeild and Sons, Peck Metals Inc., Master Lock and Controls Corp of America. Few remain. One of the few, Master-Lock once employed close to 1300 people but now fewer than 400 are employed.

Earlier this year, Metcalfe Park BNCP site coordinators surveyed residents to learn about their community concerns. During our surveys we spoke with senior residents (70 and older) who have lived in Metcalfe Park for more than 30 years. They gave us a sense of the difference between Metcalfe Park now and when they were young. They spoke of a Metcalfe Park that is very hard to imagine now. They gave accounts of a racially mixed community that boasted factory jobs that paid livable wages for people of varying education and skill levels. The community had a good mix of Black homeowners and Black owned businesses. In those days Metcalfe Park was a walkable community. In those days it was a highly sought-after community to live in.

In comparison Metcalfe Park now looks very different from the accounts of the past. Business has dried up and the factories that lined the 30th Street Corridor which runs right through Metcalfe Park have declined. This left the people in the community without opportunities for advancement. The community became a neighborhood that possessed little political power and had become vulnerable to policies that restrict advancement. Today, voter suppression laws that prohibit felons from voting eliminates a large amount of residents from voting.

During our visioning session with the BNCP TA team, residents expressed the feeling that Metcalfe Park seemed to be encased within an invisible net that hinders advancement. Our community defines an invisible net as structural barriers that hinder advancement such as lack of opportunities, poor quality of schools, and mass incarceration. Our young people are affected by this invisible net and hindered from accessing the opportunities to live positive, productive lives.

The concerns of Metcalfe Park Residents

In four community meetings, combined with 168 community surveys, residents identified safety involving young adults as the number one priority in Metcalfe Park. Ninety-six percent of those surveyed remarked that they were concerned with public safety with 60% indicating that they felt unsafe due to the negative behavior of young adults. In addition, those surveyed stated that Metcalfe Park’s safety was impacted significantly by young people in the 18-24 year old age group.

The general statement from community was that young people hang out and take over public and private spaces in groups that are intimidating. They also complained of fights among them, ‘smoking reefer and drinking’ and shooting guns into the air all for no apparent reason. The people who felt most unsafe about this behavior were women and children. The women reported feeling unsafe when going into businesses where the youth and young adults were hanging out at, especially corner stores. Often they said they felt a need to clutch their purses tighter, limit how much money they had in hand and keep their children close in sight in case fighting would break out. School age children relayed that, in an effort to be safe, they kept to themselves and tried to move in and out of the community without attracting attention. One 13-year old, boy, captured the feelings of many when he said, “I just try to be invisible.” Our 13- to 15-year old respondents, spoke of not having anyone to talk to for guidance or mentoring.

The elders spoke about their disappointment with young people and their inability to finish school and their involvement in criminal activities. They also mentioned that youth and young adults were often playing basketball and football in the streets while they should be in school, training programs or working. They were concerned that organizations that used to offer these programs didn’t seem to be available today.

The men for the most part felt safe in the community but were concerned about the lack of opportunities for themselves and the younger adults. One man in particular said that young people were responding to the lack of positive opportunities in ways that endangered everybody. He declared that young people have no hope for their future and they feel trapped. He believed that their behavior was a reflection of their sense of hopelessness.

Think for a minute of Milwaukee as a grid. We know that if one part of the grid is broken it weakens the whole grid. The grid is broken in Metcalfe Park, especially for the young adults and this has implications for not only Metcalfe Park, but also for our city and state. Those surveyed listed the following reasons for this behavior on the part of youth and young adults:

Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice

One survey respondent stated that he felt safe but was concerned for the children and women. He was also concerned about the young adult men and the behavior that scared children and women, pointing out that the young men were “responding to a system that excludes them from positive opportunities” and that the only system that was waiting to respond to them was prison.

Metcalfe Park has been marked as a dangerous community and has heavy involvement from the Milwaukee police department. Police representatives from District 3 have stated that much of their resources are concentrated in our community. The Department appears to be concerned with the same behaviors of Metcalfe Park as residents have identified. One of the concerns of residents is the number of young adults getting arrested. We are currently partnering with the Department to get the arrest rate for our community.

What we do know is that between 1990 and 2010 there were 2,004 adults released from incarceration into the 53210 zip code area. Some who are young adults many of whom may now be parents, with a criminal justice record, that are now faced with the double challenge of supporting themselves and their families. We also know that Wisconsin has the highest black incarceration rate in the nation. Within Milwaukee, Metcalfe Park falls in the top 15 zip codes for most incarcerated African American males. Therefore, our community has faced significant challenges due to the high incarceration rates


In our surveys, Metcalfe Park residents felt that a number of young people who congregate in the streets are actually homeless. Some mentioned that their own children sometimes brought home young adult friends asking to be allowed to take a nap, shower or to change clothes. In some cases respondents spoke of young adults sleeping in boarded-up houses. Residents expressed some ideas about why these young adults are homeless. They felt that some homelessness occurs because young people drop out of school. Wisconsin Act 239 states that parents can be jailed and fined for failing “to exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection and control’ over their children who are minors. This law has been used to prosecute parents whose adolescent child decides not to go to school. Since by law parents are responsible for keeping their children in school, sometimes they push their children out of the home because they find it difficult to enforce school attendance. Drug and alcohol addiction combined with the fact that young people are not employed can also drive parents to push their kids out of the home.

Service providers (Word of Hope Ministries, Pathfinders and Insite) acknowledge that homelessness is a real and underreported problem for this age group, as they “house hop,” meaning they find nightly shelter in the homes of various friends and family. In our conversations with service providers we found that there is limited programming to support this particular age group. Insite, a transitional living program, explained that young men were not being served because when they applied many were not successful in completing necessary paperwork. Providers also stated that criminal conviction could cause these young men to not be accepted into some program options. Finally, organizations reported not having the capacity to serve the numbers of young adults in need of supportive services. For instance, another provider, Pathfinders has some transitional housing for young adult’s ages 18 to 25 but it is limited to the LGBT population. It does have a drop-in center where homeless young adults can take care of personal needs, use the resource center and receive personal hygiene products,

One middle-age homeless man we interviewed spoke about his sense of an increase in the number of homeless young adults and the difficulty in getting them connected to services. He said “Young adults aren’t comfortable with discussing their challenges. They want to be independent. It’s a matter of pride.” But he offered that sometimes the same young person would come back and ask for information on safe places to sleep and other services. He believed that it was important to share information on shelters and other resources in the area.

Unemployment and the lack of opportunity

The concern about lack of opportunities for training and employment for young adults was a common thread in our conversations with community residents. They felt that young adults face many barriers, including failing schools. Fifty percent of Metcalfe Park residents do not have a high school diploma and dropout rates in the MP district continue to be among the highest in the city. Additionally, young adults in Metcalfe Park have grown up in a community where jobs are scarce and as a result they lack workforce experience. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness which is an organization that advocates for the rights of homeless people of all ages:

“Unemployment increases stress and unhappiness, and heightens the risk of malnutrition, illness, mental stress, loss of self-esteem and depression. It can reduce the life expectancy of workers and increase the probability of poor physical health outcomes, such as heart attacks, in later life. Long-term unemployment creates numerous disadvantages for those seeking employment. For youth in general, unemployment fosters feelings of helplessness; for youth aged 17-25, unemployment during a recession can adversely affect their beliefs about life chances. Unemployment also increases the probability of being unemployed later in life and decreases the potential for lifetime earnings. In addition to these poor outcomes, unemployment inhibits a youth’s ability to access and maintain housing.”

Lack of employment increases the likelihood that young adults in Metcalfe Park will rely on illegal ways to gain income, which weakens their need for legitimate work and reinforces a negative subculture. “Work provides more than just a pay check it teaches you discipline, work ethics, being on time, and the absence of work can impact young people’s family life.”


In developing our vision for Metcalfe Park, residents acknowledged that change and progress would come to our neighborhood. We would like that change to not remove people who have lived in this community for generations. We want to make sure that the people who live in Metcalfe Park are a part of the change, that they are partners in designing and implementing the change and that the people who live here have the opportunity to benefit from the change that revitalization brings.

With over half of the population in Metcalfe Park being under the age of 24 we believe as a community that it is crucial to get in front of these issues to make sure our young people have the skills and opportunity to be productive members of Metcalfe Park and to have a good quality of life. The issues affecting Metcalfe Park’s young adults are not just about law enforcement. They are also not just about community. It will take a long-term approach with the cross sector partnership to address the many things that are wrong in Metcalfe Park. Our solutions are designed to engage the community in supporting young people’s transition to adulthood. We would like to begin to do this by looking at the ways that we as the older adult generation can support the transition to adulthood of this current generation of young adults so that they may have positive outcomes. This in turn will benefit their families, the community and our entire City.

Notes on this blog post:

A few years ago in seeking to understand the connection between racism, violence and racial disparities in poor communities of color, ICP learned about structural violence. Defined as “the physical and psychological harm that results from exploitive and unjust social, political and economic systems.” Structural violence is seen as an “invisible {force}, embedded in ubiquitous social structures, {and} normalized by stable institutions and regular experience.”

Structural violence is caused by a power dynamic that oppresses and frames a community, which lays the foundation for racism, classism, gender and youth bias and a host of socio-economic disparities. A structurally violent community is one in which social inequality is so deeply embedded within societal structures, that no one recognizes it, not those who benefit from it or those most directly affected by it. Its results are constraints on behavior and options, social exclusion and marginalization and a plethora of social disparities, including poor physical health outcomes, poor life expectancy, high rates of crime and violence, teen pregnancy, maternal deaths and infant mortalities, etc.

As residents of structurally violent communities assume and respond to the oppression, they take on a variety of behaviors, including interpersonal violence, which serves to reinforce the oppression. Though it has wide uptake in the international community, structural violence has only recently been recognized and discussed in the U.S., where our tendency has been to apply labels that pinpoint the blame for structural violence solely on community and those who reside there. We know a community is experiencing structural violence when it exhibits high rates of poverty, poor physical and mental health, low education and employment outcomes, premature death among its young and old, and low to no political power.

ICP is a TA subcontractor to the Center for the Study of Social Policy on a federal government contract called the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program (BNCP). As part of the Administration’s neighborhood revitalization initiative, the BNCP provides funding and technical assistance to eight “severely distressed” communities in four cities across the country. These communities are seen to lack the capacity to be competitive for major grants and contracts for revitalization. The BNCP is intended to build their capacity to develop neighborhood revitalization plans.

In one of our visioning sessions with residents of the Metcalfe Park community, residents surprised the TA team by talking about an invisible net that envelops their community and restricts their ability to be upwardly mobile. The net is not seen by their young people, but it traps them, also limiting their ability to reach opportunity. Danell Cross, BNCP site coordinator and former Metcalfe Park resident (Early in the project, Ms. Cross’s house was destroyed by fire, separating herself and her young son from their neighbors and community) wrote the following essay, which provides context for the desire of older adult residents to use BNCP as a means to intervene in the lives of younger adults and to help people understand the web of factors that limit and determine life in Metcalfe Park. Ms. Cross and her partner coordinator set out to interview a number of residents to determine a result for their work that would improve the quality of life in Metcalfe Park.

Common knowledge among residents is that the neighborhood turned about 30 years ago when two police officers were shot and an economic downturn, but like other poor communities of color, Metcalfe Park in its present state was also created by a series of federal, local and state policies that removed thriving African American communities to funnel transportation and resources toward the development of a suburban community. These policies located African Americans into hyper-segregated and increasingly impoverished areas of the city.

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Blog Archives

Confronting the Structures of Race
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The Invisible Net
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