Death of 15th Street – Milwaukee Community Journal


A few days after sending my quarterly contribution to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, I received a press release announcing the closure of the LaVarnway unit.

The announcement surprised me, eliciting a reaction similar to finding out that a childhood friend you hadn’t seen for decades had passed away.

Growing up in the urban community of Milwaukee, the downtown boys’ clubs were a haven from apartheid and apartheid, a place where your skin color didn’t matter.

Equally important, clubs like LaVarnway were a vehicle for maturation and camaraderie.

The streets of Milwaukee were cleaner and much safer during my childhood, a paradigm that the Boys Club and other community institutions had a lot to do with.

Black children were also different.

Most of us were products of traditional nuclear families, who, despite institutional racism, had the power to succeed both academically and professionally.

Fortunately, we had the advantages of having both a mother and father in the house. And while we were technically in, we weren’t poor, nor did we embrace the Culture of Poverty like many do today.

The icing on the cake is that my generation grew up in a real village.

We have engaged neighbors, shared a common spiritual and cultural reality. We even grew and tended grass and collected garbage.

Local and local villagers represented our extended family, which is a foreign concept to many today.

Public schools like the North Division were considered community centers.

Churches were more than spiritual havens; They were institutions that replaced social assistance and served as catalysts for civil rights campaigns.

What about the Boys Club? It was both a sanctuary for delinquency, as well as a center for the development of youth.

The clubs provided a place to exert our energies, learn relevant skills like carpentry and build lasting relationships with boys who share a similar culture.

Eons ago, the sole purpose of clubs was the development of male youth.

LaVarnway, when I was young, was the 15th Street Boys Club.

The 15th Street unit consisted of the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and the Salvation Army wrapped in a mud cloth.

For me it was all that and a bag of homemade chips.

If you were looking for me during my pre-teen years, chances are you would find me on 15th Street.

I spent many hours there, especially during the summer months when school was out.

My uncle, the first African American State Diving Champion, was the manager and pool manager at the 15th. As such, he was like a surrogate father figure to me, my cousins, and all the other impressionable boys, even though most had full-time fathers at home.

Uncle Ronn Grace taught us to swim and to talk about hygiene, personal development and manhood.

He taught us to stand up straight and look people in the eye. Respect our elders and our culture – complement what we have learned at home.

He also corrected our grammar, made us remove words like “is not” and never use double negation.

He stressed the importance of being able to express yourself with anyone.

Because the Club was exclusively for boys, we often swam naked. Before we were allowed into the pool, Uncle Ronn was doing a cleanliness test. He rubbed our wrists or ankles to see if any dirt appeared. If so, back to the showers.

Uncle Ronn started a swimming program that introduced us to competing with white clubs. He also led us through a rite of passage which included an introduction to judo and boxing (for exercise and discipline), African culture and academics.

Essentially, the members of the 15th Street Boys Club engaged in a rite of passage; we were introduced to the basic concepts of manhood, with positive male role models leading the way.

Teutonia Avenue, between Hadley and Center streets, was at the time an entertainment and business district.

There was a movie theater and bowling alley in the middle of the block and restaurants (and a quality strip club) on either side.

On the corner of Hadley and Teutonia was a Kohl’s Foods grocery store, run by a little white man named Herb Kohl. Yes, that Herb Kohl, the future American senator.

Taking a shortcut from my house on Locust, I entered Kohl’s on Teutonia on my way to the Club. The fruit and vegetable section was at the back of the store, where I casually stole an apple or an orange before exiting the grocery store, which opened into a parking lot. The Club was on the other side.

It was a routine for many of us.

Many years later, while on a tribute panel to Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, I admitted my juvenile delinquency to “Senator” Kohl, who was on the dais. In fact, I offered a few dollars in restitution.

It was supposed to be a joke, but surprisingly the multimillionaire owner of the Bucks took my money!

After watching a Boys and Girls Club commercial featuring actor Denzel Washington a few years ago, I started making quarterly contributions to the Club. I did so with some hesitation as I disagreed with the decision to open the clubs to girls.

I am not chauvinist. But the “Boys” clubs were an essential vector for male development. It was as memorable as it was unique. Not all organizations should be gender neutral.

There’s a reason we have a Boys and Girls Scouts and a YM and YWCA. The last time I ventured into a public building, there was a separate toilet for girls and boys, although that could soon be an antique if those on the far left were successful.

Minister Louis Farrakhan was not chauvinistic when he organized the Million ‘Man’ March. Or why the sisters organized a separate walk for themselves the following year.

The extension of clubs to girls has essentially destroyed a single path, a brotherhood for young men. And that’s beyond being able to swim naked.

Today, more than ever, a gender club is needed to fill the void left by the absence of black fathers in 70% of African American households.

Our black boys need projects and programs to meet their unique needs. And, to be more exact, they need men like my uncle who will serve as village deputy heads.

LaVarnway opened as the 15th Street Boys Club in 1957. The Boys Clubs expanded to include girls in 1990. New programs began immediately after that.

Today, it offers daycare centers and other social services instead of its original goal: to train strong men and good citizens. There are millions of missionary organizations and poverty pimps to fill this void of social service. The club was supposed to be a “club”.

Five years ago, the LaVarnway facility was sold to Rescue Mission, a large complex, including a school next to the Club, extending to Center Street.

If it is not demolished, I assume the club will become a recreation center for the rescue mission when it closes in December.

The 15the Street Club will join several downtown units that have been closed over the past two years.

The pandemic played a role in this tragedy, although clubs have been losing their members for a decade.

I blame some of this on bad marketing and community outreach.

Obviously, funding, or the lack of it, was also a big factor.

Perhaps MPS, which is supposed to seek public input on spending more than half a billion dollars in stimulus funds, should consider restoring the Boys Club to its original mission.

It’s a viable investment, especially since most black boys in MPS fail their studies and head into irrelevant lives.

Who knows, maybe the corrupt MPS board can get my uncle to come back and run the club for a while. He is now a lawyer and lives in Minnesota. His proteges include doctors, lawyers and politicians. And me.

I’m sure Uncle Ronn would recreate the 15th Street model of my youth, with an eye on the impact of today’s village dysfunction which coincidentally took root when the club took on a new role.

I don’t know if I will continue to contribute to the Boys and Girls Club. There are so many viable and essential charities competing, it makes me think.

Or maybe I’ll use my limited donations towards the December funeral expenses for LaVarnway. An old friend who helped me become who and what I am.



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