In 2016, an act of police brutality deeply shook the community of Sherman Park, a historically black working-class neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee. Protests and unrest followed, prompting community leaders to discuss the need for safe gathering spaces in the area. This is how the Sherman Phoenix the project has begun: a bank building that was partially burned down during the unrest has been completely rehabilitated into a safe space for residents of Sherman Park – and people from across the Milwaukee area – to gather. In addition to providing wellness and cultural services to the community, the Phoenix is a hub for Black-owned businesses. Independent restaurants, bakeries, hair salons, nail salons and other stores populate the former BMO Harris Bank.
Sherman Park’s new device is a welcome break from the status quo in multiple ways. High-end food courts, such as TimeOut Markets by TimeOut, have taken center stage in many urban centers. TimeOut Chicago and TimeOut New York, for example, are both placed right in the middle of neighborhoods (Fulton Market and Dumbo, respectively) that have faced extreme gentrification. After visiting both, each market is exactly what you’d expect: joints mired in undeserved pretense. Instead of creating conceptually bold offerings for the sake of culinary exploration, the dishes aimed to appease the wealthy foodie who frequents Fulton Market or Brooklyn, the person who eats like their Instagram feed is their stomach and seeks out ingredients like l ‘harissa or yuzu because they sound “exotic” to the mostly white upper-class post-hipster with cushy work.
The Phoenix doesn’t target customers in the same flattering way. Even though it exists as a corporate collective, there’s a genuine sense that it exists to serve and better the community, not to make a quick consumer buck in a Patagonia vest, Apple Watch, and sunglasses. suburban living boat shoes. There is a sense of attachment to the local culture and community. Meals are not pre-prepared, frozen, and shipped across town to the Phoenix.
You’d be hard-pressed to find evidence that stall owners from TimeOut Chicago make an appearance behind the counter in their stores, but a trip to Funky Fresh Spring Rolls is incomplete without meeting owner TrueMan McGee. The same could be said of the owners of almost every store in the Phoenix.
A gateway and a sign of things to come, Funky Fresh Spring Rolls are the first indicator that things are different here. Queuing or just walking in, people – strangers – talk to each other. Traders come out from behind their stalls to meet people. It’s not an idyllic place where everyone knows your name; it’s a place where everyone learn your name.
In the roughly ten minutes I spent queuing, ordering, and waiting for my spring rolls, I saw McGee introduce himself to almost everyone who walked through the front doors. Beyond the people, each stand exudes its own personality. The aforementioned spring roll shop is offering discounts to customers willing to do push-ups or fight McGee in a rap battle as TVs play popular Food Network shows interspersed with Instagram reels of Funky Fresh Spring’s social media accounts rolls.
Coming to the front of the line at McGee’s shop is both overwhelming and exciting; the smells of an assortment of inventive health-conscious takes on the beloved pan-Asian-inspired snack made it nearly impossible to pick just one variety, albeit in the interest of exploring as much of what the Phoenix had to offer and not to fill me up too quickly, I opted for the jerk chicken. Equally spicy and spicy, the wonton-wrapped jerk chicken and vegetables didn’t deliver the fried heaviness you might expect from your garden variety takeout egg roll, but still delivered on the flavor in spades with a unique twist on the dish. The house sweet chili sauce provided a contrast that highlighted the rich, earthy intricacies beneath the jerk’s spicy exterior.
Not continually taking pot shots at TimeOut, but it feels like the opposite reaction to one-note offers that these types of spots provide. Not only is McGee’s food made with love, it’s useful. Funky Fresh Spring Rolls not only wants to offer tasty versions of spring rolls, but also healthy and high protein rolls. In its well-done intentionality, there is a genuine desire to provide both flavor and nutrition.
This sense of purpose permeates every snack, service and sip offered at the Phoenix. Whether it’s delivering Southern-grade barbecue to a town that typically prefers its beef ground and served between two buns and pork in a wrap with sauerkraut or rivaling the chokehold that cheesecake of Simma’s on Brew City with a rich and balanced slice of turtle cheesecake, the Phoenix is nothing without the businesses and community that keep it alive.
The stands are a microcosm of the Phoenix as a whole. Owners interact with customers on a deeper level than just taking a food order. Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, for example, was born out of McGee’s passion for cooking and his training as a personal trainer. Its dedication to health, physical or otherwise, is more than just smart branding. Encouraging customers to do some sit-ups to get a discount on their food could start a conversation about exercise habits or what constitutes good fitness when working out.
At first glance, you might think that a conversation about something as trivial as how to do a situp might not play into the Phoenix’s community improvement goal, but dozens — heck, hundreds — of those little things are what inspires lasting change. . Suddenly strangers become neighbors. Wandering around on a whim can turn someone into a regular due to the warm welcome from people. It’s not just service with a smile, the owners of Junior’s Barbecue were really happy to talk about their offerings, and the bakers at Confectionately Yours were happy to talk about what makes a Southern-style bakery so special. Genuine passion and excitement transform the food court into a warm and safe gathering place for the community.
The Fulton Market food court has no sense of this cultural, community or geographic character. Beyond its massive mural that reads “Chicago,” the local flavor was limited to the food attached to legendary local restaurants. Sure, its beergarden-inspired seating was vaguely Midwestern, but that’s not very Chicago-like. This was punctuated by the Uber ride there. My friend, who grew up in the famous now gentrified neighborhood that was directly north of Fulton Market, Cabrini Green, pointed to where the low-cost housing they grew up in was. Now it’s land surrounded by box dealers and luxury apartments.
True to its name, the Sherman Phoenix is giving restaurants and people a second chance after dealing with the problems brought on by the pandemic. Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, for example, originally had an outlet in Milwaukee’s Grand Avenue mall until it was forced to close due to Covid. Thanks to the Phoenix, he meets a new success. No restaurant has escaped the pandemic unscathed, but I can’t help but feel differently about TimeOut’s offerings. Many stalls are spin-offs or pet projects of already successful restaurateurs.
There is a sense of symbiosis between the businesses, the space itself, and the community to dine at Phoenix. Everyone who eats in the food court, gets a haircut or goes shopping is not only happy to eat a delicious piece of beef brisket, they are happy to eat it in their neighborhood and be served by their neighbours.