West Kaul Avenue

A three-part series showing how entire communities can be victims of poverty and the violence it spawns.  Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 14, 1996.

Of Heros and Horses and Six-pointed Stars

Editor's Note: Far from Milwaukee's inner city, the Kaul Ave. neighborhood is a small pocket of poverty tucked among the suburbanlike stretches of Milwaukee's northwest side.

Last spring, after four people were slain in that area, we wondered what caused such violence in a part of the city not widely known for it.

Journal Sentinel reporter Crocker Stephenson and photographer Gary Porter rented an apartment near the heart of the neighborhood, and Stephenson spent more than a month getting to know the people there.

What they found was a tight-knit community, poor but resilient, with heroes and villains and a fine line between the two.

This is the first of three stories. The names of some of the characters have been changed, at their request, to protect their identities.

A 12-year-old girl sits on a flight of green-carpeted steps just inside the doorway of a worn-out building. She rests her chin on her knees, watching an early morning rain pour down on the street outside.

She has black beads woven into her braided black hair. Her eyes are dark and sullen.

The rain sweetens the air, but the lightless hallway in which the child sits is stuffy and sour. Beads of sweat collect above her lips. Her skin glows in the shadows.

"Ain't nothing to do but sit in the hallway till it stop," she says. "Nothing to do till it stop."

Early last May, in the space of less than a week, four people were shot to death in and around a small residential neighborhood just north of Silver Spring Drive.

In one incident, two men simply blew each other away during an argument over money. In another, a woman executed her sleeping lover because, she later told police, he had given cigarettes to her young son.

But it would be the death of one man, a 24-year-old drug dealer everybody knew as Silk, that would haunt the neighborhood for the rest of summer.

Rufus Lamont "Silk" Cassel was shot May 6 in the 5900 block of N. 63rd St., near the heart of an area sometimes referred to as the Kaul Ave. neighborhood: eight blocks bordered on the north by W. Kaul, on the south by W. Bobolink, on the east and the west by N. 60th and 64th streets.

One hundred thirty-eight buildings, 420 housing units and 1,028 bedrooms, it is as close to affluent Mequon and to spacious Menomonee Falls as it is to King Drive.

This is a portrait of that neighborhood and of some of the forces that over the summer of 1996 shaped the hearts and minds of the 1,289 people who live there.

In the months that followed Silk's death, neighborhood kids began wearing T-shirts with a color photograph of Silk reproduced on the back with the slogan: "R.I.P. SILK."

In the photograph, Silk is thin and handsome. His long hair is combed back. His beard trimmed to a mere shadow. His head tilts slightly to right, as it does in many of the photos that fill his mother's albums. He looks directly into the camera but doesn't quite smile.

He is wearing a gold necklace and a pendant: a two-inch crucifix affixed to an anchor and the wheel of a sailing ship.

It was among Silk's favorite pieces of jewelry. He would be wearing it the night he was shot. Afterward, his mother would take the necklace to a jeweler and have it cleaned, and it would hang around his neck at his wake.

Over the course of the summer, Computer Portraits in Capitol Court mall would sell about 100 T-shirts with Silk's picture on the back, as well as 8-by-10 portraits of Silk, and key rings with Silk's picture on them.

"I'm just letting myself know that's he's in a better place," says a 14-year-old girl wearing a Silk T-shirt. "That he's up there looking down on us, protecting Six Trey."

Six Trey is the nickname Silk gave to the stretch of 63rd between Kaul and Bobolink. Memorials to him are painted on the sidewalks up and down the street.

Most just say R.I.P. SILK and are decorated with the number 6, or a pitchfork, or a six-pointed star, symbols of the Gangster Disciples.

On the back of Hassie Branson's right hand, in the fleshy area between her thumb and index finger, is a tattoo: a six-pointed star and the numbers 7 and 4.

The numbers are code, one that has become well-known on the streets, and correspond to letters in the alphabet. Seven represents "G" and four represent "D." Gangster Disciples.

Like most of her tattoos -- Hassie has perhaps eight, including a tiny heart-shaped tear beneath her right eye -- this one is self-inflicted, accomplished years ago with a sewing needle wound with thread and dipped in indigo-colored ink.

Hassie slips the hand beneath the head of her infant son, Benji, and lifts the child from his crib. Ill almost since birth, Benji has already spent a week in the hospital. Though 3 months old, he weighs less than 10 pounds.

"Hello, Benji," Hassie coos. "Hello, Benji."

Hassie, who is 24, and her husband, Bernie, who is 26, live in a two-bedroom apartment in the 6200 block of West Kaul. They have five other children besides Benji -- Bernie Jr., Pooh Bear, Cortez, Mike and Latasha. All are under the age of 7.

It is midafternoon, and the heat is stifling. Hassie hands Benji to Bernie, then marches her five oldest into the bathroom. She fills the tub with cold water, and the five climb in, squealing with delight.

Once in a while, a child escapes from the bathroom to go racing through the living room, slick as a seal and dripping wet. Bernie Sr. shakes his head and smiles.

"A bigger place is what I need," he says.

Nearly half of the people who live in the Kaul Ave. neighborhood are under the age of 18.

Here, neighborhood news circulates in a plasma of children's gossip. What reaches adults is often spiked with the distortions of a child's world view.

Adults who didn't know Silk had at least heard of him from their kids, and what they heard, if they didn't think about it too deeply, sounded generous, even heroic.

Kids idolized Silk, and not merely for his car, his clothes, his guns and his jewelry -- all of which they noted and discussed -- but also because, in an area troubled by gangs, violence and drugs, Silk appeared to be fearless and decent.

Silk looked out for them. He bought them ice cream, broke up their fights, retrieved stolen bicycles, grabbed young troublemakers by the hand and brought them home to their mothers and grandmothers.

He knew their names, carried them around on his back, asked them how they were doing in school.

Silk had lived in the neighborhood as a boy and had moved back during the early stages of his career. Neighborhood kids had watched him emerge from a skinny teenager forced by his mother to wear itchy silk shirts -- the source of his nickname -- into a likable young man who in their dangerous world commanded authority and respect.

"Silk was a gangster," says 9-year-old Mercedes Lewis, who is sitting in the shade of a maple tree at the corner of 63rd and Kaul.

The corner is considered a safe haven for neighborhood kids, who congregate there in the late afternoons waiting for Norm Jewell, a 28-year-old maintenance worker at Kohl's Food Stores, to come home from work.

Norm has lived on W. Kaul for 2 1/2 years. In exchange for a reduction in his rent, he manages his building and the one next door. Norm shares his apartment with two cats -- Aries and Gemini -- and the pieces of a hundred broken bicycles he has collected over the years. On summer evenings, Norm sits on the stoop outside his apartment and uses the pieces to fix broken bikes. Kids bring him their flattened tires, bent rims, broken chains and floppy seats. They know Norm will fix them.

If there's nothing to fix, they'll just sit and talk or Norm will take them riding. People in the neighborhood call the corner "Camp Norm."

It's almost 1 p.m. Mercedes and a couple of his friends have been sitting on the corner waiting for Norm since noon. Norm had promised to take them to the State Fair that afternoon.

While they wait, they discuss, among other things, Silk, whom Mercedesadmired.

"I didn't like him because he was a gangster," Mercedes says. "I liked him because he played with me."

The conversation drifts to the night Silk was shot.

It was just after 7 p.m. Mercedes and a half-dozen friends were playing outside when the gunfire erupted, and they all sprinted into Mercedes' apartment. There they waited, crouched away from the windows, listening first to the terrible moment of silence that seems always to follow a shooting, then to the shouts of frantic parents looking for their children, then to the wail of police sirens and ambulances.

News that it had been Silk who had been shot spread through the neighborhood quickly. After a while, the kids left Mercedes' apartment to check in with their parents and to see what had happened. Mercedes, who had known Silk for years, stayed inside.

"I didn't want to go see nobody shot," he says. The thought he could someday be shot occurs to Mercedes on a regular basis. It leaves his stomach churning.

"I think about that a lot," he says. "I don't think about it every night. I just think about it when it happens."

As Mercedes and his friends talk, a silver Mercedes Benz stops at the corner. Its windows are rolled down and rap music is blasting from its speakers. Four people get out and disappear in the doorway of a worn-out building. The kids get up and move closer to Norm's stoop. The Mercedes drives away. Moments later, a battered white van pulls up. The vehicle is 12 yearsold and has 125,000 miles on it. The door swings open, and out steps Norm.

"You guys ready to go?" he asks.

Since the beginning of the summer, the Bransons have been trying to put together enough resources to move. The size of their apartment is only a part of their worries.

There are 15 apartment buildings on the north side of Kaul Ave. between 60th and 64th. All but one was built in the same year -- 1962 -- and 11, including the Bransons' building, are identical models: two apartments on the first, two on the second, a slab of concrete outside the first floor units and narrow balconies along the second floor.

The buildings stand shoulder to shoulder in a line unbroken except by a vacant lot just west of the Bransons' building and by narrow driveways that run between the buildings to a single vast and often litter strewn parking lot in the back. The parking lot is considered dangerous. Almost no one leaves a working car there.

None of the buildings has a back door, and on warm days, life inside is driven onto the sidewalk out front, where it unfolds in a chaotic din of playing children, transient hustlers, domestic disputes and ice cream trucks.

Police and neighborhood residents alike call the strip of buildings on the north side of Kaul "Shooters Row," and at first glance, they form an intimidating squall line of blight.

In fact, the quality of the buildings varies greatly and depends largely on who owns them and how they are managed.

The Bransons, who pay $425 a month in rent, live in one of the most wretched.

Their building is infested with mice and cockroaches. The front door has been kicked in so often it no longer stays shut. The roof leaks, and a rust-colored strip of pocky plaster runs the length of the Bransons' living room ceiling. On rainy days, the Bransons put out buckets to collect the dripping water.

Only one window opens. It doesn't have a screen. Nor does the door that leads from the living room to the balcony. Doors have holes, walls have holes, windows have holes. The stove, when it works, catches on fire. The Bransons must bring their food to a neighbor's kitchen to cook.

The sharp scent of marijuana smoke drifts through the Bransons' open window. It is commonly believed by those who live in the building that the people who occupy one of the apartments on the first floor are selling drugs.

When Bernie talks about them, he moves away from the windows. He lowers his voice to nearly a whisper.

The other day, as Bernie was standing in the building's front yard, a man from that apartment came out and told Bernie to go back inside.

"He told me, 'This is our building now. We don't want to see you out here no more.' "

Bernie is 6 feet, 4 inches tall. He weighs 240 pounds. He went back into his apartment and told his wife, "It's time for us to move."

By the time he's ready to leave for the fair, Norm has eight kids, rather than just the three he had planned on, waiting to come along. Norm, saving up to buy a home, has just sold his car for $725. He will use some of the money to take them all.

"If I were to die, I bet you wouldn't see kids walking around here with my picture on the back of their shirts," he says. "I really don't care.

"Three, four, five years from now, each and every one of these kids around here is going to have to make a decision. They're going to have to decide what direction to go in their lives. Someone is going to become the next Silk. Someone is going to become the next kid that shoots Silk. Some are going to decide to do the right thing.

"That's when what I do is going to matter. When some kid decides to do the right thing."

Norm buys the kids lunch. Takes them to the pig races. Takes them on the giant slide. Challenges them all to milk a cow.

It's almost dark before they get home, tired and happy. Especially Silk's 9-year-old cousin, Jonathan. He has seen and patted the embodiment of his dreams: horses.

"They was so big, I could have stuck my head in their noses," he says.

"You ever see 'Black Beauty' -- the movie 'Black Beauty'? I wish I had me a horse like that," he says. "I'd keep him in my back yard. I'd be riding it all the time."

"You ain't even got a back yard," one of the kids says.

Jonathan considers this fact, then says, "That's why I'd move. I'd move to someplace nice, somewheres where there's a lot of grass."