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The Connector Building Opens in Harambee

September 19, 2023
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A new community hub has officially launched at the border of the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods, marking the first phase in an ongoing development project aimed at revitalizing the area on and around the Beerline Trail. The Connector Building, 274 E. Keefe Ave., will serve as a site for trail programming, gatherings and events. It will also house a cafe, Kuumba Juice and Coffee, which is expected to open in the coming months. “This is a great opportunity to really uplift and look at all the assets within this community,” said Darryl Johnson, executive director for Riverworks Development Corporation, the organization leading the revitalization effort. Johnson addressed a crowd of community leaders, city officials and residents gathered for Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony — some huddled under a large, white tent while others held umbrellas against the morning’s cold drizzle. “One of the things that we’ve really been focusing on as an organization is connecting businesses, connecting residents and connecting community,” said Johnson, who described the Harambee neighborhood in its heyday, before American Motors and other businesses closed their doors. The Connector Building, he said, will help regrow that network of opportunities in the area. “You hear me often talking about the power of partnerships, the power of working together to take on the biggest challenges that we have in our city, and this is a prime example of a neighborhood soon-to-be institution that is going to bring people together,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson. “We will continue to bring people together — bring the best minds together — to tackle the challenges that we have in this neighborhood and in areas all over the city.” The Connector Building includes two distinct parts. The northern half of the building will function as a gathering space and home for trail programming. The interior walls feature informational boards about the history and evolution of Milwaukee’s Beer Line, now know as the Beerline Trail. Once a railroad whose function was integral to Milwaukee’s top breweries, the 2.7-mile-long route is now a paved trail that runs diagonally from the Milwaukee River and N. Humboldt Ave. to W. Capitol Dr. near N. 3rd. The newly-constructed southern portion of the building will house Kuumba Juice and Coffee, a restaurant and cafe owned by Alex Hagler, Joe Ferch and Ellie Jackson. Inspired by the sixth Kwanzaa principle — creativity in the context of uplifting one’s community — the cafe will offer coffee, cold pressed juice and grab-and-go food items including light sandwiches and premade salads. The building’s exterior has been transformed by art from muralists including John Kowalczyk, David Najib Kasir, Fred Kaems and CK Ledesma. The completion of The Connector Building is just one step — albeit a major one — in Riverworks Development Corporation’s larger vision, which would see the trail function as a linear series of community spaces. Backed by the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC,) B-Line Park will eventually include two additional hubs to the north. Future expansions include plans for activity pavilions, garden plots, entertainment stages, barbeque areas and greenhouses, among other amenities. Enhancements are ongoing at the still-in-progress Connector Building. Future additions may include additional green spaces, a bike shed and a temporary classroom and tool shed. “The ongoing work here is around collaboration and partnership, said GMC president Joel Brennan. “Nothing good happens in this community unless you bring diverse people intentionally together in ways that can strengthen our community.” Beyond B-Line Park, the development aims to leverage real estate in the surrounding neighborhoods, activating affordable housing construction and rehabilitation and attracting new businesses for maximum economic impact. As the project progresses, Riverworks will continue to seek community input through The Beerline Trail Guiding Lens. The resident-led group holds twice-monthly meetings to discuss the trail’s programming, events, maintenance and more, and acts as a voice for the community in development decisions. Meetings are held every first and third Wednesday of the month from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. via Zoom.