In 2016, an act of police brutality shook the community of Sherman Park, a historically Black, working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s North Side, to its core. Protests and unrest ensued, prompting community leaders to discuss the need for safe gathering spaces in the area. That’s how the Sherman Phoenix project started: A bank building that was partially burned during the unrest was completely rehabbed into a safe space for Sherman Park residents—and people from all over the Milwaukee area—to come together. On top of offering wellness and cultural services to the community, the Phoenix is a hub for Black-owned businesses. Independent restaurants, bakeries, barber shops, nail salons and other shops populate the former BMO Harris Bank.
Sherman Park’s new fixture is a welcome break from the status quo in a myriad of ways. High-end food courts, like TimeOut’s TimeOut Markets, have taken center stage in many urban centers. TimeOut Chicago and TimeOut New York, for example, are both placed smack in the middle of neighborhoods (Fulton Market and Dumbo, respectively) that have faced extreme gentrification. Having been to both, each market is exactly what you’d expect: Joints mired in unearned pretense. Instead of creating conceptually daring offerings for the sake of culinary exploration, the dishes aimed to appease the wealthy foodie that frequents Fulton Market or Brooklyn, the person who eats as if their Instagram feed were their stomach and who seeks out ingredients like harissa or yuzu because they sound “exotic” to the primarily white, upper-class post-hipster with a cushy job.
The Phoenix doesn’t target customers in the same pandering way. As much as it exists as a business collective, there’s a genuine sense that it exists to serve and better the community, not make a quick buck off the consumer in a Patagonia vest, Apple Watch and boat shoes living in the suburbs. There’s a sense of dedication to local culture and community. Meals aren’t pre-made, frozen and shipped across town to the Phoenix.
You’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of the stand owners at TimeOut Chicago making an appearance behind the counter at their shops, but a trip to Funky Fresh Spring Rolls is incomplete without running into owner TrueMan McGee. The same could be said about the proprietors of nearly any of the Phoenix’s shops.
A gateway and sign of things to come, Funky Fresh Spring Rolls is the first indicator that things are different here. Standing in line or just walking in, people—strangers—are talking to each other. Shop owners come out from behind their stands to meet people. This isn’t an idyllic place where everybody knows your name; this is a place where everybody learns your name.
In the roughly ten minutes I spent in line, ordering and waiting for my spring rolls, I saw McGee introduce himself to just about everyone who walked through the front doors. Beyond the people, each stand exudes its own sense of personality. The aforementioned spring roll shop offers discounts for customers willing to do some push-ups or battle McGee in a rap battle as TVs play popular Food Network shows interspersed with Instagram reels from Funky Fresh Spring Rolls’ social media accounts.
Getting to the front of the line at McGee’s shop is equal parts overwhelming and exciting; the smells from a smorgasbord of health-conscious, inventive takes on the beloved Pan-Asian-inspired snack made it nearly impossible to choose just one variety, though in the interest of exploring as much of what the Phoenix had to offer and not filling myself up too quickly, I opted to try the jerk chicken. Equally spiced and spicy, the wonton-wrapped jerk chicken and veggies didn’t bring the deep-fried heaviness you might expect from your garden variety takeout egg roll but still delivered on flavor in spades with a unique spin on the dish. The house sweet chili sauce delivered a contrast that highlighted the rich, earthy subtleties lying beneath jerk’s spiced exterior.
Not to continually take pot shots at TimeOut, but it feels like the opposite reaction to the one-note offerings those types of spots provide. Not only is McGee’s food lovingly made, but it’s purposeful. Funky Fresh Spring Rolls doesn’t just want to offer tasty takes on spring rolls but also healthy, protein-rich ones. In its well-made intentionality, there’s a genuine drive to deliver both flavor and nutrition.
This sense of purpose permeates every snack, service and sip offered at the Phoenix. Whether it’s delivering Southern-quality barbecue to a city that usually prefers its beef ground and served between two buns and its pork in a casing with sauerkraut or rivaling the chokehold that Simma’s cheesecake has on Brew City with a rich, 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 engage with patrons on a level deeper than just taking a food order. Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, for example, was born from McGee’s passion for cooking and background as a personal trainer. His dedication to health—physical or otherwise—is more than just smart branding. Encouraging customers to do a few situps to get a discount on their food might start a conversation about exercise habits or what constitutes good form when working out.
At first blush, you might think that a conversation about something as seemingly trivial as how to do a situp couldn’t possibly play into the Phoenix’s goal of communal betterment, but dozens—hell, hundreds—of those little things are what instill lasting change. Suddenly, strangers become neighbors. Wandering in on a whim might turn someone into a regular because of just how welcoming the people are. This isn’t just service with a smile, the owners of Junior’s Barbecue were genuinely excited to talk about their offerings, and the bakers at Confectionately Yours were thrilled to talk about what makes a Southern-style bakery so special. Genuine passion and excitement transform the food court into a warm, safe gathering place for the community.
Fulton Market’s food court is missing a sense of that cultural, communal or geographical character. Beyond its massive mural that reads “Chicago,” local flavor was restricted to food attached to locally legendary restaurants. Sure its beergarden-inspired seating was vaguely Midwestern, but that’s not terribly characteristic of Chicago itself. This was punctuated by the Uber ride there. My friend, who grew up in the famously now-gentrified neighborhood that lay directly north of Fulton Market, Cabrini Green, pointed out where the low-cost housing they grew up in used to be. Now, it’s a field surrounded by box retailers and luxury apartments.
Living up to its name, the Sherman Phoenix provides restaurants and people with a second chance after facing issues brought on by the pandemic. Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, for example, originally had a retail location in Milwaukee’s Grand Avenue Mall downtown until it was forced to shut down due to Covid. Thanks to the Phoenix, it’s found new success. No restaurant escaped the pandemic unscathed, but I can’t help but feel differently about TimeOut’s offerings. Many of the stands are spinoffs or pet projects from already successful restauranteurs.
There’s a sense of symbiosis between the businesses, the space itself and the community to dining at the Phoenix. Everyone eating in the food court, getting a haircut or shopping isn’t just excited to be eating a delicious piece of brisket—they’re excited to be eating it in their neighborhood and to be served by their neighbors.