BYJOAN ELOVITZ KAZAN | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
For JoAnne Sabir, “building community” is more than just a trendy phrase. Sabir’s Milwaukee connection grew out of childhood visits to her mother’s hometown. Today this dynamo is working to recreate that community experience.
Growing up in the New York City suburbs of Westchester County, Sabir fondly remembers visits to her mother, Sharon Adams’ Milwaukee family. “I knew everybody. I would drive my Big Wheel up and down the block; it was my own Mayberry with apple pies cooling on the porch. ... There was a deep sense of community,” Sabir recalls.
Sabir’s 9/11 experience planted the seed for a move. “I was in the heart of the city around the towers on September 11. I walked 127 blocks while pregnant with my daughter,” she explains. Adams had moved back into the house she grew up in on North 17th Street and Sabir returned soon after. “The draw was most certainly family. I remember Milwaukee as a historic reflection of healing, love and nurturing. In October, 2001, I came back to Milwaukee and I never left.”
But Lindsay Heights had begun to unravel. “The lifeblood had essentially changed. The houses around my mother’s, outside of ours, were in critical disrepair. The neighborhood had gotten [the] nickname Little Beirut. But even in all of that there was still a great sense of community,” Sabir explains.
Working with a group of neighbors, Adams had been instrumental in creating a community center, Walnut Way. With a mission to restore the neighborhood to its former glory, the neighbors converted a notorious drug house into a welcoming environment.
Sabir and Adams are living the phrase “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“A lot of my work is really about repatriation and redevelopment,” Sabir says. “At Walnut Way my mother created a legacy of opportunity for my work presently.”
A personal need led to Sabir’s first entrepreneurial endeavor.
“My son, Taj Pearsall, had a rare genetic disorder and several bouts of pneumonia,” she explains. Sabir’s husband, Maanaan, tapped into his experience as a trainer/wellness advisor to help his stepson.
“We had been having hospital stays regularly. Maanaan found that juice, specifically watermelon, was an expectorant and it helped Taj avoid pneumonia,” Sabir says. After they started juicing regularly, Taj’s hospital visits stopped. “One day Taj said ‘this is a business; this is the juice kitchen.’ That’s how we began,” Sabir reminisces.
The Sabirs opened the first Juice Kitchen in Lindsay Heights in 2015, with relatively low expectations. “We thought this would be a small mom-and-pop, but when we first opened, we had lines down the block,” Sabir says. She could not have imagined that their “small mom-and-pop” would spark community revitalization. But it did.
After the 2016 riots in Sherman Park, community leaders recognized the need for safe gathering spaces. Sabir partnered with local developer Juli Kaufmann to fill that need. “We began to build and cultivate entrepreneurs and 27 tenants later, the Sherman Phoenix exists,” she adds.
Part foodie paradise, part wellness initiative, part business incubator and part community center, the Sherman Phoenix has become a thriving destination. “The businesses are cash flowing and you feel nurtured when you walk in the building,” Sabir says.
The Sabirs added coffee to the Juice Kitchen menu and rebranded it as Shindig Coffee. With two locations, the original in Lindsay Heights and a second one in the Sherman Phoenix, the business is a family affair. Taj, now 15, and his 17-year-old sister, Ameera, both work at Shindig.
Showcasing the Sherman Phoenix as a model for other cities and staying involved in daily operations, Shindig keeps Sabir busy. “This is a constant labor of love down to the smallest intricacies. I have to think: is the toilet paper restocked? The owner of Mayfair is probably not thinking about their toilet paper,” she adds.
Sabir’s long-term goal is to change how the Sherman Phoenix is viewed by the rest of the city. “My hope is that there’s a paradigm shift, that the conversation isn’t ‘is it safe here?’ It’s ‘I can’t wait to go.’ My hope is we get off our phones and off our computers and we figure out how to be a community again.” MKE