President Trump Toured A Charred Block In Kenosha, But There’s Much More To The City

There’s a lot more to Kenosha than what’s been captured in recent weeks by national TV cameras. Once a large manufacturing area, the city has reinvented itself.

Kenosha Wisconsin
The quiet town of Kenosha, Wisc., has been thrust into the national spotlight after a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back multiple times. Michael Puente / WBEZ
The quiet town of Kenosha, Wisc., has been thrust into the national spotlight after a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back multiple times. Michael Puente / WBEZ
Kenosha Wisconsin
The quiet town of Kenosha, Wisc., has been thrust into the national spotlight after a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back multiple times. Michael Puente / WBEZ

President Trump Toured A Charred Block In Kenosha, But There’s Much More To The City

There’s a lot more to Kenosha than what’s been captured in recent weeks by national TV cameras. Once a large manufacturing area, the city has reinvented itself.

Amanda Feltner fished in Lake Michigan Monday night, just blocks from where National Guardsmen gathered in preparation for another night of civil unrest in Kenosha, Wis.

“Even though we’re 100,000 people, it’s a small town to me,” said Feltner, a Black Kenosha resident who grew up in Chicago. “I haven’t had any problems with Kenosha. … Down this way, over there fishing, these are all my buddies. Nobody’s ever bothered me or anything like that.”

The quiet “small town” on the Illinois-Wisconsin border was thrust into the national spotlight on Aug. 23 when a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back multiple times. The shooting sparked days of protests that led Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to deploy the National Guard to quell demonstrations.

President Donald Trump visited the city on Tuesday despite pleas from Evers for Trump to stay away for fear of straining tensions further. Trump not only ignored the requests of local leaders, but defended a teenage supporter accused of fatally shooting two men last week during a Kenosha protest.

Trump’s motorcade passed throngs of demonstrators, some holding American flags in support of the president, others jeering while carrying signs that read Black Lives Matter. A massive police presence, complete with several armored vehicles, secured the area, and barricades were set up along several of the city’s major thoroughfares to keep onlookers at a distance from the passing presidential vehicles.

“These are not acts of peaceful protest but, really, domestic terror,” said Trump, who toured the charred remains of a block besieged by violence and fire.

President Trump in Kenosha Wisconsin
President Donald Trump tours an area on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, damaged during demonstrations after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Evan Vucci / Associated Press

But there’s a lot more to Kenosha, which is the fourth largest city in Wisconsin, than what’s been captured in recent weeks by national TV cameras. Once a large manufacturing area, the city has reinvented itself — and so have some of its residents. Today, it’s a quiet place along the lake that’s known for cars, Jockey underwear and tools. But is that enough?

Kenosha is about 67% white, 18% Latino and 12% Black, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. Nearly 25% of residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the median annual household income is about $54,000.

In July, WalletHub ranked Kenosha the 14th best small city for first-time home buyers based on 26 factors, including cost of living, taxes and crime.

And the city stands out politically.

Once represented by former Republican U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Kenosha County was the most purple of Wisconsin’s 72 counties in 2016. Trump eked out a 238-vote win over Democrat Hillary Clinton out of more than 76,000 ballots cast — the tightest margin in the state.

Feltner, 39, said Kenosha has been a great place for her to raise her two kids with her husband, who works at a car dealership near Milwaukee.

And while Kenosha Public Works Director Shelly Billingsley said the protests have already caused $2 million damage to city-owned property, Feltner said the community response has given her hope.

“Everywhere you go, people are constantly painting their buildings over the plywood. That’s what I love about this town. The creativity in art is amazing. My children are big into art,” Feltner said. “That’s beautiful, and that’s what Kenosha really is. When it comes down to it, we’re just one community.”

When manufacturing died out, the city reinvented itself

Knick Davis, a lifelong Kenosha resident, said his grandparents moved to Kenosha in the ’50s after having lived in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Like many others at the time, Davis’ grandparents went to work at the American Motors Corporation plant in Kenosha, which drew families looking for the American dream — including Yolanda Santos Adams’ family.

“My father came from San Antonio to work in the auto factory, and he retired from there,” said Adams, who was just 2 when her family arrived. “All my brothers were in UAW Local 72.”

When Adams grew up, she said she too found work at AMC as a bookkeeper, a job not many Latinas had held up to that point.

Yolanda Santos Adams Kenosha Wisconsin
Yolanda Santos Adams said her family came to Kenosha, Wisc., for the American dream. Michael Puente / WBEZ

But the Kenosha that Davis’ grandparents and the Adams’ family knew would change in the 1980s after Chrysler purchased AMC, triggering a gradual decline in local manufacturing.

Yet, manufacturing hasn’t vanished completely. Jockey International, the makers of underwear, and Snapon Tools are still here. And new warehouse jobs were created when Amazon arrived.

“Very limited in what we offer here in Kenosha”

While Kenosha has a picturesque lakefront and big parks, Adams said it can be boring for young people since it doesn’t have much of a nightlife.

“For instance, we don’t have a Tejano nightclub. We don’t have a nightclub that would play the music that our young African Americans like,” she said. “So, very limited in what we offer here in Kenosha.”

Adams, who said she was let go by Chrysler in 2000 and is now a member of the Kenosha Unified School Board, said the city could use more affordable housing to attract more minorities and keep them here.

According to census data, 57% of homes in Kenosha are occupied by the owner. The average rent is $880 per month. For comparison, in nearby Racine, Wis., 51% of homes are occupied by the owner and rent averages $824 per month. And, across the state line in Waukegan, 46% of homes are occupied by the owner, but rent averages $946 per month.

“What happens is, instead of landing in Kenosha, a disproportionate number of low-come people end up in Waukegan or they go up north to Racine,” Adams said.

But one of the big attractions is the access to Lake Michigan. The waterfront near downtown has beaches and parks. There’s a marina with some new real estate developments.

And that’s where Feltner was fishing Monday night ahead of Trump’s controversial visit.

“I just don’t think it’s the right time,” Feltner said. “I wish that he wouldn’t come because it could make things worse. It might cause outsiders to try even harder and come back in and cause even more trouble just because he’s coming.”

Amanda Feltner in Kenosha Wisconsin
Amanda Feltner fishes in Lake Michigan, just blocks from where National Guardsmen gathered in preparation for another night of civil unrest in Kenosha, Wis. Michael Puente / WBEZ

Jacob Blake’s family held a Tuesday “community celebration” at a distance from Trump’s visit.

“We don’t need more pain and division from a president set on advancing his campaign at the expense of our city,” Justin Blake, an uncle, said in a statement. “We need justice and relief for our vibrant community.”

Despite concerns, Trump came and left Tuesday afternoon without protests on the scale of last week.

Now, it’s time just to move on.

“I think we’re going to rebuild. I don’t think we have any other choice,” said Dean Johston, a local plumber. “We’ll carry on and hopefully there’s some change from it, you know, it’s not done for nothing.”

Deonte Cottingham, who moved to Kenosha three years ago from Racine, is hopefully as well.

“I can really see us really coming together, more than what Kenosha already has, because it really is a very close knit community,” Cottingham said.

Reporter Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.com. The Associated Press and WBEZ’s Dave McKinney contributed to this story.