Slices of Life
Madison is a city of neighborhoods.
With all due respect to our beloved lakes (which frame some of our most unique neighborhoods) our diverse and distinct neighborhoods define us as a city.
I’m a walker. That’s how I get to know places I visit. So I can imagine the impression of our city a visitor might get during breaks from the three-day convention he or she is attending when he or she walks out of the Hilton for a stroll. One day you’d turn right and walk through the historic First Settlement, down funky Willy Street and into the warmly vibrant Schenk-Atwood neighborhood to end up at Olbrich Gardens. On the way back you’d walk through Marquette just for the heck of it. Turn left the next day and enter the transformed Bassett Neighborhood, down Regent Street into one-of-a-kind Bayview and then into Vilas. And on your last day walk straight, through the Capitol, to Mansion Hill and then up Johnson Street one way or State Street the other. And that’s just the walking tour.
My guess is said visitor would think this city is pretty cool. With any luck he or she would meet a few residents. People are passionate about their neighborhoods in this city. The (usually) biennial Rating the Neighborhoods issue of this magazine elevates reader blood pressures on a par with rating schools. But editor Brennan Nardi, associate editors Shayna Miller and Katie Vaughn, and I did something a little different this time. We got in the car and took a drive. We visited a lot of neighborhoods and then unscientifically, arbitrarily and absolutely delightfully picked eight we think are great. We could have picked twelve. Or sixteen. Eight just seemed to work best.
There are virtually no truly homogeneous neighborhoods in Madison. All are a blend of history, geography, cultures and styles. And each has a charm all its own. Another important aspect of Madison neighborhoods is each has a significant degree of political power equally all its own. This charm is distinctly more debatable. It too is deeply rooted in the broader Madison landscape. Neighborhoods have been the traditional incubators for both ideas and civic leaders who have shaped this city. At its best this disproportionate power (compared to many cities) can marshal resources and human capital for important public safety issues, infrastructure improvement, public art and culture, and meeting basic needs. But at its worst it can pit one neighborhood against another, or against the greater interests of the broader community. It’s a conundrum.
Hours spent in front of the City Council can result in needed traffic improvements, community centers, parks and gardens. It can also skew important conversations on growth and density, put businesses on the defensive and rob Peter to pay Paul. So even as we celebrate neighborhoods for all they contribute to healthy urban life we watch the debates on a new, central public library branch, remodeling the Edgewater Hotel and, yes, our very own Millennium Park and ponder the role neighborhoods will play in shaping, supporting or opposing these projects and how that compares to the needs and wants of the city as a whole. There will always be tension between advocates for density and supporters of limited growth, proponents of common spaces and public art and protectors of tax dollars, between historic preservationists and modern urban designers and, let’s be honest, between those comfortable with diversity and those who are not.
The best cities balance those competing interests, listen to the best ideas from all sides (not both sides, all sides) make decisions and get things done. You’ll find some examples of just that brand of civic leadership—some dating back to the turn of the last century, not this one—in each neighborhood we picked. That’s what makes them great.
Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.