Madison Needs Some Divine Intervention

Fortunately, there are lots of people working to make the city great

As I pondered what to offer up to you in this month’s column, I remembered a story my grandfather shared with me on a recent visit home to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He was talking about how he kicked the smoking habit some fifty years ago. It was harder back then than it is now. The Surgeon General hadn’t yet warned us of its harmful effects. Pop-Pop, as he’s affectionately known to us, liked to smoke in the car on his half-hour commute to work. As he began to think about quitting, he dug into his Catholic roots for inspiration, foregoing a cigarette every few miles. The sacrifices worked, and today, at age ninety-five, he jokes that smoking-cessation products are making a mint off people, when all we really need is a little divine intervention.

You know what else needs a little divine intervention? Our city. It just doesn’t seem like we’ve had a win in a while. Overture Center opened in 2003, and while it should be running smoothly, free of politics and financial concern, it’s not. We’re coming up on ten years of some of the best arts and entertainment in our history and our new mayor has little faith in its future. Sad. And, if you ask me, unacceptable. The Edgewater project is still in flux—again due to politics—this time neighborhoods and a lack of due process versus development and greater public access to the lake.

There are some potential victories on the horizon, such as the downtown library’s capital campaign, which is in the über-capable hands of the Madison Public Library FoundationTripp Widder, Richard Chandler and Jenni Collins in particular. So far, the Capitol East District has Mayor Soglin’s support to provide badly needed economic development and employment opportunities in and around East Washington Avenue. Online fashion giant Shopbop is taking over a huge space on Baldwin Street, rightfully seen as a catalyst to attract other businesses and investments in the area.

Community Groundworks is sustaining this and the next generation of highly skilled, diverse urban food growers. Have you been to its jewel, Troy Gardens, on the north side? Drive or bike by one day. It’s awesome. On the south side, Badger Rock Middle School’s innovative ag-focused program launches this fall.

Unfortunately, it feels like what’s missing is a civic pride umbrella that gathers up all these disparate projects and entities into a larger raison d’être. Perhaps it starts with this wise observation a member of the Business Forum offered up to me recently: “Madison isn’t struggling as much as most places. We’re a place that’s really balanced by university, politics, corporations, culture. Our purpose should be to continue to succeed and in turn serve others.”

Her comments came in response to a challenge I made to this accomplished group of women (and one brave man). I asked them to write down how Madison can realize its potential. I also asked them who they would name Madison Magazine’s next Person of the Year, which we announce every November. Ruth Shelly of the Madison Children’s Museum, Rich Lynch of J.H. Findorff & Son, and the retiring Eileen Mershart of the YWCA got their fair share of votes. Other nominees included UW professor Emily Auerbach, who started the Odyssey Project, a free humanities course for adults who face economic barriers to higher education. One person thought kindergarten teacher Vicky Julka should win for teaching a classroom in which five different languages were spoken.

Monsignor Ken Fiedler for saving the Catholic Multicultural Center got a nod, as did Linda Ketcham of Madison Area Urban Ministry. My grandfather would probably like these ideas since they touch on themes of community service as part of a spiritual offering. Maybe that’s how Madison can realize its potential: recognize that everybody wants this city to be great, but that we’re a diverse and independently minded lot. So we might have to meet in the middle—sacrifice a little individually to reach common ground, whether it’s a new library, a debt-free arts center or breaking down language barriers in the interest of educating our future.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

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