Olin/Turville Point Park is plagued by an invader: a lascivious human one
A canopy of bright green foliage arcs overhead, signaling that spring has finally muscled out another Wisconsin winter. Just ahead, the trail coyly disappears into a dense pocket of oaks and scrub. “Look! There!” says Michele Walker, a Madison police officer and my hiking companion. Following her outstretched hand, I see a cluster of trout lilies just off the path—their dainty snow-white blossoms wide open—a welcome splash of color amid the dusky browns and grays of the forest floor.
A few minutes later Walker spots a patch of Dutchman’s–breeches. I stoop to admire its unusual flowers. They resemble tiny pants puffed out with air, as if hung on a clothesline during a breezy day. A sudden gust of wind causes them to bob ever so slightly. Farther along the path she finds the last blooming wild ginger plant—they’re pollinated by bugs crawling into them, she tells me—and points out a foxhole and some felled trees whose ends were gnawed to pointy perfection by beavers. My favorite discovery: bluebells carpeting the forest floor as far as we can see. If I think the bluebells are spectacular, Walker says, this next sight will surely take my breath away.
As we step behind some bushes, a riotous jumble of colors and shapes catch my eye. I am shocked by what I see outstretched before me. It is not another cluster of comely spring ephemerals. It is male sexual detritus.
A neon yellow condom hangs from the slim branch of a young plant like a limp windsock. Bright blue and white cardboard drink coasters are tossed among the leaves, with crude sexual messages scrawled on in a hurry. “You horny?” “Let’s get each other off.”
Discarded packets of wet wipes and soiled tissue paper defile the bases of trees, while a thick porn magazine and an immense purple bottle of lubricant crush hundreds of tiny grasses trying to emerge after their long winter’s nap.
“I get so pissed off when I come here,” says Walker, whose mood has taken a complete 180. “Here we have this amazing spring wildflower display, and right on top of it is all this sex-related litter. It’s so maddening.”
Welcome to Turville Point, part delicate conservation park, and part popular male hook-up spot. Where the bright hues of spring vie for attention with discarded condoms in every color of the rainbow. Home to bald eagles, foxes and great horned owls, plus throngs of male Homo sapiens clandestinely performing illicit acts. The men have been coming here at least thirty years; the flora and fauna have called these woods home much, much longer.
So where’s the outrage? Why isn’t Madison’s activist, green citizenry up in arms about this disgusting desecration of a local gem? Because most people have no idea about the treasures that lie within Turville Point Park. The men keep them away.
Turville Point, pre-trysts
Hundreds of years ago Native Americans wandered in and out of what’s now known as Turville Point.
“There’s a long-term history of them using the area as a portage point to cross the isthmus,” says Cambridge resident Meg Turville-Heitz, whose great-great-grandparents Henry and Mary Turvill (there was no e in their surname back then) settled the land in 1852. “My dad collected hundreds of arrowheads as a child, and I was told there were effigy mounds all along the shoreline of the point. You could feel the history there.”
The Turvills arrived in Madison after emigrating from England a few years prior. Their farmstead was comprised of Turville Point’s sixty-five acres, plus adjacent land. According to 1860 census documents, the acreage was valued at $5,000. The Turvills and their descendants farmed the land for many decades, eventually building an elegant home called Lakeside—after which Madison’s adjacent Lakeside Street is named—and various other buildings. Turville-Heitz has a wealth of memories about the years she lived there, not the least of which are the point’s floral treasures.
“I remember the entire woods full of daffodils in the spring. When we used to have greenhouses, we did our own hybrid mixes and a lot of the flowers escaped. In the woods and in these clearings between the houses, there would be all of these naturalized daffodils from a variety of different designs. Dad always talked about how he remembers in the spring, the understory of the woods was filled with wildflowers like trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit. And I have photos of my grandmother at the edge of her home with all of these wildflowers around her.”
In the 1960s, the city of Madison seized the Turville family’s land under eminent domain to build the convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938. Henry Qualtrough Turville, Sr., Turville-Heitz’s father, was devastated. The convention center wasn’t built until 1997, of course, and at a site about a mile and a half around the lakeshore from Turville Point. The city kept the Turville acreage as parkland. Since it was adjacent to Olin, the entire section was dubbed Olin-Turville Park, although technically they were two separate parks. The Olin half featured a playground, historic pavilion and boat launch, while the Turville side was left au naturel—a tiny patch of wilderness clinging to the Lake Monona shore.
Sex in the city park
No one can say for sure when Olin-Turville transformed into a pick-up spot. But Russ Hefty, conservation resource supervisor for Madison Parks [pictured below], says men were meeting there when he started with the city back in 1980, or shortly thereafter. Back then, as an unmanaged natural area, the Turville acreage was largely overgrown with invasive plants like box elder, buckthorn and honeysuckle. There were a few new cross-country ski trails inside, and some existing paths left by the feet of generations of Turvilles, but nothing that tempted most park-goers to venture inside its dense thickets. But these same acres and acres of deserted, thick bramble were quite appealing to men seeking clandestine, anonymous sex. Combine that with the park’s easy access to the interstate and Madison’s liberal reputation, and you start to see why the men began coming. First a trickle, then a steady stream.
People noticed. And wagged their tongues. But instead of driving the men away, all the chatter had the opposite effect—legitimate park users stayed home, afraid to stumble upon something lewd going on in the bushes. Because visitor numbers were low and taming the bramble would be costly, the Parks Department spent its scarce resources elsewhere. A vicious cycle began and was soon spinning furiously.
Then, about ten years ago, something changed. The Turville acreage was designated a conservation park. Hefty gets the kudos. At a conference in the late 1990s, he learned America’s oak savannas—characterized by an overstory of scattered oak trees with an understory of wild-flowers, sedges and grasses—were largely destroyed during the European settlement. This two-layer system is maintained when lightning or humans start fires in the understory that remove the smaller shrubs and trees threatening to overtake the lower-growing plants.
But European settlers doused any fires on their land and cut down the savanna’s mighty oaks for firewood and housing materials. This one-two punch allowed non-native shrubs to overrun the native plants, creating impenetrable thickets in the understory—which, in turn, weakened the oaks. Another vicious cycle.
Hefty believes most of the Turville land was once oak savanna, so he secured permission to clear and burn a few experimental acres. When the fire was out, a yellow giant hyssop emerged from the ashes. “We never knew we had that plant in there before,” says Hefty, who immediately petitioned to create Turville Point Conservation Park so he could uncover everything the invasives were choking out.
Conservation parks—Madison has fourteen—are charged with restoring native plant and animal communities while providing educational opportunities for the public. Visitors can use only designated trails, the park’s plants and animals are protected and the park closes one hour after sunset. Hefty eagerly revised the existing trail system, adding small connector paths and eliminating trails that were too close to one another. He also erected signs warning visitors not to stray off the paths. But disappointingly, there was no human swell eager to see Madison’s newest conservation area. Turville Point’s lascivious reputation was too entrenched.
Policing efforts weak
Over the years law enforcement regularly tried to stamp out the illegal activity, says Jim Dexheimer, a Madison police sergeant who heads the Community Policing Team in which Turville Point Park lies. But their efforts were halfhearted. “For the last nine or ten years they’d announce a sting once or twice a year, then sneak around in the bushes at night to try to find people doing illegal things,” he says. But announcing the sting in advance allowed men to avoid getting caught. And they knew once it was over, they had a year’s reprieve. The news also reinforced residents’ notions that the park was a place to avoid.
When Dexheimer began work in the South District in February 2009, he eliminated stings. “I don’t want to be the sex police, sneaking through the bushes and enforcing morality,” he says, noting that the men are having consensual sex or masturbating. Instead, he simply wants to move the men out of the park using an effective law enforcement tool known as “problem-oriented policing.”
POP involves intensive examination of a problem, then using what’s learned to formulate new, preventive strategies. Police successfully used POP to tame State Street’s Halloween celebration. In the spring of 2009, Turville Point’s POP officially began with Walker and five other officers spending long days quietly observing the park in action. What they learned stunned them.
Ninety percent of Turville Point visitors are cruisers. Park use is highest during the day, not night. Age is irrelevant; cruisers range from eighteen to more than eighty. Half are married or in long-term relationships. The men employ a mating ritual of sorts to find a partner, driving around the Olin Park shelter, down the hill, across the frontage road, through the lower Turville lot and back up to the shelter—over and over and over again. If a new car enters a lot, the cruisers often race at dangerous speeds to examine the fresh meat. Often, their behavior is aggressive and scary. If you’re driving to the shelter, a cruiser might block your vehicle to check you out and, if you’re male, gauge your interest. If you park in a stall, a masturbator may quickly pull in next to you and immediately go at it.
The stakeouts also revealed the men have a strong proprietary feeling about the park. Last April, a male police officer was sitting in an unmarked squad car in the upper Olin lot. A man strolled up and asked if he wanted a blowjob. The officer told the man someone might be offended by such a question. The man replied, “That’s what this park is for.”
Through their observations, police identified distinct user groups. Those coming for oral and anal sex head to the thickets. Masturbators beeline to the lakeshore or the men’s bathroom. There are also masturbator subsets. Some prefer to participate in “mutual masturbation groups,” where they don’t have contact with one another, but simply perform together. Others are exhibitionist masturbators, showing off alone or in groups to whoever’s passing by on the lake.
The biggest revelation is the problem’s enormous scope. The park is identified all over the web as hook-up heaven; men are flocking here from Kenosha, Appleton, Wausau and even outside Wisconsin. Worse, there are at least four hundred local, core users.
“Four years ago, we thought there were forty regular users, and that that was a big number,” says Dexheimer quietly. “This is going on all day long, every day.” To wit: one gray, forty-degree day last spring, Dexheimer counted fifty-one different vehicles cruising over the lunch hour. And during a recent hourlong stakeout, there were so many cruisers in the park, Dexheimer couldn’t spare two seconds to open a soda. “There was so much to watch and note, it was difficult to keep up with.”
The most dedicated of the hardcore, in excess of a hundred men, come to Turville Point weekly or daily. One McFarland male visits Monday through Friday at lunch and right after work. “It’s crazy,” says Walker. “Just crazy.”
So crazy that eighty-three percent of residents in the adjacent Bay Creek neighborhood surveyed by police say they avoid the park; almost everyone said they’d never bring kids there. Sara Richards, a thirty-five-year Bay Creek resident, fondly recalls taking her children to the playground years ago, before the men moved in. But when she went there for a walk a few years ago, she was the only woman there. “It was very awkward with the men hanging around, waiting for a pick-up. It was like a scene from a bad movie.”
So what’s a cop to do?
With more—and more accurate—information on hand, the police experimented with a few different tactics. They buzzed down thick pockets of vegetation surrounding the park’s three main “love nests.” They stepped up foot patrols and added some mounted patrols. They allowed dogs in the park for a few weeks, hoping the increased traffic would keep the men at bay. At their request, Hefty installed more signage warning people to stay on the trails. Nothing changed.
The men continued to walk wherever they pleased, trampling tender plants. They did abandon the now-exposed love nests, but simply burrowed deeper into the park. The dogs might have helped, but a bungled execution of the experiment—namely poor communication—left opponents of the plan howling in anger. “The most discouraging thing so far has been seeing how the cruising continues during rainy weather, buggy weather, winter …” says Dexheimer, his voice trailing off.
But the sergeant isn’t giving up on the POP method. He can’t. The problem is so enormous, attempts to enforce laws in the area would be futile. “There are sixty-five acres in the conservancy and forty-six in Olin Park and the activity goes on twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year,” he says. “We don’t have enough officers to make an impact though enforcement.”
Instead, it’s time for bolder experiments. Starting June 1, a three-hour parking limit for the lower Turville Point lot goes into effect. More than sixty downtown workers regularly use the lot as an unofficial park-and-ride site; their empty vehicles provide cruisers with ample cover. Remove the vehicles, says Dexheimer, and cruisers will stick out like a sore thumb.
Dexheimer also wants to install a locked gate on the path up to the shelter, and temporarily close off the frontage road between the Turville Point and Olin lots to interrupt the men’s menacing driving patterns. “I used to say their driving around was a mating dance, but that’s too light a characteristic,” he says. “They circle around the hilltop in their cars like vultures, then zoom after new cars, following them and blocking their path. It’s very intimidating. The sex doesn’t scare people as much as this stalking behavior.”
The road closure may happen soon, but Madison Parks—once very supportive of police efforts—is suddenly cool on the idea of more changes. Dexheimer thinks it’s a case of complacency. Thanks in part to media attention, money became available to grind up twenty-eight acres of invasive species within the park—more than half its acreage. The work was recently completed, and the results were incredible.
The once-scrub-filled woods are now wide open, letting in broad swaths of sunlight, and affording picture-perfect views of Lake Monona and the Capitol. Thanks to the increased light and lack of strangling vegetation, this spring’s wildflower population dramatically increased. And lawful visitor numbers are finally inching up, especially in the conservancy. “The Parks Department was so excited, so elated, with the results of the mowing, I think they’ve lost the motivation to do the rest of what we think is necessary,” Dexheimer says. “But just because we’ve cleared out the shrubs doesn’t mean we’ve resolved the problem.”
Kevin Briski, Madison Parks superintendent, says he doesn’t currently favor an experimental gating of the road to the shelter, noting it would eliminate access to a scenic overlook, and there could be fire safety issues with the buildings on the hilltop. When questioned on his feelings regarding the thousands of men systematically defiling one of his conservation parks and scaring away visitors, he was unemotional, saying only, “I support the Madison Police Department in their efforts to eliminate this inappropriate behavior.”
On a positive note, Parks employees scheduled thirty-six events in the park during April and May—eighteen volunteer work parties to cut brush, and eighteen hosted events like Warbler Walks. Common in other Madison parks, such events have rarely been held at Turville Point. Next winter, Hefty hopes to add a Nordic skiing tour (the park has five kilometers of groomed trails). Organizers are hopeful these activities will lure people into the park so they can see what they’ve been missing.
With reduced hiding spots and increased visitors, will the men slowly leave? No way, say police. The problem is simply too big. And too entrenched. Even though it’s much harder to find a secluded area, the number of sex-seeking male visitors hasn’t declined one iota. A conservative twelve-hour headcount in late March revealed 192 cruisers. Multiply that by five, and you’ve got 960 during the workweek. Add in nights and weekends, and the scope of the problem—and its persistent culprits—is clear.
Ultimately, Dexheimer thinks drastic measures will be needed to overcome the park’s reputation and eliminate the behavior for good. Like creating a paved path through the park that hooks into the popular Lake Monona bike trail. Hundreds of devoted fitness buffs bike and run there daily. If their path ran through the woods, cruisers would have little privacy.
Another idea is to tightly control access so you can’t enter the park without being seen. Turville Point currently sports four unlocked entrances loosely linked by a smattering of decrepit fencing. What if the park had a single entrance accessible only via a small visitor center, or surrounded by sturdy chain-link fencing that could lock at night?
“The point is not to be impenetrable,” says Dexheimer, but rather to “send a message of community ownership.”
Meanwhile, police are compiling a list of regular cruisers and soon will begin issuing warning letters that future visits will be considered trespassing. And Dexheimer has his eye on a $40,000 license plate reader to prevent people who are banned from entering the park. “The message we’ve been sending over the years is that nobody cares about this place. We need to communicate to the cruisers that we don’t want this behavior going on in there.”
Take back the park
Maybe, despite the grim assessment by police, the problem isn’t as intractable as we think. What if we all simply start using the park? In droves? Hefty is trying to boost attendance by asking nearby hotels and the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau to publicize the park to tourists; his dream is for the park to become popular like Picnic Point.
Turville-Heitz suggests an archeological survey to find any remaining artifacts and determine if effigy mounds exist. Then, she says, it could be used as an educational site for school kids and the public. “We have a wonderful opportunity to discover what life was like in Madison’s early history. If there was more of an educational focus on the property, that would very much be in keeping with my family’s feelings about it.”
Maybe, in the end, it’s really all about karma. “We took this land from the Turville family and were charged with taking care of it,” Dexheimer says. “Instead, we abandoned it.”
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.