History in the Making

I remember when ... No, wait. That’s a problem. I don’t remember when. And if I do remember when, I don’t remember where. I do know this: I’ve lived in Madison for more than thirty-five years, long enough to recognize a cyclical nature to some of the important Madison issues of today. This is my third or fourth go-around with public safety as the civic concern du jour. Mass transit issues are nothing new. Street cars? I’ve seen a trolley (of sorts) running on State Street. Economic woes? Nancy and I bought our first house in Madison during the last serious recession. The interest rate was sixteen percent as I recall. If I recall.

I’ve always admired folks with a grasp of history, able to place important events and nail dates and names. I enjoy history, but I suspect that enjoyment came a bit after the actual learning opportunity in school. But the fire of my curiosity was rekindled earlier this year when the good folks at the Wisconsin Historical Society hosted Brennan, Shayna, Katie and me at a meeting to discuss historic moments, then and now, that have shaped our city. As you’ll see in these pages, we learned that everything old is new again. Whether it’s fashion or food, money or medicine, despite the way it sometimes seems, everything has not changed.

I find that helpful. And hopeful. That feeling of flailing about, lacking direction or clarity, is eased considerably by the experiences of those before us who, it turns out, dealt with similar issues and had similar feelings. If we’re smart we can learn something. What I learned is this: thanks in part to technology, history lives as it’s never lived before. Catalogues, artifacts, pictures, music, letters, movies, newspapers and more—the stuff of the past that informs the present—are more available and accessible than ever. With a monitor and browser, centuries of discoveries, advances, cultural icons and collected wisdom are available to us to educate and inspire. Architectural historian Jim Draeger was especially helpful in our understanding of the role of history in 2009, but he was joined that morning by eight other researchers, scholars and historians who all brought their passion for history and the remarkable resources of the WHS to our meeting, where they put them at our disposal.

History informs our world. The Madison that has been my home these last thirty-five years has grown beyond the dreams of many living here in 1974. I think it’s a better city and that’s due in part to the visionary leaders and planners of these last several decades who looked back to the original city plan for guidance. The plan was put forth by John Nolen, who was hired to create it a hundred years ago this past January—January 26, to be precise. Exactly one century later we look at our city through the lens of history and reacquaint ourselves with the people, organizations and customs that became us. And it’s as easy as setting aside a few hours (really, start with a few hours) at wisconsinhistory.org. And don’t be surprised if a lot of what you find looks familiar.

No surprise, you’ll get pages and pages of results by typing “The Progressive” into the search engine. I want to wish our friend and colleague Matt Rothschild and his entire crew at The Progressive magazine a happy one-hundredth anniversary. They’re throwing a big party the last weekend in April to celebrate a century of standing for the principles of Fighting Bob and Belle Case La Follette, principles Wisconsin has proudly listed among its proudest virtues. Theirs is a profoundly important voice, today more so than ever. Congratulations, Matt. The Progressive’s place in Wisconsin’s history is significant, as significant as history’s place in our Madison of today.

Neil P. Heinen, Editorial Director

Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or nheinen@madisonmagazine.com. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

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