Trouble Behind

Madison has no neighborhoods in crisis

I was having a conversation with Mayor Dave recently, and we got to talking about neighborhoods. He said something that pretty much stopped me dead in my tracks. In so many words, he told me Madison really didn’t have any troubled neighborhoods right now.

Think about that for a second. If this is true—and I’m going to get to that part—can any of us remember the last time in our city’s history when we could make such a statement? I pushed the mayor, and I don’t think he was making the statement blithely. He acknowledged that while the crime rate citywide has gone down, there are still problem pockets scattered around the community. But using the criteria we would traditionally employ to measure what we could agree on as “troubled” neighborhoods—think Broadway–Simpson of twenty-five years ago, Vera Court of fifteen years ago, Allied Drive of ten years ago, that sort of thing—we may very possibly have no troubled neighborhoods.

As I thought about it I had to admit that the Allied Drive of 2010 looks every bit the “emerging neighborhood” that is sprouting up in new urbanist cities throughout America. And there is plenty of evidence that Meadowood has responded to the challenges it has faced, and has succeeded in avoiding the label of the next troubled neighborhood. And I am one of those people who drives through every neighborhood in our community and sees “problems” most cities would welcome as the most serious they face.

But I still needed confirmation so I called my old friend Joel DeSpain, apparently happily entrenched as spokesman for the Madison Police Department. He and I kicked the idea around, and I came to the conclusion the mayor is right. Our neighborhoods, and most importantly our less affluent, more diverse neighborhoods—old, new or in transition—are in as good a shape as I can remember. (Insert disclaimer here.) As impressive as Madison’s crime numbers are, our poverty numbers are scary. Far too many of our neighbors are struggling, the number of kids in our schools receiving free or reduced lunch is staggering and our food pantries are doing a disturbingly booming business. And there are still way too many quality-of-life crimes in Madison—robberies, burglaries, graffiti, break-ins, smashand-grabs—the kinds of things that can annoy, frustrate and then deter some from investing in their neighborhood.

The Clyde/Darbo/Worthington Park neighborhood, while markedly better than, say, ten years ago, hasn’t had the same rebound as North Point or Allied. There are some prostitution issues on Badger Road and more police calls than any of us would like around Penn Park and Kennedy Heights. But every single one of those neighborhoods has significant assets that are both more evident than in the past and a sound foundation on which to build toward even greater stability. Some have strong neighborhood organizations, some have good community centers. All have benefited from community policing teams and, lately, from community teams including the neighborhood officer, as well as a public health nurse, building inspector, a member of the local clergy perhaps and others, a model created by former Mayor Paul Soglin back in the day, which he employed with great success at what was then Broadway–Simpson, to name just one troubled neighborhood where it worked. Those were some tough times and places that people avoided for good reason.

Like the mayor, I don’t want to be blithe about legitimate concerns over misbehavior. Illegal activity is spread over a wider area than other times in our history. If you’ve lived in your home in the same neighborhood for thirty years it’s deeply troubling when bad guys target the area. But for now efforts to address the problems—especially the efforts of residents and caring citizens in conjunction with city officials and law enforcement—are working. And we’ll be missing an opportunity to support those efforts if we don’t celebrate the fact that right now, Madison doesn’t have a truly troubled neighborhood. And that’s amazing.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at

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