Tier Two: Take Two

We can love Madison without loving it blindly

Wow! That “Tier-Two Tradeoff” column in October raised a few hackles.

While the online dialogue roared, I reflected.

Communication, I believe, is the responsibility of the sender, and I failed in one critical way: In my line of work, a “tier-one” city refers to a city with a million or more people; a “tier-two” city refers to those with 500,000 to a million people.

The Madison region has a population of 568,592.

Many readers concluded that my reference to Madison as a “tier-two city” was a slant. That was not my intention. “Tier-Two Tradeoff” was an attempt to discuss the challenges that talented people have when trying to grow their career in Madison versus larger cities. For this lack of clarity, I apologize.

Now, onto an even better story …

What’s transpired since “Tier-Two Tradeoff” was published has been fantastic.

First, Madison started talking. Online and off, there were strong opinions. And in a world where public discourse is often missing due to apathy, our addiction to being busy or tweets about Scandal, this is a good thing.

Madison also showed itself in some important ways. Critics went online or talked to others about the column. They were loud and sometimes obnoxious. Supporters called me or sent me private emails; some even admitted they’d never agree publicly because they didn’t want to be seen as critical of Madison.

And that leads me to something else I noticed but have been hesitant to mention before now: Madisonians—many of whom fall left-of-center politically—have a hard time hearing anything that doesn’t fit neatly into the “Madison is a great city” storyline. The same folks who sneer at the GOP to “get with the times” seem to like the past, too—their past.

Madison has gone from an overwhelmingly white, highly educated, low-unemployment town to a city where more than half of our public school population is black or Latino. In “Tier-Two Tradeoff,” I point out that Madison’s job market is especially difficult for nonwhites, a point that was conveniently sidestepped by most critics in the stampede to defend our “great city” reputation.

It’s great that Madison has so many cheerleaders, but this cultural preference to cling to our reputation and our unwillingness to admit our challenges is holding Madison back. I’m certainly not the first to notice this: Jon Gramling of Capital City Hues and David Dahmer of the Madison Times, not to mention Mad Mag’s John Roach, have also noted how nonprogressive our progressive city can be.

Our next generation is noticing, too. One Millennial emailed to tell me about the tradeoffs she made to move to Madison, including taking a thirty-percent cut in pay. Now she’s ready to go back to Austin. She writes, “The comments and trolling in response to your article is telling of how I’ve found Madisonians respond to criticism, and that is, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.’ I understand not wanting to make Madison a replica of another city, but I’m worried about how this arms-crossed, dismissive mentality will haunt the city (and is already) as we take them up on this advice.”

She’s right. And by the way, many Madisonians did encourage me to leave.

To them I say: Fat chance. I love this city. But I refuse to love Madison blindly. Yes, we have a lot of assets, but we also have shadow sides, parts of us that ain’t so purty. And I feel a duty to hold those shadow sides to the light and ask, “Madison, can we do better?” I’m not asking to be an asshole. I’m asking because I believe our good city can be a great city.

The best example I’ve seen of an organization that’s telling the truth and making a difference is the Clean Lakes Alliance. We all know Madison’s lakes are a great asset. And we’re all ashamed that they’re unsafe to swim in several times each summer. The Clean Lakes Alliance has done the dirty work of telling Madison to get its act together without pissing anyone off. We all need to tear a page from their playbook.

Rebecca Ryan was called, among other things, a conservative hack by folks who disagreed with last month’s column. She doesn’t take this personally, but invites you to read the entire body of her work at Madison Magazine or her blog and see if you’d reach the same conclusion.

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