Let Madison be Madison: Stop Making Comparisons and Start Finding Solutions

A response to "The Tier-Two Tradeoff"

Sep 26, 2013

Emily Mills

Emily Mills

Here we go again, I thought as I read Rebecca Ryan’s opinion piece, “The Tier-Two Tradeoff,” another article making strange comparisons between Madison and a city that is neither remotely comparable in size or geography.

I’ve read treatises from consultants galore wondering why Madison can’t be more like Austin or the Bay Area or Chicago or New York and so on. And each time I’m left scratching my head.

Madison is a city of some 240,000 souls, located on an isthmus in south-central Wisconsin, surrounded by agricultural land and stunning temperate vistas. San Francisco is a city booming with over 812,000 citizens, located on an ocean bay. Austin sits in central Texas and has a population of over 820,000. Each place has its many charms and its own unique set of challenges.

Those massive differences in size and location matter, though. Regional culture also matters. It means that trying to make direct, one-to-one comparisons between Madison and those other cities is like trying to compare apples to watermelons. Why do we keep doing it? Madison isn’t a “tier two” city like San Francisco or Austin—by any stretch of the imagination—and, frankly, we like it that way.

I was also unimpressed by Ryan’s assertion that “if you’re ambitious and still have some career runway ahead of you, working in Madison is bush league.” Harsh. This suggests that anyone who chooses to stay in Madison to do work that improves their community is somehow losing out, or not worth as much as someone who moves to a bigger city for their career.

There are lots of people in the city who are doing amazing work to improve the economic and cultural landscape for us all. We have venues that bring in top-notch talent from across the country, not to mention a vibrant local arts scene. We have politically and socially engaged citizens helping Madison maintain its unique flavor. We are a foodie paradise! We have a burgeoning tech and development scene, a hackerspace, even a circus space.

Lamenting our lack of a Container Store or a repertory theater (which we had for years in the Madison Rep, which only recently went under due to management problems and the Recession) were both distractingly strange details, too. I’ll take a far less insane cost of living and lack of ridiculous traffic jams and commute times over proximity to a particular chain store any day.

All of that is a shame, because there’s one small but incredibly important nugget of truth buried in the middle of the article. Ryan rightly points out the inherent limitations of living in Madison that exist if you are not a well-off Caucasian retiree.

This is the discussion we should be having about Madison. Our city has a lot to boast about, to be sure, but those of us who count ourselves amongst its most ardent supporters would do well not to ignore the real challenges faced by many of our fellow citizens.

The percentage of African American, Latino and other people of color living in the city is growing—but our public schools and justice system seem unfairly tilted against them. The room for improvement in these areas is vast, daunting and absolutely crucial.

We do lose a lot of young, bright, talented people to other cities where there’s more room for career advancement. It’s high time area businesses, and those groups and government entities that support the business community, took a long, hard look at why this is happening and took steps to staunch the bleeding.

We have a serious problem with lack of affordable housing and employment opportunities for those living on the margins, with far too many people falling through the cracks of a jumbled, underfunded and difficult-to-navigate social services system.

There’s always room for improvement. We could do with a lot less navel gazing and a lot more action. At the same time, we are not bush league. Neither are we San Francisco or Austin. We are a strong, colorful, unique community, and a place I and many others have happily decided to call home.


Emily Mills is the editor of Our Lives Magazine and a freelance writer living in Madison.

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