Growing Pains

Is our city too resistant to change?

When I moved to Madison in 1974, my first home was at 1148 1/2 Jenifer Street in the Wil-Mar Neighborhood. I don’t think six months went by before I met now-prominent attorney, though not-quite-then city council member, Michael Christopher and, if memory serves, circuit-judge-to-be Michael Nowakowski. And was Billy Feitlinger living there as well before he too was elected to the City Council and then worked in the mayor’s office? I don’t recall.

What I do recall is the neighborhood was swimming with activists, citizen leaders, organizers and volunteers. I knew right away that unlike Milwaukee from whence I’d come, neighborhoods were powerful and many city leaders got their starts in neighborhood organizations. And sure enough, for the next four decades Madison politics would regularly be dominated by neighborhood issues and led by the Christophers and Nowakowskis who got their starts there.

This city has always had strong neighborhoods and it always will. And that’s a good thing. But this isn’t the same city as 1974, to say nothing of 1954. It has grown and changed and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Unless the way we live and function as a city doesn’t grow and change along with it. It is absolutely startling how a city with so many smart, creative, thoughtful and caring people can be so resistant to change. For a city known as being progressive and open-minded, we sure seem to like things “the way they are.” Or were?

This might seem nothing more than a quaint struggle over preserving traditional values in a homogeneous setting with which we’ve grown comfortable if we weren’t risking falling behind equally lovely cities that want our entrepreneurs, our artists, our scientists and our jobs. Madison is a city of a quarter of a million people now, with one of the top research universities on the planet, a maturing if not yet cutting-edge economic development strategy, growing diversity, budding street life and civic vitality, and an evolving sense of place in a region with other global cities like Chicago and Minneapolis. It is time for us to think a little more broadly than the interests of any given ten to 310 people in a particular neighborhood. The challenges we face today are significantly greater than traffic and building density. We need good businesses here for the long term, paying good money for skilled workers who will in turn invest in our schools and our natural resources. And while all of this requires activity at the neighborhood level, it all transcends it as well. Who has power is important and I don’t mean to diminish it. But there is a point at which we as a society do need to consider the common good, and when individual, parochial interests consistently interfere with the common good it’s time to rethink how we do things.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has expressed an interest in making this city run a little more smoothly. He has identified flaws in city processes that are interfering with the best interests of the city as a whole. Believe me, he is not the first mayor in this city to see these problems. He’s just the first to attempt to make it better. And he should.

Is this city only as good as the rights and interests of each individual in it? Absolutely. But we should never stop striving for the balance that respects and encourages those individual rights while also changing and improving how we act collectively to grow as a community of individuals.

Just look around for a minute. Can anyone really make the case that neighborhoods—and the passionate, deeply committed, caring people who live in them—will ever cease being a force in this city? No. And a city that is determined to run more efficiently and effectively, as progressive and pro-businesses, in the best interests of all citizens and with a sure vision for the future will always be a place where good neighborhoods and good neighbors will thrive.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

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