The great Madison debate

Don’t you have the feeling sometimes that all the fun stuff happens after you leave a party? I swear, my timing is off.

I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for five years. It was peaceful and tranquil – but once I leave? All hell broke loose!

First, the election of Scott Walker and the subsequent political controversy shakes Madison to its core and brings thousands of people to the Capitol grounds for months. I’m not sure it that was really “fun,” but it was certainly eventful.

More recently, there’s been a spirited debate happening about the pros and cons of life in Madison.

The catalyst was an article in a newly launched magazine (with a primary focus on Minneapolis and the surrounding region). Writer Frank Bures, a Madison expat, wrote an article for the magazine Thirty Two, about Professor Richard Florida’s ideas about the “creative class” and how that new cultural class is reshaping our economy and our cities.

Before I go any farther, let me be clear about a few things: Madison is an acquired taste, and I definitely acquired it in my time there. There is much I like about the city. The people can be ridiculously kind and polite to each other. Clerks in the grocery stores and shops were so warm and friendly I was half-convinced they were flirting with me. The outdoor spaces in the area are magnificent.

Professor Florida included Madison in his list of creative class strongholds. And that’s what much of Bures’ article is about – that while conceptually Madison should have had a vibrant economic and artistic culture, attracting new people and new energy, the reality of Madison was quite different.

A new flow of students and newly elected politicians may bring energy to the polar ends of State Street, but much of the rest of Madison is a very traditional town and a very insular one. Many of the people I worked with had grown up in and around Madison, attended high school and college there, met and married their spouses there, and were raising children there – and so had their parents and grandparents. Those are great things, but substantially different than what Bures expected – and what I’d expected, too.

How insular of a town? Hell, I’m a self-confessed introvert and I had connections to almost everyone mentioned in Bures’ article. Including Bures himself.

  • I was in a class Bures taught about how to market your freelance work. (It was part of the University of Wisconsin’s continuing education class offerings and ran for two weeks.)
  • One of the first people I ever interviewed as a freelance writer in Madison? Penelope Trunk. I talked to her by phone on an article about Madison. My editor killed her comments as she was, at that time, a contributing writer to a competitor’s site. She was a memorable interview.
  • I’d even – for a whole two seconds – met Jamie Peck, the former UW professor mentioned in the article. (A friend of mine was a professor as well and had a neighboring office in the science hall.)
  • Look to the left of this post – see the blogroll? You’ll see two names – Bures and Trunk – that have been part of this blogroll pretty much since I launched this back in 2009 (though I haven’t spoken with or corresponded with either in years).

One of the best things about Madison – the Farmer’s Market

Those are not unusual connections in Madison. It’s a tightly knit community and that’s true for all professions.

All the artists and writers know each other. Before a lot of outside money and outside influence came into Wisconsin politics, those folks also  had known each other for years.

I never felt unwelcome in Madison, but I was also never part of the inner circle, and never spoke the shorthand that everyone already knew. And that does make a difference. It made it very challenging to make friends. Bures’ descriptions of some of the people he met in Madison are very accurate.

Madison claims to appreciate diversity on paper, but in many cases it’s less a true appreciation of differences and more of a celebration (but not necessarily acceptance) of eccentricity. There are many colorful street people and musicians in Madison and people acknowledge them – but they’re not quite welcoming them into their homes, or breaking bread with, say, the Piccolo Man.

And for a town that celebrates diversity on paper, it’s unwelcoming to many African-Americans; I’ve seen the body language of people on State Street when an African-American is present and it speaks volumes. The segregation in Madison is just as vivid as it is in Chicago.

One of the biggest challenges for me when I lived there was that Madison was not a very fun place to be single. As a member of the LGBT community, it was even more challenging, but the reasons that Madison’s single scene was such an uphill battle are pretty universal – the dating pool is remarkably small and many good candidates in any age range are usually married and raising a family. Those strong family ties also meant that many people are caring for – and living with – their parents, which doesn’t always make for a positive in the dating world!

Bures makes a number of points in his essay (worth a read at the link above) but in essence, he says Florida’s theory about cause and effect of the creative class being the economic engine of any city (including Madison) just isn’t so.

I’m just starting to explore urban studies as a field, so I can’t speak to theory with any authority. And I found a great deal of thought provoking content when I read Professor Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class several years ago. I look forward to exploring these ideas much more in my studies this years. (NOTE: Florida responded to this article in an in-depth letter, which prompted a counter response by Bures.)

Yeah…I don’t quite get it, either.

There’s a whole other realm of discussion about Madison in the context of urban studies – and I could fill a whole separate blog post with that debate.

There’s much to discuss about Madison’s growing suburban sprawl, as well as the lack of sensible public transit options and the utter failure that happened when previous attempts were made to have a discussion about those options.

Transit planning isn’t happening when a major artery in and out of the city still has an active and busy rail crossing running on it, blocking traffic for up to a half an hour some mornings. (They’ve redone and rebuilt the road a number of times but apparently never thought to put a bridge or tunnel on the road or the tracks so that the east side didn’t come to a complete halt.)

And while the height limit for buildings close to the Capitol is appreciated to maintain a view of the Square, density is desperately needed, particularly as the east side of Madison starts to evolve.

But I will say that I believe Bures’ essay is spot on in many ways. One of his more stinging comments is that Madison is a “giant suburb with a university in the middle.” I’d say that Madison’s biggest strength is State Street, bordered by Capitol Square to the east and the university to the west.

Both the university and the state jobs bring in college-educated workers, many with PhD’s, and an economic engine that attracts new infusions of capital – monetary capital and human capital – all the time. The influx of students and their energy and enthusiasm in pursuing a degree and a profession add fuel to that formula. Much of the rest of Madison is, in many ways, a cluster of suburbs sprouting up around the isthmus.

The reaction to Bures’ essay has been mixed. I never saw it as an indictment of Madison as a place or of its people – more as a critique of Florida’s theory vs. the reality of the city – but nonetheless some Madisonians are taking it personally.

When I first read the response of Brennan Nardi, an editor at Madison Magazine, I felt that her narrative came across as patronizing, and her knee-jerk response was utterly predictable, topped off by the dismissive comment, “Unless you are extraordinary, you have to actively pursue the good life, not passively expect it to find you.” Thanks, Mom!

But Nardi makes some solid points in her rebuttal, and the main one is one that has been overlooked by just about everyone: Madison isn’t that flush economically. It’s still a mid-sized town in a state that, like every other state, is facing budget shortfalls. Madison is an affordable place, but many of the best neighborhoods to live in thrive on their offbeat charm and old housing stock. Fresh financial investment is more rare than people think in Madison.

Overestimating the wealth, the need and the growth potential of Madison is a pitfall that the city’s fallen into twice now, with the building of Monona Terrace and the Overture Center. They’re great buildings in great spaces, but questions exist about their sustainability and whether Madison will ever have enough need to fill the cavernous space of those halls – or enough business to sustain them for the long run.

And the local job market can, at times, be as tranquil and sedate as the city itself. Nardi notes (correctly) that many in cultural fields can max out on opportunities or salary. Jobs are just not that plentiful in Madison, for any industry. State jobs and university jobs are rare and it’s a super-competitive process to land one. And if a professor is hired at UW, their spouse has to find a job in Madison too, and so on.

Madison is an interesting, unique space, and I still cherish my time living there. But it’s not Nirvana. Then again, there are pros and cons about every city I’ve ever lived in. Textbook theory may be a useful tool, but in the end you have to dig deeper to find out what place works for you.

EDITED TO ADD: Bures wrote another related essay here. To me, this relates in many ways to much of what I’ve posted about recently, including the career and job searching posts I’ve written and the recent debate about the value of music and downloading, and how musicians make a sustainable living. There’s a definite change and evolution happening in how we look at where we live and how we make a living.

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One comment

  1. My Dad and Grandparents grew up in Madison. And, so, I am required to say “Go, Pack, Go!!!” 😉

    I cannot say I know Madison well, but it always seemed like a nice place from my distant perspective.

    For what it’s worth, I do find “diversity” something I look for in a city. Now that I’m so used to it, I really notice the lack of diversity in other places.

    I love the line about “so nice you thought they were flirting”! Ha! I’ll have to consider that next time I’m out and about.

    Cheers!

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