Madison Monday: a real town

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It’s another Monday in Madison and for the first time in a while, pleasant enough to sit outside the Madison Coffee and Tea Shop without feeling as if you must immediately go home and shower all the sweat off.  Perhaps the month of August will be giving us a break, after all.

This morning riding my bike up to the coffee shop I saw the usual sights one sees on a Monday morning in Madison.  People opening up their shops, going to work, getting gas.  Not quite taking their kids to school yet, but soon.  If you want to remember what a busy little place downtown Madison is, get out early on a Sunday morning.  When I bike up to my yoga class on Sunday mornings, it feels sometimes as if time has stopped.  There are few cars, fewer pedestrians.  There’s a kind of quiet that is lovely in its contrast to the way downtown Madison is most of the time.

This is one of the things I love best about living here.  Downtown Madison is certainly a lovely tourist stop, and it’s great to have folks who come and appreciate our shops, Clifty Falls and the river.  But it’s also a real town.  People live here.  All kinds of people.

There’s a school of urban design and city planning called new urbanism.  Their basic principles are based on the belief that we built things, including cities and towns, a lot better back in the old days.  For example, when downtown Madison was being built.  Towns and neighborhoods should be built on a grid system to encourage connectivity.  You’ve experienced this in downtown Madison if you’ve ever found yourself behind a slow car on 2nd St. and cut up to Main to get around it.  That’s connectivity–more than one way to get to the same place.  Communities should be based on a human scale, which means they should be walkable.  Buildings should be beautiful and functional.  Everything should be mixed use.  New urbanists hate zoning.  That we mix commercial with residential in Madison is exactly the way new urbanists feel it should be.  Most appealing to me, communities should be diverse in terms of age, social class, cultures and races.  An ambitious ideal, but hard to achieve.

Streetscape at Norton Commons
courtesy of  nortoncommons.com

New urbanists would like to see us build new places that are more like Madison, and they give it their best shot.  You can check out a new urbanist development right down the road in Louisville at Norton Commons, that weird looking subdivision at the junction of I-71 and I-265.  If you drive through Norton Commons, it looks like what I guess Madison may have looked like in its infancy, only it’s surrounded by interstate.  And you’ll quickly notice that it’s decidedly upscale.

This is the problem with a lot of new urbanist developments.  Diversity is a hard thing to achieve in a segregated world.  If you build a place that is beautiful and walkable, it seems to attract people with money.  And then the people with money largely don’t want poor people living around them.

Luckily for us in Madison, you don’t really get that choice.  If you are a rich person and you don’t want anyone who’s not in your income bracket as a neighbor, you should not buy a house in downtown Madison.  People will tell you that downtown Madison has its “bad” parts of town, but let us not kid ourselves into believing that any of us are living farther than two blocks away from folks who are working class, if not in out-and-out poverty.

This is part of what makes downtown Madison a real town.  I’ve visited other tourist towns that are quaint and beautiful.  They have helpful signs directing you to all the important shops and shady sidewalks with café tables.  I can walk along their streets and encounter a lot of other people who are pretty much just like me.  But I often miss the sense that these are real towns.  Sure people live there, but the people who live there may also live someplace else for part of the year.  Or it may be the third or fourth or fifth place they have lived.

In these towns, it feels whatever parts of the community didn’t fit into their particular image of themselves as a town people would like to visit have been largely erased.  Or perhaps have gone underground, somewhere invisible to visitors like myself.  You’ll see a lot happening in those towns, but most of the action seems to be centered around visitors.

Tourism is a great thing, and I think it’d be wonderful to see more of it in Madison.  But I’d hate to see Madison ever lose its realness, it’s essence as a place where all kinds of people live and work.  As in all encounters with reality, that means developing some tolerance, if not appreciation, for the parts of our community that may not fit perfectly into your own particular vision of what Madison should be.  If you want to love downtown Madison, you might have to love the drunken argument outside of your window at 2 in the morning as much as you love the coffee shop.   You might have to love the fact that downtown is not a place designed for cars, which means you’ll often have to park somewhere and walk a few blocks to get where you’re going.  You might have to love the loud, obnoxious teenagers or the slow, cranky old people as much as you love your friendly neighbors.  Real places are complicated and sometimes, quite frankly, annoying.  And though that is not one of the principles of new urbanism, perhaps it should be.  Communities should be complex, imperfect, and therefore, real.

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