Letter to Our Mayors
just got back from Madison, Wis., earlier this week. Mayors
Jerry Jennings and Al Jurczynski and Mark Pattison, take note:
There’s more to this Midwestern capital city than dairy farmers,
cheese and beer.
There are many lessons you could learn, simply by walking
the streets and talking with the folks of this good city—and
lucky for you, we hear you guys will have your chance to do
just that in a couple of weeks. On June 14 through 18, the
U.S. Conference of Mayors will be gathering in Madison for
its 70th annual conference. Do yourselves and your constituents
a favor: Go to the conference. And go with an open mind.
The first thing you may notice when you fly into the Madison
airport is that it’s not very fancy and it’s not very big,
and architecturally, it’s not unlike the Albany International
Airport. “Boy,” my boss said when we arrived. “Our airport
is really much nicer than this.” Albany 1, Madison 0, we thought.
But when we actually got into Madison proper—a city with a
population of about 200,000, bigger than Albany but nowhere
near as big as our tri-city area—it became obvious that somewhere
along the line, New York’s Capital Region had missed the boat
that’s kept Madison out of the urban-decay ghetto we’re always
struggling to escape from.
When you go to Madison—and we can’t urge you more strongly
to do so—we would like for you to hit the streets. Don’t hole
up at the lovely Monona Terrace Conference Center, no matter
how tempting it is to simply lounge in the rooftop garden
or schmooze at the Hilton hotel bar.
For your convenience, we’ve compiled a list of things for
you to see and do while in Madison. Bring a notebook—you might
want to jot a few things down.
Take a walk or a jog along the bike/walking path on Lake Monona.
It’s certainly not fancy. You won’t find lots of historically
accurate gas lamp replicas or pastel-toned brick pavers or
wrought-iron bridges and benches. What you will find, however,
is that it’s a pleasant and safe recreational path, well-paved,
clean and easy to access by pedestrians. Literally hundreds
of walkers/bikers/joggers/in-line skaters use that path morning,
noon and night, even though there’s a high-traffic roadway
between it and the city. But the city has made sure that it’s
pedestrian friendly, not isolated from the city proper, and
that users can get on and off the path at a number of different
access points. We wish we could say the same for the Corning
Preserve along the Hudson River, which—pedestrian bridge or
no pedestrian bridge—is still too isolated from its users.
Is there some element of the design of the Lake Monona waterfront
that we can incorporate to make our own waterfront more user-friendly?
Have Schenectady and Troy even tried to make their waterfronts
accessible to the city?
Notice the integration of private buildings into public space.
For example, you’ll find that Monona Terrace is completely
open on one side. It’s a convention center, but it’s not intimidating,
it’s not alienating, and it does not block public access to
the waterfront. During the mornings and afternoons, you may
find people—bona-fide Madison citizens, not just visiting
politicians and conventioneers—walking on the terrace or lounging
on the rooftop garden that overlooks the lake. Mayor Jennings,
we hear there’s a convention center in Albany’s future—can
we make it welcoming and accessible to the people of Albany,
as Monona Terrace is to the people of Madison? Ditto, Mayor
Have breakfast on Saturday morning at the Marigold Kitchen
on S. Pinckney Street. It’s a little independently owned breakfast/lunch
place. Try the fresh yogurt with pecans, walnuts, fresh fruit
and honey, or the radicchio, asparagus salad. Notice how incredibly
hoppin’ this little place is. When you’re feeling satiated,
head outside and turn left into the massive farmer’s market
that dominates the capitol area on Saturdays. Hundreds of
vendors packed into the streets, dead in the middle of the
city, traffic snarls be damned. What a beautiful sight.
Spend some quality time with “Hizzoner da Mare,” aka Madison
Mayor Paul Soglin. He has spent numerous terms in office,
knows tons about the history of Madison, and is not afraid
to answer questions—even the embarrassing ones. Soglin is
willing and able to discuss both the urban politics of his
town and the lefty idealism that helped it become what it
is today. He’s good at singing the praises of his fine city,
but he’s not afraid to critique it, either. He’ll discuss
battles against corruption, bad cops and city controversies
with the same candor with which he’ll tell you about building
the city’s Civic Center, State Street Mall and progressive
social programs. And while we visited, he wasn’t afraid to
spend a couple of hours on a 90-degree afternoon giving a
bunch of cranky alt-journalists a walking tour of the town.
Visit the multitude of street vendors who pop up all over
the city—and stay late into the afternoon. Fresh juices, fruit
smoothies, popcorn, burritos, you name it. All can be found
in and around Madison’s Capitol Square and beyond. And still,
the restaurants in the city don’t seem to lack for business.
Why does it seem that every year we hear that cities in our
region are battling to limit the number of vendors who peddle
their goodies in and around government buildings?
Check out the Cooperative Community Design Effort. Right now
the city is engaged in a comprehensive project examining the
implications of improving State Street, the city’s most recognized
and traveled thoroughfare, which connects Capitol Square to
the University of Wisconsin in a dozen or so amazingly lively,
Note that the city does not overdepend on parking. We hear
there are some parking problems in Madison, just as there
are in every other metropolitan area in the nation. But Mayor
Soglin himself indicated during his walking tour of the city
that it’s not a priority to create more curbside parking on
city streets. He mentioned that there has been some cry for
it—but he also noted that making downtown a massive parking
lot for commuters’ convenience would threaten the ambience
of Madison’s very walkable neighborhoods.
Take notes on the bicycling improvement projects. As you walk
the streets, notice the preponderance of bicycles hitched
to the racks placed strategically around the city. The city
takes its bikers very seriously, and in fact, asks cyclists
for their input in ensuring the best biking conditions possible.
Broken glass in the street? Too many potholes in your path?
Ideas for the location of new bike paths? Call the city of
Madison’s Pedestrian-Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Commission (yep,
they have one) or the Pedestrian-Bicycle Coordinator. They’ll
be happy to help.
Trust me, if you go with an open mind, you might just bring
back some interesting ideas to improve our cities’ ambience,
walkability, retail-friendliness, etc. Lord knows we need
Oh, and by the way, the best place to have a great Middle
Eastern meal and smoke a (legal) hookah? The Casbah at 119
E. Main St. Trust us, we know whereof we speak.