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Open Letter to Our Mayors

I 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 Jurczynski.

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, local-retail-friendly blocks.

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 it.

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.

—Erin Sullivan

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