MADISON, Wis. - Madison mayor Paul Soglin hosted the city's annual neighborhood conference Saturday, filling the rooms of the Monona Terrace with discussions centered on "placemaking."
The concept, Soglin said, is about seeing city space in a new way and creating places where the community can come together. Soglin added the ideas should come from the creativity of those communities.
"The community grows it and embraces it, then we've got something," Soglin said.
The conference conversations focused on individual neighborhood destinations and public places where residents can go and feel further connected to and invested in the community.
"We want everyone participating in the growth of their neighborhood, so we work on the household, as well as the public places," Soglin explained.
One of those public places already in place is the Meadowood Front Yard Garden. The space in front of an old residential building has been transformed into plots of flowers and vegetables.
"We're cleaning up the neighborhood," Meadowood resident and head gardener Ray McNight said.
McNight – who is known by neighbors as "Uncle Ray Ray" – started the garden three years ago. Putting his farming roots to good use, he turned what he says was a gravel porch view into rows of plants.
"If you can get your neighbors to come out here and participate in helping with the garden and keeping the neighborhood safe and clean," McNight said, "it will be a better place than it is today."
McNight is at the garden at least every weekend, handing out harvested vegetables or hosting community events. He said anywhere from 27 to 35 people show up regularly to help him out, including a lot of the kids living nearby.
"They aren't going to forget the fun that they had when they were out here doing the gardens," McNight added.
McNight said it gives the young people in the neighborhood something productive to be a part of, which in turn keeps criminal activity at bay.
"They're learning a new tool," McNight explained, "working with their hands, and it's always something they can take with them."
The old apartment building behind the garden is now a small scale community center, which houses help for young parents among other things.
All of the food from the garden is free to families in the neighborhood. Anything that is left over, McNight said, is donated to a food pantry.
McNight said the neighborhood community center is one of the only other places around for people to go. Meadowood Neighborhood Association president Lisa Veldran wants to see that facility expand, as well as other outreach programs.
"You don't create that synergy that goes back and forth between your neighbors," Veldran said. "I look at being able to have more space to do more things in the neighborhood, and to actually have more ability to have people connect. And it's all about connecting and meeting one another."
McNight said since he has taken up the project, he is recognized as a leader in the community. And it's a responsibility he doesn't take lightly.
"I know the community looks at me as 'Uncle Ray Ray,'" McNight said. "They look up to me so, if I'm not out here everyday doing something when I get out of work, it's not me."
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