Heinen: A 40-year lens of Madison

Magazine and city have changed in past 40 years
Heinen: A 40-year lens of Madison
Photos courtesy of Neil Heinen and the Wisconsin Historical Society
Neil and Nancy Heinen were married at the former Chez Michel restaurant, where the West Towne Mall is today.

I moved to Madison in 1974, but I started my first job as a journalist, my career, in 1978, the year this publication became Madison Magazine. We’ve been a part of each other’s lives in one fashion or another for each of those 40 years in large part by telling the stories of the city we both love. And for almost half of those years we’ve been doing it together.

One of the gifts of life, of being lucky enough to live a long life, is to watch life become history. In many ways this special issue of Madison Magazine is about how Madison Magazine has changed over four decades. But I am also thinking of how Madison has changed as a city over those years, and the privilege of watching it change. And, of course, at the same time I am frustrated with how it has not changed.

In 1978 Madison was emerging from a municipal adolescence into early adulthood after a decade of reflection and recovery from some rough growing pains socially and politically. There was an impending-end-of-the-century aura of modernity in the air, and while we were not yet fluent in concepts like new urbanism or civic journalism, and the pace of technological discovery and change was unfathomable, we were entertaining the possibility that our growth strategies, land use policies, built and natural environments and vision for a new century were within our grasp. That comparatively risky if not radical thinking paved the way for policy decisions like then-Dane County Executive Rick Phelps’ rural growth boundaries and regional planning, our commitment to civic infrastructure like Monona Terrace and Overture Center for the Arts, our interest in cataloguing and building on our assets and our embrace of sustainable food systems and urban agriculture to name a few.

There are two parallel measurements of the evolution of a place; its three dimensional landscape and its civic life, and one affects the other. Our skyline and borders have changed dramatically. We have neighborhoods that didn’t exist in 1978, density and building heights that would have been met with skepticism if not outright hostility back then, and a regional perspective that has greatly expanded one’s estimate of the number of square miles one can travel within “Madison” before running into reality.

In 1978, just past then-still-new and oh-so-chic West Towne Mall was an old farmhouse with an out-building behind it in which a squatter lived and was building a concrete boat. Beyond that were farm fields as far as the eye could see. That building became Chez Michel restaurant. I was married in that building in 1982. While still standing, it’s essentially invisible now as development has pushed past it for miles.

There are many such stories that describe the growth of Madison, the most significant of which is probably the development of the Capital East Corridor along East Washington Avenue, a 15-year project-in-the-dreaming that will, along with current plans for South Park Street, define the next 40 years of Madison.

So there is a difference in scale. Certain stretches of a couple of blocks or more, like West Gilman and University Avenue or Union Corners, are jarringly unfamiliar. A 33 percent growth in population over 40 years will do that.

With the growth – in population and bricks and mortar – have come the challenges with which we are wrestling in 2018: gentrification, cost of living, traffic, resource inequities and the pace of change.

It’s one thing to go from cars on State Street to a pedestrian mall. It’s another to go from schools of overwhelming majority white, middle- and upper-class kids to schools that are 57 percent non-white and most of those students are poor. That’s a change in culture. It’s also the Madison of the future, a city that still, yes still, can aspire to the lofty vision of John Nolen of being a model city. That hasn’t changed in 40 years. We have all the resources we need to be a great city. We need a little attitude adjustment, some humility, a desire to do the hard work, a willingness to embrace some risk, a lot of innovation and wild and joyful amounts of creativity.