Heinen: It’s time to reimagine State Street

The goal should not be returning State Street to its pre-Black Lives Matter, 1960s-drenched self.
State Street Madison
(Photo courtesy of Richard Hurd)

Great cities have great bookstores. San Francisco’s City Lights, Washington, D.C.’s Kramers, Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., Dublin’s Winding Stair Bookshop, Porto, Portugal’s Livraria Lello & Irmão, to name just a handful of the dozens I’ve sought out over the years. All are indispensable urban assets that make a place memorable. I’ve spent many hours in all of them learning as much about the cities in which they are located as the literary wonders awaiting within each. Thus it made me quite happy to learn A Room of One’s Own, one of the stores that make Madison a book-lover’s paradise, was moving from its current downtown location on West Gorham Street, to a new location in the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood.

But more than just the importance of a locally owned, brick-and-mortar, independent bookshop persevering, and even enthusiastically embracing change, this feels like a shining example of how we might all reset the default settings in our minds and imaginations about the future of State Street and Madison. A Room of One’s Own is moving because the building that houses it now is part of a proposed, mixed-use redevelopment project similar to a half-dozen or so that have sprouted up downtown over the last decade. While helping fill a glaring need for more housing units, the projects have, for the most part, come about somewhat piecemeal. This has caused a fair amount of angst among some long-time downtown denizens, Madison traditionalists and State Street hipsters. And, of course, like so much of civic life these days, the impact of the developments are complicated by the added impacts of the pandemic and the social justice movement on downtown and State Street in particular. But I will argue this is also a historic opportunity to reimagine State Street, strengthen Madison neighborhoods and build a better, healthier, more just city in the process.

There are two key elements to this work: a new vision for State Street and a city-wide commitment to grow Madison neighborhoods. The Wisconsin State Journal made a major contribution to this discussion by once again letting the State Street-as-pedestrian-thoroughfare genie out of the bottle, and the supportive letters to the editor that followed were impressive in number and enthusiasm. Getting buses and delivery vehicles off of State Street is necessary. So is getting past the idea that the city’s goal should be returning State Street to its pre-Black Lives Matter, 1960s-drenched self. There are plenty of urban pedestrian mall models around the country and we should steal from the best. But we also have a lot of really smart, creative thinkers right now envisioning a new State Street and we should encourage them to think big.

And perhaps the best way to do that is to encourage similarly forward-thinking city builders in the East Johnson Street, South Park Street, North Sherman Avenue, Monroe Street, Atwood Schenk and a half dozen or more neighborhoods in Madison to create their own State Streets. Continued commitments to housing of all types, bus rapid transit, urban green space and community gathering spots will help. But commerce is going to look a lot different post-COVID-19 and we need new ideas for retail spaces, markets and local food and beverage spots.

The point is this, we have two significant events taking place to kick off 2021: a small business institution in Madison moving from what was once a singularly iconic location to a neighborhood that continues to grow in vitality and interest, and a disrupted State Street just begging to be reinvented. What an important time for our city.