y first visit to Madison was in 1970. And while a couple of days of trying have left me unable to pinpoint the exact date, I’m relatively certain it was May. What I am sure of is what brought me to the Capitol City from my Milwaukee home for the first time: the protests (okay, the riots, that’s what we called them) against the war in Vietnam.
I was back in Milwaukee after a disastrous initial attempt at college in Green Bay—it, too, disrupted by the political and social turmoil competing for my attention. But while there were marches on the UW Milwaukee campus, demonstrations on Brady Street and rallies at the Lakefront, none of it was as loud, aggressive and powerful as what was going on in Madison. That’s where the real protests were taking place and I had to participate.
I didn’t stay long. We hung around State Street for an hour or so and then ducked into the Pub when things got ugly. And when the tear gas seeped through the door and made it impossible to stay we slipped out the back, found our car and drove back home. I was back only two or three more times before making the city my new home in 1974, but I feel comfortable saying that the events of May 1970 had a profound effect on me. The more important question is, what effect did they have on the city? That pivotal month in that pivotal year, as captured by historian and writer Stuart Levitan, was certainly one of the defining moments in our history.
Along with the Dow Chemical protests of October 1967 and the horrible bombing of Sterling Hall forty years ago this August, May of 1970 helped create an image of Madison as a hotbed of political activism that exists, at least mythically, to this day. While there are those who complain this reputation is misleading, if not inaccurate, for the most part I think we’ve embraced it. And for good reason.
First of all it is inescapably part of our history. I remember when the National Conference of Editorial Writers chose Madison as the site of its 1997 convention, till then the smallest city to host the organization in its fifty-year existence. It was to a large degree the history of demonstrations and protests of the ’60s and ’70s, transformed into a reputation of an intellectually lively, culturally stimulating, diverse and politically active city, that attracted writers and editors from around the country. And they were not disappointed.
Like so many others, what they found is that a significant percentage of our population either arrived in the ’60s and ’70s and stayed, or was attracted here by the culture that era helped create. They found an environment of strong neighborhoods and grassroots activism, populist politics and engaged citizens, progressive business leaders and creative entrepreneurs, talented artists and craftspeople, a clean environment and wonderful urban amenities. I don’t know how many of these folks I rubbed shoulders—and burning eyes—with forty years ago. But some were there, I’m sure of that.
Back then the Edgewater Hotel was an oasis (interestingly, today it’s a riot all its own) and over the years became inseparable from its legendary maître d’ David Martineau. A lover of Madison history, Martineau pitched the original idea for a look back to editor Brennan Nardi. One thing led to another and you hold the result in your hands. The focus changed a bit, but the inspiration was his and we’re appreciative. We are all the sum of what has preceded us, this magazine included.
Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.