Neil Heinen

Heinen: Eyes wide open

How to create the new version of urban Madison?

The race to equity report changed my thinking about cities. It was a slap in the face—a disconcerting reality check—that I should have seen coming long before I did. For reasons that are troubling to me, I was too stubborn and self-confident in my new urban philosophies to see the problems that set in when a few cities in the U.S., including Madison, became enclaves of the creative class. Still, it was jarring to read Richard Florida’s new book, “The New Urban Crisis,” in which he admits he, too, was wrong.

Back in 2002, when “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Florida’s groundbreaking ode to the power of technology, talent and tolerance to transform urban America, was published, I bought it. I mean, I really bought it. Sandwiched between David Brook’s “Bobos in Paradise” published a year earlier, and the even more influential (for me) “Caught in the Middle” by Richard Longworth in 2008, I concocted a new urban cocktail of innovation, inclusivity and globalism after a few sips of which one could see the future. No teetotalers allowed. 

If you didn’t imbibe, you will. The main features of the new urban skyline were universities, art galleries and studios, coffee shops and gay bars, co-working spaces and bikes. Lots of bikes. Where I got stuck, or one of the places I got stuck, was my belief that the ethnic, cultural, intellectual, racial and gender diversity required by people who would move into downtowns and start businesses there would result in the perfect mix of incomes, political ideologies, philosophies and world views. Instead, we got the Race to Equity Report and sickeningly ugly segregation and disparities. Suddenly, the ’60s seemed like a weird dream, and the 2010s even more unreal. I don’t know if Florida feels embarrassed. But I do, a little anyway. I wrote a lot about cities during those years, and I placed Madison at the epicenter of the growing network of creative class capitals. And I didn’t see this coming. So, what do we do about it?

First of all, we will do something about it. If I’ve lost a little sociological naiveté, I’ve not lost my belief in cities as the most important repositories of democracy and civic innovation in our nation and our world, and that Madison can be a model city—thank you John Nolen. We have access to the tools needed to rebuild our new urban plans, many detailed in “The New Urban Crisis.”

More importantly, we have the will. If anything, Madison has even more deep thinkers, active doers and crazy dreamers than it had when this whole new urban phenomena really took hold here in 1995. New leaders are younger, smarter (in many ways, if not all), less risk-averse, technically abled and diverse, diverse, diverse. They’re not just talking about inclusion, they’re living it. They are the people who will change the way we, Madison, deal with affordable housing, infrastructure, income disparity (think living wages and benefits), what neighborhoods look like, how our criminal justice system works and how we make our schools better.

It’s easy to get discouraged by the crisis of incivility and divisiveness our current political system encourages and exploits. It’s going to take extra effort and determination to change how we talk to each other, think of each other and act toward each other. But we will. And we will start by recognizing that, like me, like Florida, our failure to recognize mistakes and new realities turned the New Urban Promise into “The New Urban Crisis.” And then we’ll redouble our efforts. Florida says, “Our cities remain our best vehicles for identifying and solving our deepest social and economic problems.” With my eyes open a little wider, I’m buying it, again.

Side notes

Healthy food for all 
Epic Systems’ recent health care software conference—the equivalent of a rock festival in its energy—once again pointed out the great success of the community-based food recovery effort of Healthy Food for All. Born out of a United Way of Dane County-led food initiative, Healthy Food for All collects excess produce from local farms and prepared foods from corporate cafeterias, cleans and repackages it at FEED Kitchens and distributes it to food pantries and neighborhoods. The haul from Epic’s annual conference (called its User Group Meeting, or UGM)  over the past two years exceeded 80,000 pounds of surplus, prepared foods, making UGM the gift that keeps on giving.

Happy Anniversary, Monona Terrace
It’s hard to believe Monona Terrace is 20 years old. Madison must divide roughly in two; those who never thought Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision would ever be realized, and those who can’t remember living without it. As for impact, the economic benefit from conferences and conventions over the last two decades is estimated at half a billion dollars. Happy Anniversary, indeed.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.


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