Peeling back the plywood: Returning the love to the heart of Madison

MADISON, Wis. —  After months of operating under a plywood protection, several Madison business owners are removing the boards covering their downtown storefronts.

Construction crews removed the boards covering the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and Warby Parker on Thursday.

The barriers were put in place last spring after Madison experience violent demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in police custody in nearby Minneapolis.

“It just makes me so hopeful for what the future has in store for downtown,” said Jason Ilstrup of Downtown Madison Inc. “These businesses have gone through so much over the last 6-9 months of COVID and property destruction. These businesses have tried to do so much to stay open, to innovate, to keep people safe by making people wear masks, by social distancing properly.”

More than 75 businesses along State Street were damaged and looted during the final weekend of May 2019. These violent demonstrations lasted for several days and were separate from an original peaceful protest organized to honor Floyd and spread awareness about police brutality.

Ilstrup says the long term economic impacts of these events are still uncertain. So far, more than 30 downtown businesses have closed.

“It takes time to build trust,” he said. “It’s going to take more and more people coming downtown safely to have activity down here to have people see that this is an environment they want to be in.”

The boards remained up throughout the summer, with community members turning the splintered plywood into colorful murals sharing messages of hope.

The city of Madison also prepared for more violent demonstrations following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. While Kenosha experienced days of unrest, protests in Madison last August remained largely peaceful.

While some businesses returned to their normal storefronts, others kept the pieces of plywood largely in place throughout the fall and winter.

And recently, owners chose to leave the boards up after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. The FBI warned of armed protests nationwide at all 50 state capitols following the unrest in Washington.  While no specific threat to Madison was known, some businesses added boards as a precautionary measure. Others chose to leave the up for fears of protests on Inauguration Day.

But Wednesday remained peaceful both locally and nationally.

Which left those of us at News 3 Now wondering when the heart of Madison would return to looking like its former self.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway was asked about this during her weekly media briefing on Thursday.

“I’ve seen over the past months that there were a number of businesses who made the decision to take down the boards and open up in that way and I certainly support that,” the mayor said. 

“It’s an individual business decision, but I think that it’s likely time for that to start happening again.”

Rhodes-Conway also shared some of the city resources available to help business owners who experienced damage during year’s unrest and those dealing with issues tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

The city created a survey earlier this year asking Madison residents what they would like seen done with the murals.

Some businesses have decided to keep them or incorporate them into their shops.

American Family Insurance Institute has since created a book that preserves the murals.