What’s the matter with Madison?

I will be appearing on Sly in the Morning on WTDY (1670 AM) in Madison Friday around 9 a.m.

This will be the second time I’ve been on WTDY since my noting the differences between Madison (as well as Milwaukee, though they are different) and the rest of Wisconsin. Sly’s and his listeners’ reaction thereto killed an hour of Sly’s show, which resulted in another blog entry, which resulted in my first Slypearance. (I made up that word because a reader claims that if Sly criticizes you, you have been Slymed. Lest you try the same thing, I point out that I own the copyright on any compound word that starts with “Preste_____”, such as the name of this blog.)

Since I wasn’t sure what Sly wanted to talk about earlier this month, I do what I always do before a media appearance, news, sports or otherwise — what I call “game prep” whether or not an actual game is involved. The previous “game prep” is the outline of today’s blog.

I haven’t lived in Madison since May 22, 1988, one week after my graduation from UW–Madison, when I jumped in my car and headed to my first job at the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster. (I pointed out on Sly’s show that this is all the fault of the Wisconsin State Journal, which has resolutely refused to hire me for years. I could have added WKOW-TV, where I was a news and sports intern, or the holders of the broadcast rights to UW football, basketball and hockey, but I forgot.)

The first point I made 2½ weeks ago was that …

It took my leaving Madison in 1988 (never to return as a resident, I guarantee you) to see not only that there is much, much more to Wisconsin than Madison, but also the institutionalized sense of superiority and arrogance found within Dane County (and the closer you get to Madison the worse it is).

The corollary to the point that no one has yet refuted is that …

… there is a kind of diversity that is totally absent in Madison — political and ideological diversity. Madison’s city council for years felt the need to express itself on such subjects as the Vietnam War and Central America, when non-politically interested Madisonians were more interested in how their tax dollars were being spent and how the streets were being plowed in the winter. (In my neighborhood’s case, the answer was “not.”) The type of liberal who elsewhere in the state would be seen as wacky-lefty is pretty much mainstream in the People’s Republic of Madison. Madison has a socialist (really) congresswomon, Tammy Baldwin, who if Wisconsinites are not careful will be their next U.S. senator.

Isthmus, which now carries [former Madison mayor Dave] Cieslewicz’s column, axed the column and blog of former Dane County Sup. David Blaska over “economic pressures” (read: people threatening advertisers because they don’t like reading anything other than liberal BS) and their decision to rejigger their editorial content to “inform rather than persuade.” That would seem more believable had they not decided to retain Cieslewicz, who from what I’ve read is more interested in persuading than informing.

My point about Madison’s ideological intolerance has been proven twice since then. On Facebook I made a simple three-phrase post about the conservative tenets of government’s staying out of my life. And I was immediately accused by a fellow ’80s UW–Madison student (from Monona, but the mindset is the same) of how I supposedly feel about abortion, Muslims, gays and Latinos, despite the fact that none of those subjects was included in my three-phrase post.

The second instance of ideological intolerance was by a former grade and middle school classmate of mine, who on this blog wrote:

I have casually read your comments for the last few years and have to say I am disappointed. You rail against Madison, it’s teachers and the environment that helped make you successful. … Your family had a good neighborhood and schools in the city you now hate. I am glad you will never move back, you and yours are not welcome here.

Had my former classmate read this blog more thoroughly, he would have read what I wrote here about growing up in Madison …

Most of us (certainly me) probably need to thank our parents for their contributions to the Madison in which they raised us. Many, including my parents, came to Madison from various other places, sometimes for better occupational opportunity, or perhaps because they thought Madison would be a better place to raise their kids than where they grew up. They were the people went to work every weekday (or more), paid the high taxes, took up their free time with various civic involvements, endured the institutional strangeness, and made the other sacrifices parents make for their kids.

… as well as my observation that …

You may have concluded from reading this blog and its predecessor that I have a love–hate relationship with my hometown. That’s actually not accurate — you can love neither things nor places, since neither is capable of loving you back. (That includes jobs, by the way.) I think I had a very nice, mostly uneventful childhood in a place that really doesn’t exist anymore, or at least exist in the way I remember it.

Ideological intolerance is a rather esoteric complaint. A more practical complaint is Madison’s institutional dysfunction. The city received a $200 million gift (go back and read those five previous words) toward the creation of an arts center, the Overture Center. Despite the size of that gift, the center quickly accumulated $28.6 million in debt, and was facing closing before the city agreed to buy the center and pay off the debt. For those who think bailouts are exclusive to the federal government, well, they’re not.

Madison’s most recent kerfuffle that doesn’t involve Capitol Square protesters was the failure of Madison’s best-known hotel, the Edgewater, to receive $16 million in Tax Incremental District financing for its proposed expansion. Longtime Ald. Tim Bruer was quoted after the eight-hour Common Council meeting that killed the financing plan that “it could haunt the city for decades to come.”

Speaking of decades, there is the Monona Terrace Convention Center, which opened in 1997, only 59 years after Frank Lloyd Wright — yes, that Frank Lloyd Wright — first proposed the project. Between 1954, when Madison voters approved a $4 million referendum to build an “auditorium and civic center,” and 1997 the project’s cost ballooned to $67.1 million, which is more than three times the 1954–1997 inflation rate. (And since the project was funded in part by “direct support from the State of Wisconsin,” it was paid for by your tax dollars, not just Madison’s.)

Of course, mentioning that Madison puts the word “fun” into “dysfunction” means I am repeating a “tired myth,” according to the Capital Times, which used to be a daily newspaper:

The same city that is filled with liberals, socialists, elitists and, heaven forbid, public employees, is also rife with politicians and bureaucrats bent on making life hell for developers.

Unless, that is, you actually listen to the mayor and the city’s economic development director, both of whom express a vision for and urgency about the redevelopment path ahead.

Mayor Paul Soglin and Aaron Olver are focused on a series of infill projects in which tracts would be redeveloped with an eye to creating commercial, retail and residential space, thus enlarging Madison’s tax base.

Yes, but what about those recent, high-profile bumps in the development road?

Well, I don’t think it’s an indictment of the city’s approach that the developer’s high-pressure Edgewater campaign failed to convince policymakers to pony up five times the amount of taxpayer subsidy the project would normally merit. …

Soglin says a key is that potential sites for infill development, whether east, west or south of downtown, are all close to healthy neighborhoods, “and there is a variety of retail from the practical and necessary to the interesting and different.”

Olver contends that the careful scrutiny typical of projects in Madison is a plus. “Madison is full of smart, civically engaged, well-educated people and that contributes to this dynamic, but what also makes Madison great is that we have people who care passionately,” he says.

For most, I suspect ensuring that Madison’s proverbial bricks are put together in that spirit works just fine.

My four years on Ripon’s Plan Commission proved that infill development is what everyone wants, but it is much more expensive and an inevitable compromise. Ripon (which as a college town has at least as many “smart, civically engaged, well-educated people” per capita as Madison does) has several vacant lots in older residential areas. Building modern houses attractive to future buyers using current zoning standards in areas where the existing houses predate current zoning standards creates obvious problems.

The other thing that comes to mind from the Capital (Arrogance) Times is that developers can only develop where city government wants them to develop, jumping through whatever hoops the city chooses to put in front of them. That restricts development to developers who are used to all those hoops that Soglin helped put in during his three separate terms as mayor. That helps explain why one of the Madison area’s biggest private sector employers, Epic Systems, is in Verona, not Madison.

The preceding examples of what the real world would define as dysfunction (which apparently qualify as normalcy in the People’s Republic of Madison) might seem to you just expensive annoyances. In 1968, the state Department of Transportation proposed replacing what was called the South Beltline — U.S. 12/18 from Nob Hill east past U.S. 51, known as Broadway in Monona — with a modern freeway. Which got the environmentalists upset, because to them wetlands are more important than fatal traffic crashes, which were alarmingly frequent on Broadway:

Concerns for the impacts of a proposed “beltline” highway on the south side of Madison brought a handful of wetland enthusiasts together in 1969-1970. This loosely formed group called itself the Dane County Wetlands Association, later the Southern Wisconsin Wetlands Association. At a time when most people didn’t know what a wetland was, the group … was crusading to protect important wetlands on Madison’s urban fringe. …

The struggle was truly a “David and Goliath” experience for the persistent wetland preservationists, as they were a handful of citizens challenging the powerful Department of Transportation at a time when there were no federal or state laws to protect wetlands. Although the group caused some delays, and some accommodations were made by DOT, the Beltline inevitably was constructed.

The Beltline “inevitably” opened in 1988 after many deaths and injuries, including permanent injuries, of which I can attest. (Unless you think a survivor of one of those fatal crashes suffering permanent injury is no big deal, that is.) The fact that the wetlands displaced by South Beltline construction were replaced with new wetlands of double the size (of which I once got a media tour in a boat) still failed to satisfy some environmentalists.

The plants-before-people crowd triumphed outside Madison too. Traffic on U.S. 12 between Middleton and Sauk City vastly exceeded the capacity of the two-lane road for years, but, reports WisconsinHighways.org:

While proposals to upgrade the US-12 corridor between Middleton and Sauk City had been advanced for decades, a 17-member “US-12 Study Committee” of local citizens was appointed in 1990 specifically to provide recommendations to WisDOT and the state legislature as to which improvements were desired for the highway. …

Even with the several years of public hearings and the formation of the “US-12 Study Committee” by the state Legislature, various citizen groups fought WisDOT over the US-12 corridor improvements stating the upgrades would encourage sprawl, take valuable farmland and threaten the Baraboo Hills, a National Natural Landmark. However, the corridor had become increasingly unsafe over the years. While various roadway deficiencies, flooding problems and capacity dificiencies were contribtions, crash statistics clearly pointed to the need for a new alignment. WisDOT statistics note that from 1985 through 1996, 2,200 crashes occurred—nearly one every two days—with 688 of those resulting in non-fatal injuries and 31 fatalities. WisDOT made several rounds of safety-related improvements over the years only to note the crash and fatality levels not decreasing.

I drive the Beltline and U.S. 18/151 every time we visit the in-laws. I’m guessing my ashes will be dissolved by the four winds before Madison’s current favorite bottleneck, Verona Road from the Beltline southwestward toward Verona, is converted to something approximating a modern road. (The state Department of Transportation estimates “2030 or beyond,” the last word being the key term. I would take the northern bypass around Madison instead, but there is no northern bypass (by the modern definition), nor will there ever be.

Official Madison also appears to be blind to its diminishing quality of life that may or may not be coincidental to its increasing population. Before conservative David Blaska was booted off the pages of the Isthmus tabloid for daring to write conservative things, he wrote about “filthy language, littering, vandalism, intimidation, drugs, gangs, [and] killings” in Madison neighborhoods about which official Madison either yawns or wrings its hands and moans about “root causes.” South Madison has had problems for decades that the city has failed to deal with as well. I knew my hometown wasn’t the same place when drive-by shootings started happening at my high school in what then was the most white-collar part of Madison. I have no idea what Madison police actually do; from what I read in media reports law enforcement isn’t one of their jobs anymore. The spiraling residential real estate prices are great for existing homeowners, less great for those who want to move to Madison, which may be why residential development is occurring more outside Madison than in Madison.

The latest attempt to do something about those “root causes” was a proposed charter school targeted to minority boys, killed by the Madison school board because of the school district’s contract with Madison Teachers Inc. (I’m guessing the massive business support for the charter school worked against it too.) I’d like to say that such a teacher-union-before-students attitude exists only in Madison, but as we’ve seen this year, it exists elsewhere too. It is, however, a fine example of the limousine liberalism of Madison, particularly since there appears to be no other serious proposal to deal with the achievement gap between Madison’s white students and Madison’s non-white students.

There is also the institutional weirdness of Madison, which I found reasonably entertaining 25 years ago, but would find decreasingly entertaining as a property taxpayer and parent in Madison. Madison’s most odious institution is the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which seeks not its own adherents’ freedom from any evidence of any religion, but your mandated adherence to its own anti-Christian doctrine. The organization is fine taking potshots at Christianity and Christians, but lacks the courage to utter one public word about Islam. I wonder why.

The Daily Cardinal, one of the UW’s student newspapers, noted the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975 with an end-of-the-world-type-size headline of “VICTORY!” (The more than 1 million Cambodians killed by the winning side after the war ended might disagree with that assessment.) Sly’s former employer proposed changing the liberal talk format of one of its radio stations, a move stopped by protesters, who seemed to not grasp that liberal talk radio as an all-day format is a commercial failure. The city in 2008 actually considered banning drive-thru restaurants. As a parent of young children, I would prefer to be able to drive through the city whose taxes I pay without having to explain to them naked bicycling protesters.

My parents endured the abuse of their tax dollars and the official disrespect of their views as Madison homeowners for 40 years. Even though I get more libertarian as I get older, I choose to participate in none of what I’ve written about because I refuse to become a political prisoner of the People’s Republic of Madison. Which is apparently OK because, to directly quote my former classmate, “you and yours are not welcome here.” If I were interested in living in a Madison-like environment, I’d move to Austin, Texas. Texas taxes are lower, and the weather is better.


21 thoughts on “What’s the matter with Madison?

  1. “The organization is fine taking potshots at Christianity and Christians, but lacks the courage to utter one public word about Islam. I wonder why.”

    This is utter nonsense.

    FFRF certainly does take shots at Islam. Listen to their radio show. Take for instance the 5 January 2008 show which “looks at end-of-the-year threats to women by Islamists.” And they are happy to publish/podcast the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali who has no kind words for Islam. See here:


    The reason you don’t hear the FFRF take potshots at Islam outside of their own publications/podcasts very much is because Islam is a small minority religion here and Muslims aren’t constantly trying to introduce their religion into the classrooms of public schools and put up religious symbols on public property. There also aren’t many Muslim politicians talking about making America into a “Muslim Nation” and trying to pass laws to put this country in line with their version of the Qur’an. This country is populated mostly by Christians and so it is mostly Christians discriminating against non-Christians with regards to the public sphere. Ergo the FFRF’s invective is mostly directed at Christians.

    For someone involved in journalism, you display an egregious lack of willingness to actually investigate matters. Either that or you mustered the courage to lie.

    Madison is surely not perfect and there are plenty of things about it I’d like to see change. In reference to your other post that you quote here…

    “The only people who thought that a freeway-speed train between Madison and Milwaukee for more than $800 million (editor’s note: The original $800 billion number was wrong, and I thank Sly for bringing it to my attention) was a good idea was people in Madison and people in Milwaukee.”

    That’s funny. People in Eau Claire, Oshkosh, and La Crosse rallied for rail as well a little over a year ago.

    Lack of diversity in one way or another can be found all over Wisconsin. Waukesha doesn’t exactly exhibit a lot of left-of-center character. You can dump on Madison and Milwaukee all you want but they are huge chunks of Wisconsin’s economy. Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha account for 35% of the state’s economic output. (Or did. This is a pre-recession number.)

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that there is more to Wisconsin than Madison (and/or Milwaukee). I have lived in rural Wisconsin but there was very little diversity of any kind.

    1. There’s a lot to be said for not succumbing to this politically correct diversity push. As a recent arrival to Wisconsin from South Florida, I can offer first-hand experience as to how ‘diversity’ converted a once beautiful environment into a 3rd world slum. If you desire diversity I suggest you take a trip to Miami Florida first to see what happens when you get what you wish for.

    2. I’ll bet anything that what irks Stevie the most is the Freedom From Religion organization in Madison. In fact, i wouldn’t doubt that was what caused him to flee the city. He’s probably also very unhappy with the Gov. Walker recall movement and the protests in the city over collective bargaining rights. Religious fundamentalist brainwashing seems to be keeping him from transitioning from a Tea Bagger to a functional member of the 99%.

  2. Stevie, I am a recent transplant to Madison from Ft Lauderdale, FL and I am finding a wonderful city to experience. Thank you for leaving and creating a space for me.

  3. I enjoy life in Madison, so let’s just say I’ll stay here, and you stay wherever suits you.

  4. the 2008 ban on drive thru’s was on the Council Agenda but wasn’t even close to being supported. Given the extreme political environment and lack of tax base growth, it is certainly better living in suburbs. Just wish the County board wasn’t so extreme with their spending habits…

    this post is clearly one sided, but since I agree with just about all of it, I’m not going to argue your positions…

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