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Neil Heinen: Appreciate Madison's past but look ahead, not back

Published On: Dec 20 2013 04:15:44 PM CST
Neil Heinen's Column

By Neil Heinen

I moved to Madison in January 1974, forty years ago this month. Paul Soglin was mayor for the first time. I turned twenty-three that July.

With the exception of an ill-conceived four months in De Pere in the fall of 1969, I had spent my entire life living in Milwaukee, a city for which I still have a deeply-conflicted affection. Milwaukee was a great city in the ’50s and ’60s and my love for cities is rooted in that place at that time. But by 1974, I was ready for a change.

For the previous four years, I had worked at the Milwaukee Psychiatric Hospital as a “psychiatric aide,” a life-changing experience that would for years substitute for a college education in my life. I needed something new.

From the time I was old enough to dream, Madison was simply a place I would inhabit over my mother’s dead body. Mom is still with us and grew to appreciate, and I think share, my love for this wonderful city. But I’m sure she had her doubts forty years ago as my hair grew still longer, I chose tending bar over a return to
college, and I bought a motorcycle.

I lived at 1148 ½ Jenifer Street in the upper half of a two-flat with two of my closest friends and a friend of theirs. That year the Willy Street Co-op opened at 1014 Williamson Street, the first of its three locations on Willy. We frequented the Wisconsin Inn, which was also the official clubhouse of the city’s lone motorcycle gang, the C.C. Riders. We all got along. State Street was a conventional, four-lane, undivided road. David Bowie played the Coliseum.

Jenifer Street was the first of approximately twelve places I have lived in Madison. The place on Orchard Street across from the old Union South is gone. The place Nancy lived, above Paul’s Club on State Street, when she and I took a shine to each other in 1976 is still there. Paul’s Club moved. At the time, I was working at La Creperie restaurant, on the second floor of a building on the corner of Gilman and State. The year before I was working on Halloween, and from the window I watched about three dozen or so kids start a small bonfire in the street. Maybe half of them wore costumes. A few cops stood by, chatting with the kids. The next year there were a few hundred kids. Today it’s Freakfest. I’ve lived on Johnson Street, Monroe Street, Jenifer Street (again), State Street (again), Hancock Street, Gorham Street, Gregory Street and a few others. I drove a Badger Cab for two days. The football team was actually pretty good in ’74. The basketball team wasn’t, and after one more year coach John Powless left to focus on tennis. That turned out pretty well.

Does this sound nostalgic? I don’t feel nostalgic. I feel lucky. I’ve thought about living in a lot of different places. I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. I’m glad I experienced the Madison of the 1970s, as well as the Madison I eventually covered, interviewed, explored, investigated and wrote about in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s through today. But more and more, I realize how excited I am about tomorrow.

I don’t want to return to the Madison I moved to. I don’t even want to stay in the same Madison in which I find myself at this moment. The Madison I have chosen to stay in is the Madison we are becoming. And I believe those of us who have chosen to stay in Madison for whatever reason have a responsibility to aid in that becoming, to make our experiences available to the twenty-three-year-old today who in 2054 will remember where he or she lived and what the city looked like. And who the mayor was. And who was helping create the Madison in which they felt welcomed, respected, appreciated and cared for.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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