Looking for Madison

This weekend to celebrate my 42nd birthday, Ryan and I are driving with some good synagogue friends up to Milwaukee for the Wisconsin State Fair. Hopefully I’ll avoid a full-on, beer-in-sun hangover like last time. (Ryan’s also special-ordered me Drake’s Devil Dogs from New York, and I intend to give in to gluttony on arrival, also like last time.) In fact, in the past year, Brewtown has become our favorite weekend urban destination.

So in July, it felt weird to drive through and past Milwaukee. We were on our way to Madison, Wisconsin’s tragically hip, college-town capital. It was a first trip for us both, and frankly we needed to get out of Chicago’s orbit for a few days. Damned college towns. We found Madison a beautiful, surprisingly vibrant town in which to feel like everyone’s parent. We oldsters toured the Captiol, strolled State Street, and searched in vain for a good burger or plate of poutine while also falling in love with New Glarus Beer and wondering how the animals in the Henry Vilas Zoo manage to stay alive given the sorry state of the place.

The highlight? The mind-blowingly enormous Saturday morning farmers market that completely encircles the entire State Capitol building on all four sides. The lowlight? Attempting a side trip to a Wisconsin Dells so crowded with bumpkins in bathing suits as if God had tipped the Midwest and all the trailers had rolled to Lake Delton that we never got out of the car and drove immediately back to Madison.

But the buried lede is really our attempt to find a great view of Madison from across lakes Mendota and Monona, the two large bodies of water that border Madison’s central isthmus to the north and south. Living in Chicago, Ryan and I reap the permanent benefits of A. Montgomery Ward’s nineteenth-century effort to keep the Windy City’s lakefront “free and clear” of private development. Want more than 25 miles of parkland- and beach-lined lakefront in a huge American City? That’s Chicago.

Given that Menodota and Monona have a combined shoreline of about 35 miles, we decided to see how this relatively nearby Midwestern city (and region) compared to Chicago in terms of lakefront access. So…we used a GPS-enabled Android phone to circumnavigate both lakes, exclusively driving along the publicly accessible roads closest to each lakefront.

(Yes, we did.)

It took three hours and lots of double-backs, U-turns, and retreating out of cul-de-sacs. Ultimately, it was a depressing effort. (At least from a Chicagoan’s perspective.) We figured we would find at least a few stunning views back across one or both lakes of Madison’s Capitol-topped downtown hill. Mostly, though, we found an unbroken wall of lakefront development in the form of endless exclusive single-family homes with private docks hidden behind view-stealing privacy hedges, very occasionally broken by a handful of boat launches.

This was the rule outside of Madison, where I can recall two public lakefront parks of any size and almost no unfettered view of the isthmus that didn’t involve peering between houses. Things were better within Madison, itself, with sizeable areas of lakefront parkland–though not many–both near downtown and further out in the neighborhoods, and pocket (street-ending) lakefront access in some neighborhoods. But not much better.

It isn’t like we weren’t pulling for Madison to come through. In some neighborhoods we circled and circled, hoping a strange squiggle on Google Maps might be a new, unnamed road, or trying to get to a big stand of trees we could see just over the rooftops, only to discover they were in someone’s private back yard.

Perhaps more unnerving, though, was some of the signage we found. Some municipalities outside of the city had draconian parking and speed restrictions, as if to discourage attempts like ours to actually drive along the lakefront, or prevent anyone who actually managed to get near the lakefront, private though it might be, from being able to get out of their car to look at it.

Overall, though, after three hours of exploring public lakefront access and views in a metropolitan area famed for both urban beauty and lake recreation, the Madison region seemed pretty hemmed in and cut off from its lakefronts. It was a surprise for us both, and left us feeling that in one fundamental way the urban region that many consider to be the best in Wisconsin didn’t live up to its own press, which takes pains to tout lake recreation.

Not that Milwaukee and its suburbs have unbroken Lake Michigan access, either. Very far from it. But at least in Milwaukee, if you’re not near a sizeable area of lakefront access, you’re never very far from one, either.

It’s silly to expect to other cities to be like Chicago. After all, we have a world-class thing going here with our lakefront access. (As every ride up and down Lake Shore Drive with an eye-gaping first-time visitor in tow attests.) And we didn’t have that expectation here. (After all, I’m from New York City, if you really want to talk about missed opportunities to respect citywide ocean- and river-front access.) But after a decade of living in the Midwest and hearing about the wonders of Madison, I somehow expected more.

In the end we came away with a greater appreciation of our favorite cheesehead city–and of our own. That’s fine. Milwaukee’s poutine is better, and the lakefront urbanites on either side of the state border are much friendlier than we found Madison’s lifelong inlanders to be.

And if nothing else, at least a visit to the zoo in Chicago or Milwaukee doesn’t involve a sad urge to brush, feed, and/or smuggle out the animals.

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