After six years of living in Madison, more or less, I have taken a liking to this town. I found an excellent community of activist intellectuals, a cell of radical designers and picture-makers, a reliable and enjoyable network of neighbors. I live about 150 yards from Lake Mendota, where our street ends with a primitive landing at water’s edge. The lake is recreational hell in the summer, but on a chilly still fall night one can meditate on the rocks and catch a whiff of the North Woods. There are always bands on the calendar worth seeing. The produce, cheeses, and meats available around here are among the best the nation has to offer. The many bike paths ensure safe coasting.
Great quality of life stuff is what bothered me about living here. Thankfully, the easy living is dying, and not just because the restaurant scene is overhyped to the point of embarrassment. The days—and decades—of being clueless and content in Madison are over.
The beginning of the end was signaled by the attacks on the public sector in February of 2011, to which the massive Wisconsin Uprising was a response. Wisconsin labor had been a victim of a previous generation’s success. Current workers enjoy standards of living hard-won by earlier struggles, lifestyles that had allowed workers to nearly forget that they are labor. But since the Uprising things are different, and working families in Madison know that from now until the end of their working lives and probably beyond, it will be a fight against Wisconsin’s right wing wrecking crew, currently led by the inimitably rodent-like Scott Walker. Walker and his lieutenants won their battles in the legislative halls but in the process woke the population. Austerity will do that.
The final shattering of Madison’s paradisiacal illusions comes from a different direction. Rather than from the stroke of an elected leader’s pen but in some respects seemingly as rapid, this blow takes the form of a demographic tidal wave, brown and black, surging via the late Millenials generation. One does not see it at the farmers’ markets, nor in the Overture Center lobby, nor in the crowds at the Badger football games. The Establishment class and culture in this town remain largely white.
But this complex future already resides in the public schools of Madison. The four general high schools range from 1500 to 2100 students. Various alternative programs serve another 400 high school-age students. The city as a whole is 7% African American and 7% Latino while the high schools are in aggregate 19% African American and 15% Latino. Along with the 9% Asian Americans, 8% self-described as mixed race, and the 0.5% Native Americans, the high schools serve a population only about 48% white. It’s California in the tenth grade.
Socioeconomic diversity is beautiful in the abstract, a make-believe harmony invoked by those flakey coexist bumper stickers one sees around the white neighborhoods of Madison. But in the flesh, the mixing of races and ethnicities brings with it a complicated set of problems, particularly when racial and ethnic groupings correspond to lines of class stratification and spatial segregation, as they do here. Because the dysfunctions of poverty are racialized and there is a generation gap on top of that, Madison’s aging white liberal establishment class is about to face its biggest test. Coexist, or turn reactionary.
Where are all these children of color coming from? The Latino kids are mostly of Mexican origin, but beyond that, I do not know of any pattern—whether they predominently are from another US city and/or whether most of them can trace lineage back to a particular set of places in Mexico. There probably is a pattern, but I do not know if any data has been collected. The Asian American kids seem to fall into three groups: children of East Asian/Asian-American professionals, children of South Asian/Asian-American professionals, and children of Southeast Asian-Americans, generally a working-class segment. It would make geographical sense for the Native kids to be mostly of Wisconsin tribal origins, for example Menominee, Ho-Chunk, or Oneida, but I do not know of any statistics regarding tribal membership.
The African-American kids are the most contradictory in terms of collective identity. Apart from a handful with African immigrant parentage, most of them moved to Madison from Chicago. A smaller number relocated from Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Beloit.
Chicago, as a place of origin, is the contradiction because it is shared, but not. What I mean is, of the Chicago migrants, an individual student might have moved to Madison from the West Side, the South Side, Uptown, or one the inner ring suburbs such as Evanston, Maywood, Ford Heights, or Blue Island. Or from the pockets of poor and working-class African American residence that dot the suburbs, even the largely white western suburbs like Willowbrook or Lombard. Whatever “Chicago” means to an African American student relocated to Madison cannot be assumed as shared with another “Chicago” kid in its details because Chicago and its sprawling environs are themselves widely variable in terms of local character, even when narrowed to one socioeconomic class.
And yet, in relation to the other students, “Chicago” becomes a convenient group identity, threaded together through superficial commonalities. The condition of many African American youth, therefore, is one of being caught between the assigned identity of “Chicago” and a substantive meaninglessness of the same. What shared experience there is comes only after their relocation to Madison, primarily through the spatial segregation that results when the black folk without much money —and in Madison that is the vast majority—end up living in the parts of town offering the most affordable rents. Apart from the exceptional affordable rental building here or there, most African American residents of Madison end up in the concentrations of cheap rentals in segregated neighborhoods, parts of town where the streets don’t end at the lake. For example, the Owl Creek neighborhood of the far southeast, in the clusters of apartment complexes along Schroeder Road in the southwest, or the rentals around Allied Drive south of the Beltline. In a city built around four large and irregular lakes, being away from all of them may be the truest measure of isolation.
I do not know what Madison becomes as the town’s Sixties-descended liberal establishment runs its course as the dominant culture, but I am quite sure the city will look different than Madison of the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. What kind of a progressive formation steps up to defend what the earlier generation built—civil, middle-class, rational—as the right wing assaults on the public sphere sharpen, and the dysfunctional social dynamics perfected in our neighboring big cities threaten to reproduce themselves here? More to the point, how do we of the older generations and the youth who embody this emerging society together build the necessary progressive formations? There are few models and no certain paths forward, but failing to try is not an option.
What I see is a town long accustomed to a comparatively equitable distribution of modest affluence becoming a city not unlike others around the Great Lakes, separated into first, second, and third classes of citizens, colliding segments that enjoy the healthiest, best educated, and most tasteful lifeways against those made up of families trying to get by in the least hopeful of times.
But I must say I prefer living in a place that bundles external but proximate anxieties instead of allowing the space for endless indulgences in self-absorbed neuroses, high-brow escapist distractions, or views to faraway countries for reasons to decry imperialist policies. Post-Uprising life in Madison serves up global problems on a local platter, and that is a specialty we would do well to appreciate.