|View from Madison Coffee and Tea Co.|
It’s Monday, and raining again in Madison. Does it seem like it rains almost every Monday? I don’t mind a nice spring rain. Spring rains are what Rachel Peden, in her book about being an Indiana farmwife, Rural Free, calls greening rains. They come and then the next day, everything is all that little bit much greener and beautiful. Of course your eyes (or at least mine) are also that little bit itchier, but such is the price we pay.
A good place to be on a rainy day in Madison is the Madison Coffee and Tea Company. The MCTC is in a nice central location on the corner of Main and West Streets, and from this location, you can observe a nice swath of the street action to be observed in Madison, even on a rainy day. As you can see, City Hall is right across the street, and down the street on West St. are the offices of our local newspaper, The Madison Courier as well as Shipley’s Tavern.
I should confess, I have a special place in my heart for the Madison Coffee and Tea Company (locals, or at least my husband and I, generally just call it the coffee shop). Much of the courting that took place between my husband and I happened right in these two red chairs, as I would “just happen” to be in the coffee shop when he came by. If you just happen to be in the coffee shop, you will run into my husband eventually, as not a lot of days go by without him stopping in. It’s a good spot for grading and course prep, and also for getting all your important local information, either from the copy of The Madison Courier on hand, or from conversing with whoever happens to be hanging out there.
|Comfy red chairs|
When it gets warmer and isn’t raining, you can sit at the tables outside, though your conversation might be disrupted by the sound of motorcycles, large trucks, or cars with inadequate mufflers going by on Main St.
While sitting in one of the window seats, you might see various city officials going about their business in City Hall. On a Monday, weekend tourists are often still lingering, and so you might see some of them drop in for a hot chocolate or a latte. You’re likely to see Vern, a Madison icon, stop by to deliver The Madison Courier. This morning, I saw a young woman with green and blue hair walk by, perhaps commonplace in your bigger cities, but something to take note of in Madison. I also heard a language other than English being spoken in the coffee shop this morning, again, nothing rare in Louisville or Cincinnati, but nice to hear in our small town. And I got to hear about an interesting dream from a friend stopping in for coffee. The coffee shop is also a good place for folks who for whatever reason (say, being on sabbatical) need some social time outside of the house.
One of the best works of sociology ever written is William H. Whyte’s book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. In this work, Whyte sets about answering a very practical but important question: Why do some public spaces work and others not? His answers are concrete and well-researched, and every city planner should read his book. He calculates the amount of street traffic you need in order to sustain a good public space, and I confess I don’t remember what it is, but it’s harder to obtain in small towns like Madison. In an hour observing just the small amount of street space here in front of the coffee shop, on a rainy day, I observed 54 pedestrians. Some of those may have been the same people passing by more than once, and I didn’t count anyone who I saw get out of a car to go into a building. That seems to me to be a pretty healthy amount of street traffic for a small town. I don’t know if Madisonians always fully appreciate the benefits of having a town where there are sidewalks and places to walk to and people walking. Even fairly late at night, you can find people wandering Madison’s streets.
One of the primary benefits Whyte identifies of having people on your streets and in your public places is safety. A place with lots of people is generally a safe place. The simplest way to make a public place feel safe to people is to attract people. Whyte wrote his book in the 1970s, and even then, people were trying to use technology to improve safety in public spaces. When you see a video camera in some space, do you think to yourself, “Oh, I feel safe now.” or do you think, “Why do they need a security camera? This place must not be particularly safe.” I personally will trust human eyes and bodies to keep me safe over a camera any day.
The biggest thing that attracts people to a public space? Other people. Why? Well, you can fill in your own answer, but even in today’s strange world of technology that seems to stunt our ability to interact with each other, people like to be around other people. They like to people watch. They like to imagine that they might see something interesting, observe something unusual, meet someone new. Even when it’s a group of strangers you will never see again, we like to be social.
This is also, of course, why we like a good coffee shop. We can go there to be alone, together. We can sit and see what there is to be seen and take comfort in both what’s familiar and what’s strange.
Do you have a place you like to linger? A spot where you can comfortably people watch?