A few weeks ago a friend of mine who grew up in Madison sent me this quote from Joan Didion because it reminded him of me and my blog:
Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. . .a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.
It’s a lovely quote, and I started a very long entry about how I’m not sure if I’m really worthy to be this person where Madison is concerned. There are certain places that for me are always filtered through the words and images of the people who wrote about them. Mississippi is filtered through Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright and Lewis Nordan. I visited India mostly because I fell in love with the fiction of Rohinton Mistry. And London is layered with hundreds of writers who told me all about the city before I ever set foot there. You can see where thinking about yourself in this kind of company could be fairly intimidating.
I’m still not sure if I’m worthy of such a quote, but in asking myself this question, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to write about some of my favorite scenic aspects of Madison. And here I’m not talking necessarily about “scenic” in the tourist sense. In fact some of the things I plan on writing about are considered far from “scenic” by many people. I often write about Madison as a community of people, or the businesses in Madison, or the events that happen in Madison. But this is Madison as scene, Madison as setting. This is more about what Madison looks like, which for me, is connected deeply to all those other things.
So, one of my favorite things about Madison as a scene are the streetscapes. Every morning, I walk out my house, load up my car, and then before I open the door to get in my car, I take a look down 2nd Street. From our house, you can see all the way down to the store that used to be the JayC. And then because the whole of the town does a little dog-leg at West St., I can see the buildings beyond that curve laid out, too. It is a thing of beauty that I try to take a moment to appreciate before I set out about my day.
The view down Main St. is similar. If you stand anywhere vaguely close to the place where West St. turns to follow the curve of the river, you have a lovely view down the street. You can see the buildings on the straight part of the street in front of you, and then the buildings curving away around the corner from you past the place where the town bends. I remember after I had first bought my house downtown and started actually paying attention to such things, I would be driving into downtown from the west, and wonder which steeple that was, visible from far down Main St., looking as if at first there’s a church right in the middle of the street. And then I realized it was the steeple from the church right next door to my house, which is not on Main St. at all. But because of the particular angle of Main St., from far away the steeple of Prince of Peace stands out in the distance directly above Main St. There was something so incredibly delightful about this, the idea that from almost anywhere in town, I could see exactly where home was.
It’s hard to describe how satisfying the view down the streets of Madison is, but I’ll give it at try.
First, I think there’s the scale. In Manhattan, you can gaze down streets that are lined with buildings on both sides just like Madison. But in most parts of Manhattan, the buildings are massive. They draw your eyes up and up and up, and might make you feel a little claustrophobic, as many parts of Manhattan feel to me like the bottom of a very deep gorge. The overall effect is to make you feel small. Here is a city that does not appear to have been built for me as a human, but for some larger creature (and I would argue the larger creature is capitalism or commerce, but that’s a whole other post).
In Madison, none of the buildings are taller than four stories. They never become so ambitious as to block out the sun and almost all of them look like someone could live in the buildings, even if they may not be right now. The streets of Madison look as if they were built for humans.
But spacing is important, too. The buildings in Madison are close together, a fact that makes them less attractive to our modern tastes. In fact, many of the buildings are actually connected, an idea that truly strikes terror into the hearts of many Americans. I have to share a wall with someone? Yes, and it can actually be quite a pleasant experience.
If you don’t believe spacing is important, go try and walk around on the hilltop on Clifty Drive. This, unfortunately, is what most of America now looks like. The place is designed to accommodate cars, and not people, which is why no one walks there. But even if there were sidewalks, there’s too much space for anyone to feel very comfortable walking around. Too much space between the buildings. Too much space between the buildings and the street. Where the streets of Madison feel like comfy little valleys, places like Clifty Drive feel like open desserts. A dessert can be a beautiful place, certainly, but not a space that screams, “Welcome, humans!”
Buildings spaced close together say, “This is a place built to the scale of a human walking.” Getting from one place to the next doesn’t seem so bad, and in fact, I can see down the street exactly where I’m headed.
The streets are also made beautiful by the variety. There are different types of buildings along the street at different heights, different shapes, different colors. There’s something to be said for some uniformity. In Madison, that uniformity mostly takes the form of distance from the street. Take the store that used to be the JayC. It’s not consistent with the architecture of the rest of the town. But it’s still set close to the street. The parking lot, rather than being in front of the building, is at the side.
When everything looks exactly the same on a street, we start to think institution. Institution could mean college or university, which is a good kind of institution. But in most cities and towns, a place that looks institutional is likely to be public housing, and no one–usually including the people who live there–like public housing. We could have done a lot for the beauty of our towns and cities just by taking the small effort to make public housing look slightly different, building by building.
The beauty of the bend
Finally, it’s all about the bend. I said earlier that the whole town bends at West St. because of the river, but truthfully, I have no idea why it bends there. Maybe they were following the contour of the hillside or of Crooked Creek. Or maybe the folks who platted the town were just brilliant, because the bend, it turns out, is a beautiful thing.
In new urbanism, a particular school of urban design, they’re very into streetscapes. Much of what I’ve been talking about here comes straight from new urbanism. They especially like the idea of public buildings being given a place of prominence by sitting at the terminus of a street. In many towns, the courthouse would sit in the middle of a town square, and all the streets would radiate out from there. So at the end of all your main streets was a view of the courthouse, and this design reflected the importance of our public institutions.
Obviously, Madison didn’t follow that design. What you see from either side of town–the west side or the east side–is not a large public building being revealed. You just see more of the town. In the place of a public institution in Madison, we just see more of us. More buildings, more businesses, more houses. Instead of placing a courthouse or a library or town hall as the focal point of our streetscape, the focal point just becomes more street. What does that say about us? In Madison, what’s most important is more Madison.
On top of all that, you can add the view from specific streets and locations in Madison. Looking north on St. Michael’s Avenue you get a view of the beautiful church sitting on the hill above you. On the south side of Main St., almost every north/south street terminates, not in an impressive building, but with the river, rolling quietly by right there in front of you. From almost everywhere in town, you can look up and see the hillsides above you, on either side of the river, doubling the valley of the streetscape. We are living in valleys within valleys. Which is really a whole other post…
My next scenic obsession in Madison…the power plant!