Friday, July 24, 2009

Another city, another study

The mother of all farmers markets, even on Wednesday
temporary(?)public bathrooms with handwashing in front of city hall

So, am sitting at the fair trade coffeehouse, having my iced espresso, typing away. Sounds and feels familiar, just this time, I'm in Madison Wisconsin, not in MidCity New Orleans. Can definitely feel the difference by air density!

Jim Hightower, the great populist Texan, once said something like if a town has a locally owned coffeehouse or pub, a locally owned bookstore and a farmers market downtown, I know they're doing fine.
I use that series of indicators and also add:
skateboarders (in evenings)
bulletin boards (and with more on them then just flyers for businesses)
small hardware store
knowledge among residents of items their city makes or distributes well
bus stops with places to be out of the weather
many colors of people on both sides of the counter
different types and sized of grocery stores
rent diversity
storefronts for repairs or to buy used items
different ages of people at events like open air concerts
public space around town being used

With that series of indicators, not many cities make it into my top list and maybe not many should. It is (in my estimation) a city's job to balance needs, look at who is not using services (but is in the demographic, so can be served), and also work to replace needless imports.

Madison does well in many categories by my one short visit, but missing in some others. I stayed near the University with lovely friends (who made it as easy as pie for me) so I didn't see the whole shebang. Clearly.

In the wonderful book The 9 Nations of North America, Wisconsin falls squarely into The Breadbasket Nation, of which the author says "It's the nation most at peace with itself". A city with 4 murders in 2006 (a little smaller than New Orleans post-Katrina)? wow. I would think so.
Certainly true- the level of agitation seems mild, and why shouldn't it be? low crime, high employment still and lots of cheese to boot.
I did feel some attention to bridging, when I biked over to Williamson Street. At the Willy Street Coop, I was impressed with the diversity both in front and behind the counter (and in the free seating outside and around the area), in age and in ethnic makeup. I think it means a great deal when you go to a store and see people that look like you behind the counter-especially when in many other places around town, you would not feel as comfortable as around there. I also like that they do not sell liquor as there is a small store down the street that they encourage you to shop. The thrift store down the street from the Coop had lots of different people throughout and had good prices.

More on price- for me, the needle is in the middle; some free stuff and lots of public space, but for a small town, I was surprised at the food prices, taxi prices etc.
Beer was pretty cheap.
Level of awareness in ecological systems is high, but social justice issues seem lower. Many panhandlers around State Street and I saw few resources for them around there and a cop endlessly questioning one. (Hey, he doesn't have a particular reason to be there, you're right. Do you?)
Not many people were very happy or talkative when I shopped-although not a surprise in a high transient area like a university/state capital area.

Bus system seemed good, but the senior pass seemed a bit high (with 62 and over being about 20% of the population). High-tech industry, Oscar Meyer and the university seem to make for a good economy.

Overall, a pleasant city for a bicyclist, beer drinker and a walker. I enjoyed the beautiful views everywhere. If you want to see the MidWest in its full glory, I recommend Madison.

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