Why we like State Street, why we fear it at times

When I got to town in the ’70s, the larger-than-life characters downtown included the ethnic restaurateurs — the Gargano brothers (Italian cuisine), Gus Paras (Greek), Nate Balkin (Jewish deli), and Suey Wong (Chinese). You always got the sense that their roots weren’t too far away from the boat that brought them or their parents to the U.S.

Their restaurants gave State Street and downtown an exotic, cosmopolitan feel, despite their presence in the “Yah, Hey” Midwest. Five decades later, an entirely new and different wave of ethnic restaurateurs — mostly from the Middle East and Asia — populate downtown, but they provide the same multicultural vibe that you normally find only in big cities.

That’s State Street. You’re not in Rice Lake anymore, Toto. And we like that. So often, it’s an intense State Street moment that prompts our younger selves — “coastie,” townie, or high school basketball tourney fan — to first think: “I could be happy here.”

Take Steve Braunginn, a WORT-FM jazz programmer, former Dane County supervisor, and retired head of the Urban League of Greater Madison. It was August 1974, and Braunginn was an uncertain 19-year-old visitor from the University of Maryland sipping a beer at Genna’s when history happened.

Richard Nixon, the much-despised president who was facing his Watergate Waterloo, abruptly announced his resignation. Soon the exultant Braunginn joined an impromptu march down State Street to Gorham and University where Nixon was burned in effigy by the cheering students, as Madison’s first term “red mayor” Paul Soglin and Police Chief David Couper, an acolyte of Mahatma Gandhi, stood by calmly watching.

“That memory forever stands out to me,” Braunginn says of the Nixon protest. “This was Madison, Wisconsin.” He chuckles at how his life suddenly changed. Braunginn moved to Madtown.

 

Crime and disorderly behavior go back to State Street’s earliest days.

 

Townie Sue Springman, who grew up near East High and who has been a forever-downtown advocate as a politico and real estate executive, tells a different story. She remembers as a teenager rushing to finish her Saturday chores and the pleasure she took bussing downtown to hang out at its glamorous lunch counters drinking Cokes and eating french fries with her high school buddies. “That was the social life for teenagers in the late ’60s,” she says.

Jazzman and culture chronicler Ben Sidran has a very different foundational memory from the early ’60s. “You could stand on the corner of State and Lake and smoke a joint, and nobody knew what you were doing.” (That would change rather quickly.) Every third person walking down State Street, he adds, was an East Coast hipster. That’s exactly what a young piano player from Racine was looking for too.

Decades later, attorney Doug Poland, after stints in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, realized Madison was the right move for him after enjoying a leisurely fish fry lunch on the Orpheum Theater sidewalk. “It was Friday in the spring and it was perfect,” says Poland. “It seemed like the Madison thing to do.”

I had a foundational State Street revelation of a different sort: Sometime in the 1970s, I slipped out the back door of an Italian restaurant without paying and gleefully trotted away. A block later I was mortified. No, the waiter hadn’t collared me. I just felt incredibly sleazy and knew this was something I would never do again.

Bad behavior, it’s safe to say, is a staple for State Street, and sometimes it turns the
streetscape toxic for shoppers and visitors.

In recent years, Peace Park and the top of State Street have been periodically targeted as havens for aggressive panhandling, sketchy behavior, and outright crime. (This gets complicated: Panhandlers have free speech rights and blaming the homeless for their plight can be both cruel and misleading.)

Older Madisonians may remember another dicey period. In 1980, the Mariel Boatlift sent crime soaring on State Street when Fort McCoy in central Wisconsin became the processing site for releasing thousands of Cubans who fled the communist dictatorship. Premier Fidel Castro, it turned out, had used the boatlift as an opportunity to empty his jails.

Crime and disorderly behavior goes back to State Street’s earliest days, observes historian David Mollenhoff, whose Madison: A History Of The Formative Years is indispensable for understanding what makes this city tick.

During the Civil War, Mollenhoff notes, Union soldiers stationed at an army base west of town called Camp Randall (yes, site of the football stadium) “got bored out of their minds, climbed the walls, went uptown, and raised hell.” The evening ended with a woman killed in a gunfight at Capitol Brewery.

 

State Street took a beating. War and commerce were not a good mix.

 

As the city and campus grew in subsequent decades, a new tradition took hold, Mollenhoff says: “When students went to church on Sunday morning, the drunks up and down State Street would spit tobacco juice on the women’s dresses and foul the air with obscenities.”

This was about the time that the Prohibition movement took hold in Madison and “dry zones” were created around campus.

Perhaps from firsthand experience, many of us know that drunkenness and student rowdiness is never far from the surface on State Street nights. Stuart Levitan in his meticulously documented Madison In the Sixties chronicles one of the weirdest episodes — a so-called “panty raid” turned riot.

In October 1962, drunken male students poured into the streets at bar time and marched down State Street to the women’s dormitories, demanding that bras and panties be thrown down from the windows. (Apparently, this is what sexually frustrated young men did in those days.) For two nights, State Street was a riot zone of rock throwing, window breaking, and cops freely using their billy clubs to restore order, Levitan recounts.

The stakes were far higher five years later when the campus and the downtown were regularly convulsed with political protests, sometimes violent, against the Vietnam War and for Black political empowerment. The Dow Chemical riots of 1967, which were sparked by a napalm-bomb manufacturer recruiting on campus, and the battle over the permit-less Mifflin Street Block Party of 1969 are the stuff of Madison legend.

State Street took a beating in those years. War and commerce were not a good mix. Youth culture — or “the counterculture” as it was called — had an ugly side. Shoplifting became endemic. Punks like me skipped out on restaurant checks. The newspapers openly speculated if State Street was turning into Madison’s skid row.

“There was a heyday for State Street, and it was not the 1960s,” says Levitan.

Marc Eisen is a veteran Madison journalist. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of his special report for IB on the state of State Street businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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