Upon my return to Madison this spring, I became distraught one afternoon upon the discovery that mom n’ pop sushi stand Tokyo Express had closed. My effort to obtain heaps of cheap, greasy teriyaki thwarted, I went hungry rather than shell out to Moe’s fake southwestern whatever. Later that week, in search of a cheap lunch with a friend, I found Pizza Hut buffet a casualty as well. More trendy lunch counters that serve hummus and chain spin-offs on ethnic food in their stead. Thankfully, rumors hinting Essen Haus’ closure are dispelled, or I’d have certainly bolted this town by now for wont of peanuts and Franzikaner.
One need only examine the fresh new “skyline” on Gorham Street to recognize downtown is changing. But the changes extend beyond infrastructure.
It was just a few short years ago when protests of Taco Bell and the Gap for their treatment of wageworkers in distant lands drew dozens, and the continued yuppie-zation of State Street raised cries among Madison’s progressive community to keep it green and keep it local. But perhaps those days have passed.
Last year’s minimum wage hike will surely begin the usurpation of independent merchants in favor of major conglomerates who can sustain extra weight on the bottom line. Maybe my quest for a cheap menu illustrates step one in this process. Lunch messes where students could eat through a day’s worth of calories on five bucks and change are fading fast. Soon it will be time to bust out Andy J’s yuppie food stamp to treat a friend for a bite and a beer after class … and you get your choice of hummus and an herbal-steroid-formaldehyde boost for only another dollar fifty.
Before this turns into a post-Valentine’s rant on cheap dates, there are positives to the metamorphosis. The new Overture Center is no doubt a boon to the arts community in Madison and will only further the cultural richness of this city. But the bevy of ties and overcoats now found up and down State Street Wednesday or Tuesday evenings are strangely commonplace. Madison is also one of the few cities to allow panhandling in its downtown. That ordinance is being revisited and faces threats in the future, given Overture’s new clientele and the desire to keep them coming back from afar. Can’t have the riffraff assaulting the cultured on their way to the show, or when they seek out an after-dinner drink.
Though the PACE crowd’s drink special restrictions have been largely thwarted and old standbys like flip night live on, policy makers leave those students in search of the classic Wisconsin-student lifestyle (of which this humble correspondent is an enthusiastic adherent) now treading a slippery slope. The true impact of the changing face of State street won’t hit home for students at large until the bar smoking ban goes into affect — but it will pack a wallop for which most students aren’t yet prepared. And the invasion of the heavy hand of regulation only draws further drinking restrictions within the scope of political reality.
The smoking ban’s fallout will surely cripple the Plaza’s of our social world and elevate the Craves, already busy catering to the Overture set. I don’t know many Joe Students who are begging to pay for $20 martinis, but they’ll be easier to come by in short order. Most students, it seems, would rather smoke a pack of Marlboro’s after a hard day at work or in the books. The city’s continued efforts at curtailing smoking are regressive measures that affect primarily lower income blue collar workers and stressed-out students — two constituencies that should benefit from a strong voice in downtown development strategies.
Downtown Madison more and more feels like an elite stomping ground for wealthy and upper middle class trust-funders than the haven of dollar-and-cent college bums it once was. Is there not an argument to be made that State Street should be left to the students? So much of the mess has been cleaned up and swept away. Let’s at least leave some of it to fester in the bars. Madison’s green community has long wanted it all for downtown — cheap food from local stores, high wages and low prices, student nightlife without the health risks, free speech and free association without the stickiness of society’s dregs. They’ll quickly find utopia doesn’t work. Not even on State Street.
Eric B. Cullen (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in history.