So far this school year, I've been interning in the press office of Gov. Jim Doyle. While I've benefited from the fascinating and enlightening experience this endeavor has afforded me, there has come up — on occasion — the odd task specially designated for office associates of intern status.
A few weeks ago, a group of high school seniors from Superior participated in a program with the Doyle administration designed to allow them an afternoon's worth of access to the inner workings of a public office. Expectedly, the student who was selected to spend her time in the press department became my responsibility. As the two of us labored away on a project allocated specifically for the occasion, small talk naturally ensued. I asked the student where she planned on going to college and — upon learning she had been accepted to both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota, opting to attend the latter — my curiosity prompted me to investigate her obvious irrationality. Madison, she said in response to my examination, was simply too perfect a city for her liking.
Although her reasoning surprised me, I supposed it was just about the only logic with which she could have reached her decision. All joking aside, however, I began to seriously consider Madison's renowned reputation as some sort of isolated fantasyland.
In the 1978 Wisconsin gubernatorial race, eventual Republican governor and then-chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Lee S. Dreyfus, coined the phrase "30 square miles surrounded by reality" in reference to Madison. Although the expression was used by Dreyfus simply as a means to entice voters who disdained the liberal politics that had come to characterize the capital city, it evolved to connote Madison's supposed high quality of life. Indeed, Dreyfus can be credited with helping to lay the foundation on which would be built Madison's notoriety as an ideal city — surely not his intention.
And Madison has maintained and expanded upon its reputation as a quasi-utopia. Parents in Green Bay want their kids to go to college here, aspiring politicians from rural Wisconsin want to build their careers here and suburbanites from the likes of Fitchburg, Middleton and God knows where else make a point of clogging the street in front of my apartment each Saturday morning. It seems that everybody in Wisconsin wants to be a part of Madison in some way. People come to roam and admire this carefully planned city in which flaws seemingly cannot be found.
But with Madison, what you see is not exactly what you get. Although superficially faultless, this city — like almost any other its size — has a very unpleasant underbelly.
Yes, life for an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin is just about as good as it gets, but the visiting families of said undergraduates probably don't come to town via Allied Drive.
Yes, there is hardly a more bustling and thriving city center than the Capitol circle midweek, but after all the lawmakers and business owners return home for the day, out comes a rapidly increasing nighttime crime scene — one characterized by assault, burglary and rape.
And yes, it does appear that relations among city residents are stellar — that is, if you're walking down State Street. But Madison remains a highly segregated city, with distinct boundaries to be found along Allied Drive and the near East side.
The purpose of emphasizing Madison's shortcomings is not to spoil everybody's "feel-good-about-the-city" party, but rather to simply show how such a mentality — while great for city morale — can counterproductively work to strengthen the very detractors that could ultimately undermine this mentality.
Madison is a great city — no doubt about it. Still, we must make certain that our praise for the city serves to not only uphold city pride, but also to encourage our efforts to improve upon the status quo.
For if this city is to remain the ideal place we believe it to be, it is crucial that we make certain to always recognize the harsh realities that exist within the "30 square miles surrounded by reality."
Rob Rossmeissl ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and political science.