I was disappointed when reading Josh Brandau’s April 13 article, “City officials clash on East Wash. development” on plans for redevelopment of the 800 Block of East Washington Avenue. I found no reference, even in passing, to the dozens of men and women already living on the site. I think that this omission highlights the invisibility of the homeless population here in Madison. The 800 block of East Washington is not just a barren slab of concrete in the middle of Madison’s former industrial area, waiting to be developed by this or that urban planner. It is the site of the most fascinating, inspiring and empowering social experiment in the city, if not the state, if not the country and if not the world.
As some people may know, the tent city on that site evolved out of the Occupy Madison encampment. As we hot-blooded activists got burnt out over the cold, bitter winter, the site ceased to be a center of radical politics and became something much more important – a home for Madison’s homeless. The only politics dealt with on the site now are the politics of surviving together. The profound issue of homelessness was a footnote in Occupy Madison’s earlier grand schemes of society’s liberation, but now Madison’s most vulnerable and resilient citizens have stepped up and have liberated themselves.
Last week, the City of Madison adopted a resolution officially thanking Occupy Madison for what it has done for the city’s homeless. It would have been more accurate to have thanked the city’s homeless for helping themselves. However, Mayor Paul Soglin has delivered an ultimatum: that the great social experiment must end. The site must be vacated by April 30. Progress must move forward, he says! The site must be turned into condos, retail or offices! Tents remaining on site will be smashed! Vehicles will be towed! Any homeless who remain will be arrested! Furthermore, he has declared that no other city property will be available for the encampment. Never mind the many abandoned buildings and lots which have stood vacant for years and years. Never mind that the occupants of the Northern side of the 800 block of East Washington Avenue have nowhere else to go.
I am writing because none of this was mentioned in Mr. Brandau’s article, and because ignoring the homeless in Madison will not make them disappear. Urban Land Interests could build mixed-use buildings on the site, or Ald. Bridget Maniaci, District 2, could find some other developer to build residential projects on the site. But it is hard to imagine that either plan could provide such an obvious opportunity for public good as granting Madison’s homeless community – for it is a community – just a small sense of pride and ownership in looking after and managing themselves.
What does is there to gain, in letting the experiment continue? Empowerment, community, dignity. What is there to lose? A parking lot.
A site meeting will be held on the north side of the 800 block of East Washington Avenue on Wednesday at 7 p.m. if you want learn more or want to get involved.
Noah Phillips (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore majoring in community and non-profit leadership.