Sunday, November 15, 2009


I get curious about this city. Surprised, aren’t you? So often I look for ways to leave – vacations, week-ends: Ed, can we travel?

But there are days when I do just want to stay within the city limits of Madison. Ed and I pull up our old guide to the historic neighborhoods of this town. We've explored most of these in years past, but the Third Lake Ridge Historic District is still familiar only because you get to know pretty much every neighborhood if you've lived here as long as I have. We haven't examined its historic soul. Until today.

The (online) guide is more than twenty years old and sometimes it seems a trite overinclusive. It’ll mention a prominent home from a previous century and only toward the end of the commentary will you learn that actually, the house is no longer standing.

Or, the guide will describe the detailed features of a once beautiful home that has since been converted (in its disrepair) to student housing. So that it now looks like, well, student housing. You stare and contemplate its long depleted splendidness and you feel exceptionally sad that the home should now be so neglected (in the way that you would feel sad for any other historically insignificant house that may also be run down).

That’s the downside of the guide. The upside is that it offers a closer look at houses that were built at around the time of my grandparents' childhood years, now more than a hundred years ago. My adventurous Polish grandfather traveled through Wisconsin at the turn of the century. When I see homes from that era, it makes me perk up.

This morning, Ed and I set out for this Third Lake district spanning Madison's near east side (from just east of the Capitol, along Lake Monona, all the way to the Yahara River.)


We noted the significant homes here...




We appreciated the lakefront. We checked off homes of merchants, homes of plumbers, homes of real estate dudes. Greek revival, Queen Ann’s, Prairie, Italianate.


Ed and I aren’t necessarily well matched on these historic walking tours. He likes to read about the entrepreneurial spirit that led to the success of so many who lived in the more splendid homes. Somewhat predictably, I listen for information about the families, the daily habits, the infrastructure of the time. We're both curious, but, in looking at history, our curiosities don't necessarily overlap.

For me, the historic houses, in isolation, cannot relate a story of a neighborhood. I stare at a building, I listen to a description of its construction, of who paid what to have it placed here, and still I cannot bring it to life. I'm distracted by the ten mailboxes at the entrance and half a dozen bikes on the porch and I note that the paint is peeling and the walls are crumbling and the window frames are cheap metal. In my mind, I write a story of who is there now and how it came to be that the house is no longer as it once was.

A few more buildings of note and we are done. It’s cold today and I am glad to be heading back to the car. We are no longer in the forgiving days of mid autumn. The landscape may look mellow (consider these photos of the Yahara River, which flows at the eastern border of the neighborhood we walked through...)



... but there’s a bite in the air. You can’t photograph a bite, but believe me, it’s asserting itself.

One last look back -- not at the old structures, but at the more funky sweet nature to this neighborhood. Everyone will tell you that the near east side is where people of various means coexist well side by side. It's the Madison that we like to believe is alive and well all over town. But it's more palpable here. And maybe this is born out of the mix that always was here. Plumbers and politicians. Neighbors then, neighbors now.