It's Friday, and George Fabian and the guys are hanging out in his shoe store. It's small, green inside and out, busy with customers, phone calls and visitors. "I never know who'll come," says Fabian, wearing an apron. "There's fewer now. Time's been unkind to my old friends."
The men in Fabian's Park Street Shoe Repair store are Greenbush survivors. They were forced from their homes when "urban renewal" destroyed the neighborhood - 17 blocks bordered by Washington, Mound, Brooks and Regent streets - between the mid-1950s and early 1960s.
Whenever Fabian's store is open (generally Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), the men come here to talk about days long gone. It was a time, they say, when Italians (mostly from Sicily, the poorest part), blacks and Jews lived together in what is remembered, with pain and longing, as harmony.
"You're not born with prejudice, and our parents didn't teach us prejudice," says Fabian. "They just took you for who you were."
Through the years, former Greenbush residents have kept the memory of their old neighborhood alive. For some, it has assumed mythical dimensions. For others, it's a bleeding wound. All agree it was a unique community.
Now, as these former residents enter the final stages of their lives, they remember, and are eager to tell their stories. Even after 40 years, they still feel the trauma of being uprooted from a unique and beloved community.
What happened to the Greenbush should serve as a reminder and a warning. It provides invaluable lessons as to how Madison should deal with its poorest residents and with immigrants - or, more precisely, how it should not.
These are especially urgent lessons today, now that one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Allied Drive, is about to be remade - or, some fear, gentrified with housing that will no longer be affordable to current residents.
Good things have already happened because of the 'Bush's bad end, including a north-side housing project. In 2000, the city of Madison erected a memorial to the Greenbush. More recently, it established an annual Greenbush Day, which will be celebrated next Tuesday.
But for the guys who hang out in Fabian's shop, every day is Greenbush Day.
The signs on the wall say "Park Street Think Tank Where Commonsense (Always) Prevails" and "Park Street Shoe Repair and Institute of Italian Studies," though people of many ethnicities are frequent visitors. Fabian calls the shop "my social life, my mental health. My friends come and visit, people I knew all my life. We grew up in the same neighborhood, have the same values. Everybody stayed in town and stayed friends."
One of the men in the room pipes up: "We have our memories." Fabian smiles. "Sometimes I have so many guys here," he says, "I have to keep my customers outside."
A predictable pathology
According to Stuart Levitan's 2006 book, Madison, the Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Vol. 1, the Greenbush neighborhood had a population of 15 in 1900, 446 in 1910 and 1,100 in 1916. At that time, 80% of the people who lived here were under 30. There were 30 single males to every single female. The inhabitants were poor and often unwelcome elsewhere in Madison.
Yet it was always a vibrant place.
In September 1863, Shaare Shomaim (Gates of Heaven) Synagogue was dedicated on West Washington Avenue with "quite a number of Gentiles...present as curious spectators." October 1903 saw the opening of Madison General Hospital on Mound Street. St. Mary's Hospital was dedicated in September 1912 on South Brooks Street.
In 1904, traveling salesman George Stacy described "detestable" swampy conditions in the Triangle and Bay district, an area the city had used as a refuse dump. A gift from Thomas E. Brittingham went to fill in this wetland area, creating the future Brittingham Park and a parcel of land available for a new community.
Over time, Levitan writes, "squalid conditions, substandard housing, discrimination and ethnic alienation, combined with criminal opportunities from Prohibition, produced a predictable pathology." Lawrence Veiller, secretary of the National Housing Association and a national leader in planning and affordable housing, came to Madison to deliver a "most biting commentary on local conditions."
Veiller denounced the Greenbush neighborhood as a "bad slum" and "civic cancer." He urged the city to build quality affordable housing, with residents buying stock in the development company "so they will have some ownership in their homes."
Community House opened in late September 1916 at 807 Mound St.; it later became Neighborhood House and moved to South Park St. For five years, it offered Americanization classes - English, health, cooking, sewing, citizenship and cleaning. (The building was razed in 1963 as part of the urban renewal and its programming relocated to South Mills Street.)
Prohibition, beginning in 1919, shut down Madison's breweries and saloons for 14 years. The 'Bush became a bootleggers' paradise; student Klansmen were involved in surveillance, liquor buys and nighttime sweeps that led to arrests and the confiscation of illegal alcohol.
Throughout the decade, the neighborhood saw 11 fatal shootings and two bombings, all related to bootlegging or Mafia-related vendettas. Among those slain was rookie officer Herb Dreger, the first Madison cop to die in the line of duty.
Yet despite this episodic violence, the Greenbush is remembered by many as peaceful, almost idyllic.
Fabian, born on Park Street in 1931 to Sicilian parents - his father was a shoemaker, his mother stayed at home - remembers that while everybody was poor, "in my experience there was nothing bad about the neighborhood." On the contrary, "the most honest people I ever knew were from the neighborhood." Doors were left unlocked, and everybody felt safe. Parents taught their children self-respect, and instilled in them a work ethic and sense of humor. "You must have it to survive if you're poor."
'We all stuck together'
Joe Cerniglia, a.k.a. Buffo (clown in Italian), knows everything there is to know about the Greenbush Bar, by the Italian Workmen's Club. It was built, he says, in 1922. The stairs used to be open, and a partition was built in, maybe, 1932. This particular space has been a bar on and off since the 1950s; it became the Greenbush Bar 13 years ago.
Cerniglia, who was born in 1935, grew up a block away. He now lives in Fitchburg, in an apartment building nicknamed Greenbush Tower because "so many old-timers from the 'Bush live there. A couple of us moved there, then the others came."
In-between chatting with bar patrons and making wisecracks ("You still don't have Equal sweetener? Tell him there's a guy here who's an asshole about Equal"), he reminisces. At age 18, he was supposed to leave for a Las Vegas job offered by Jewish mobster Mo Dalitz. He had a going-away party but kept putting it off: "I couldn't leave Madison. Loved it too much."
Cerniglia's father was a laborer at the university while his mother cooked for Italian restaurants. The old neighborhood, he says, was "just great. You hear a lot about everybody getting along, which was true." The reason? "Everybody was poor and in the same boat, and other parts of the city were prejudiced against the neighborhood, so we all stuck together."
He remembers the people in the neighborhood as hard workers and good parents. It was safe for women walking alone. People looked out for each other. An older woman friend from "Greenbush Tower" talks about how black boys used to walk white girls home, to protect them.
Yes, there was bootlegging and related murders. One of Cerniglia's friends used to drive for bootleggers. If violence was feared, they'd send a kid with the driver, knowing no one would risk hurting a child. The police enjoyed no such protection, because they were always harassing people in the neighborhood and, as Levitan notes, had ties to the Klan.
And then the residents of Madison's Greenbush became unwitting subjects of a vast social experiment.
In 1949, Congress launched the federal urban redevelopment program, providing aid to cities to clear slums and bring about improvements. Over the next 20 years, cities and developers wrecked low-income neighborhoods, often replacing them with commercial properties or high-rent structures. There was no mandate to build low- or moderate-income housing in the bulldozed areas, so longtime inhabitants were often displaced.
When federal monies became available in the '50s, says Cerniglia, some people saw their chance to both get rid of the 'Bush and make money. They showed beautiful drawings of what would be built in the area, though in truth there was no such plan.
Residents, recalls Cerniglia, got very little recompense for their homes. And it was difficult to adjust to new neighborhoods, since many spoke little English. Greenbush was razed, and many of the lots remained vacant. Eventually, Bayview and the other projects were built; the rest reverted to commercial use, mainly medical buildings.
Cerniglia still misses the old neighborhood. Progress, he says, isn't always progress. People didn't realize how unique the neighborhood was and how good such neighborhoods are for a city. And the wishes of the residents were not taken into consideration.
'Things were good'
Addrena Squires, born in 1927, remembers the addresses of the three Greenbush homes she lived in. The mother of Mona Winston and grandmother of Johnny Winston Jr. says it was a place without racial prejudice. Violence only happened when people came from other sides of town, looking for trouble.
"We knew how to cooperate and enjoy each other's company," says Squires, "we minded our own business and didn't interfere in other people's business unless they asked us to."
Mike Shivers, 72, an alderperson for Dist. 17 from 1971 to 1993, lived in Greenbush for years, then visited family there regularly. He, too, talks about a poor but safe neighborhood, having Italian and Jewish friends, leaving doors unlocked. "I can't explain why it was like that," he says, "but things were good."
The neighborhood was razed, he says, "thanks to some greedy speculators. They could have improved it, but they wanted to make money. They went in and leveled everything and look what's there now...."
Many of the elderly who had to move died soon thereafter, he says. "You can ask anyone: Would they like the 'Bush to be rebuilt so they can return? Ninety percent would say yes."
Sam Moss, an Orthodox Jew, was born at St. Mary's in 1938. His Russian grandparents immigrated to Milwaukee and then, in 1924, to Madison and the 'Bush, where they bought a kosher bakery on South Murray Street. The street doesn't exist anymore - Meriter Hospital has swallowed it.
His grandparents, who had nine children to feed, were successful in their business, which operated into the early 1950s. The neighborhood had two other kosher bakeries, two kosher butcher shops and an Orthodox synagogue.
Sam Moss keeps a beautiful old photo that he says typifies Greenbush; it shows him with Miss Mary Lee Griggs, assistant director at Neighborhood House, and two other children: a black girl named Delores Caire and brown-haired Catherine Olivas.
"It was a great neighborhood," he says. "I had Italian and black friends. Some of our best customers were Italian - the restaurants and churches used our french bread for spaghetti dinners." He recounts stories he heard of Jews supplying some of their rationed sugar to the Italian bootleggers so they could use it to manufacture alcohol.
Then came the bulldozers. The city paid $6,000-$7,000 per house and tore them down. "You see what's there now!" Moss exclaims. "We were unhappy about how they dispersed the whole neighborhood. It wasn't a blighted area! It was terrible the way they destroyed the neighborhood. There was no reason for that."
At 92, Fran Remeika is in poor health but her mind is clear. In the spring of 1963, when she first heard the city council discussing urban renewal, she lived in Crestwood, on Madison's west side. She wondered what would happen to Greenbush residents, so she wrote a letter that was published in both of Madison's daily newspapers.
Next came a call from someone who had read the letter and invited her to a meeting of people opposed to urban renewal. Remeika ended up volunteering to research the human cost of urban renewal - how many people would be dispossessed, and so forth. She presented this information at numerous meetings, but says "the urban renewal group didn't pay any attention to us."
Remeika came to believe that those pushing renewal "weren't making any efforts to relocate the people, they weren't concerned about them." If the money being offered was refused, the homes were condemned. "The more I saw, the madder I got," she says.
Opponents fought to put the matter to a referendum, calling for the disbandment of the Madison Redevelopment Authority, which was spearheading the urban renewal. Remeika remembers walking up and down lines of people waiting to receive the newly approved polio vaccine. Many signed the petition, and the referendum took place in April 1964. It failed by a razor-thin margin of 367 votes.
Remeika was disturbed to find that conservatives and liberals alike supported the demise of the neighborhood - the former because it made money for developers, the latter because the drawings of the neighborhood-to-be "looked so nice."
Throughout the process, "I was very indignant," says Remeika. "It was such a dirty trick. It was such an interesting, colorful neighborhood. They were going to turn it into a big commercial area, and I screamed that we needed an area for low-income people."
In the fall of 1964, it emerged that Roger Rupnow, then head of the Redevelopment Authority, had bought two homes in the area with his brother. The suggestion that he stood to personally benefit from these deals led to his resignation. He left town and was replaced by Sol Levin.
Urban renewal had already devastated much of the neighborhood, but Remeika remembers that Levin "tried to help." If it were up to him, she says, the neighborhood would have been moved, not mowed.
In 1991, Levin set up the Madison Area Community Land Trust "as his penance for Greenbush," says the group's director, Greg Rosenberg. The land trust later developed Troy Gardens and the adjacent co-housing complex on Madison's north side. Rosenberg calls it "the opposite of urban renewal - this project was exactly what the neighborhood wanted."
Affordability, too, became a mantra for Levin, who died in 2002. He created what Rosenberg says were the nation's first independent care apartments - the Karabis apartments in the Triangle, part of the old 'Bush, for people with disabilities.
Levin's later projects, says Rosenberg, show he learned the lessons of Greenbush: Pay attention to what residents want, and maintain strong neighborhoods. But, he adds, not everybody has learned those lessons: "I look at Allied and I don't see anyone saying, 'Let's learn from Greenbush.' There is so much confused thinking there."
The 'Bush today
Stuart Levitan isn't only a local historian - he is the chair of Madison's Community Development Authority, the successor to the Redevelopment Authority. Among other projects, the CDA is involved deeply in revitalizing the Allied neighborhood. He disagrees with Rosenberg.
"Certainly neighborhood involvement and empowerment is honored in Allied," says Levitan. "Sensitivity to neighborhoods is different today. You can't come in and bulldoze a neighborhood anymore. You have to empower it to participate in its own future."
Levitan thinks the Greenbush and its culture are romanticized. The neighborhood was vibrant, he agrees, but the housing stock was substandard. One needs to separate the importance of its culture from the conditions of the housing. The tragedy, he says, is that the city lost sight of the former when dealing with the latter.
The former Greenbush is now home to two hospitals (Meriter and St. Mary's) and several clinics. There's several apartment complexes, including Bayview and Karabis. Neighborhood House and the Italian Workmen's Club still thrive, as do certain businesses - some Italian, some still from the 'Bush days, some owned by new immigrants.
The Bayview Foundation, a nonprofit group that owns the housing complex, was incorporated in 1966 by civic-minded people, including Fran Remeika, who were concerned about housing for lower-income folks. They put in their own seed money, found federal monies, and worked with the city to dedicate some of the old Greenbush land for this purpose.
David Haas, the foundation's executive director, says this dream is still paying off today. Since April 1989, 46% of Bayview residents who have moved out have bought their own homes - a high ratio for low-income communities.
The complex now houses 102 families: six African, eight African American, three white American, eight Vietnamese, 11 Laotian, 44 Hmong, two Chinese, 18 Hispanic, one Cambodian and one Native American. It offers after-school, teen and Headstart programs, as well as classes in art, music and English as a second language.
Like the Greenbush, Bayview is home to immigrants who get along. Residents there put together the Triangle Festival, an annual showcase of cultures. But some worry about the city's role in its future.
The Bayview Foundation originally agreed to return the land to the city in 2011. Now it wants to retain ownership, feeling it is more flexible and better able to provide programs. Says Haas, "We hope to have some positive negotiations with the city."
In the 2005-06 school year, Mark Wagler was a teacher at Randall Elementary, where his students studied Park Street and the Greenbush. Elena Livorni, then 11, was one of his students. It was a big project, she says, encompassing the whole curriculum, even math: a classmate surveyed people in the neighborhood, then used math to interpret the results.
Livorni, now 13, says the class "gave us a better understanding of how it feels to be discriminated against and having everything taken from you."
Several students wanted to do something that would reverberate beyond their classroom walls. They approached then Ald. Brian Benford, who suggested that they ask for an annual Greenbush Day. Livorni was one of three students who delivered speeches before the Madison Common Council.
"I felt that the people who had lived there deserved recognition," she says, "and that not enough people knew what happened to them, and that we should prevent it from happening again." She was pleased that the council enacted the day, which this year falls on March 25.
What happened in the Bush can happen again if we're not careful and don't pay attention, warns Livorni, who also invokes Allied Drive: "People in the city don't look at the residents, their happiness, what they want. They should ask them."
The Greenbush Memorial, created by Antonio Testolin, was dedicated on Oct. 14, 2000, on Regent Street. Looking like a swan, it actually represents two figures, whose race and gender aren't clear, reaching out for each other. A shroud over the figures represents the community that surrounds and protects its residents. Its base quotes residents of the old 'Bush.
Joe Cerniglia comments acerbically, "We didn't know we were deprived until the social workers told us." Addrena Squires recalls owing to the local grocer until payday, and then having him hand candy and ice cream to the children. Sam Moss also talks about ice cream - the big scoops he got from Mr. Caruso for his nickel. Clarence and Maggie Kailin describe using their Park Street house as the headquarters for black farmworkers striking in Mazomanie in 1949. And George Fabian mentions a toy-lending library.
Back at the shoe store, Cerniglia is needling Fabian with a question: "When's the last time you heard of the Democrats and Republicans agreeing?" Fabian is quick to answer: "When they wanted a pay raise." He adds, "To me, politics is the last bastion of the incompetent. After living 76 years, I know I'm right."
Looking back on his life, Fabian has few regrets. "I had a great childhood," he says. "I'd rather have my past than my grandkids' future. There's so much uncertainty now."
And then he's at his shop window, waving a visitor goodbye. "Come back," he says. "Come hang out here."