Over the weekend, the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood banded together to host the 31st annual Willy Street Fair, a distinctly Madison tradition. It came and went in a flurry of tie-dyed and tattooed family-friendly excitement that ensured this unique community is indeed flourishing in many ways. The neighborhood retains its characteristic DIY mentality while remaining proudly globally informed and politically active.
This was the first year I attended the fair and it was immediately a surreal experience. Around 11 a.m. Sunday, I parked my bicycle as the eclectic parade passed on the crowded street in front of me. A countless procession of people from all walks of life, most wearing colorful and elaborate costumes, were dancing, singing and throwing candy and confetti. Granted this sounds like any typical parade, but I then started to notice some unusual differences. A man on a megaphone recited odd little lyrics and claimed in jest that Karl Rove was to make an appearance in the dunk tank. Many of the stilt walkers, dressed in bright sequined costumes and loud clown makeup, were young children who had surprisingly mastered the difficult skill. Looming abstract puppets, one whose face resembled a large stalk of broccoli, were visible down the entire street, and a lone belly dancer followed a literal truckload of percussionists whose instruments together created a vivacious tribal beat. To my surprise, it seemed that everyone was in costume, with spectators donning their own homemade apparel joining the performers at random until I could not differentiate the onlookers from the parade. I wasn't quite sure when, or if, the parade ended as the crowd closed in around its tail.
As I explored the charming street fair itself, a unique blend of scents accosted me. Merchants selling hand-made imported clothing from places like Peru and Nicaragua burned incense and sage. The odor of ethnic foods from Ethiopia, Nepal, Thailand and beyond added an earthy depth to the muddled mixture and the scent became more distinctly human, the smell of bodies perspiring, as the day continued to heat up. Of course with so many dreadlocks in one place, the smell of patchouli occasionally overpowered my senses. The neighborhood took on its own vibrant smell that included everyone involved, and as our scents blended, communication barriers fell.
Though I had come to this large gathering alone, I sensed the welcoming zeitgeist of the neighborhood and easily found myself included in a number of fascinating conversations. Everywhere I looked I saw smiling faces and heard cheerful friends laughing over music from the performers that lined the streets. I chatted with a man with long grey hair about how Williamson Street used to be in the 1970s, more blue-collar with all-night diners where people would discuss politics, art, and literature until well after four in the morning. Though the nature of the fair was light-hearted, there was a serious component to the Willy Street Fair as well. Indeed, I spoke with several passionate activists and volunteers about issues facing our local area and beyond.
Of the more than 150 booths set up, a surprisingly high proportion were dedicated to noble causes like social justice, international aid and the environmental movement. The booths ranged from the Alliance for Animals to the Peace Corps to the East Timor Action Network. Obama supporters worked hard at registering new voters and those who needed to change their addresses. By noon, one volunteer informed me that she had recruited six new voters already. Many people used the fair as an opportunity to raise awareness for very serious issues. Maria Powell of the Madison Environmental Justice Organization pointed to the MG&E smokestacks casting their shadow over Willy Street and talked about many of their questionable practices that have led to a lower quality of air in Madison. She warned that Madison must work to keep its environmental image more than just an image, a common message that many people brought up in our conversations.
There is a concern that the Wil-Mar neighborhood is becoming apathetic and "yuppified" as one long-time resident put it, but "it's not going that way as fast as everywhere else," he said with a proud tone, remembering his neighborhood's past. "We've got a lot of people who still care about our individuality." From what I experienced at the Willy Street Fair, I can only agree with him and I would add that the neighborhood's smart sense of compassion and humanity keeps them a strong, vibrant community that Madison is lucky to have.