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Welcome to Madison's Park Street: Its checkered past gives way to a bright future
Waitress Kathy Tracy talks about working at the Curve, a classic American diner and Park Street institution.
Credit:Ben Reiser

It's our southern gateway.

And for decades, no single street in Madison has better represented our success and our missteps. It's our social, fiscal and racial barometer, and we've forgotten how it came to be - how we forced it to be.

It is Park Street.

"It's by far the most racially and economically diverse area of Madison," says Lindsey Lee, owner of Cargo Coffee, 1309 S. Park St. Lee, who also owns Ground Zero Coffee on Williamson Street, enjoys what he terms Park Street's vibrant, gritty flavor. "I just knew I could be successful here."

So bright is Park Street's future that Lee worries it will become gentrified. That may surprise some, since of all Park Street's perceived problems, none is so pervasive as its "blighted" reputation.

Lee recalls one of the bankers he went to when looking for start-up funds. "He told me, 'Bad idea. Do those people even drink high-end coffee?'"

Those people certainly do. "In fact, between the two locations, this has become the core of my business," he says. "The funny thing is, people who don't live in this area, they just assume I'm struggling on Park Street."

But, as Lee points out, the street appears to be undergoing a revival, thanks to a spurt of redevelopment proposals and initiatives by the city of Madison and nonprofit groups.

In October the Urban League of Greater Madison announced a south Madison "Promise Zone," a philanthropic effort to break the cycle of poverty among residents clustered at the street's southern end. And the South Metropolitan Planning Council, as part of its Visit South Madison Project, in January unveiled a news and business directory website at

"I think Park Street is definitely on the uptick," says Matt Weygandt, co-owner of Barriques, a coffee and wine café that opened its sixth and newest location on Park Street in August.

For much of its existence, however, Park Street has been historically, figuratively and literally "across the tracks." Whenever the city grew, we pushed its perceived problems farther south.

A stroll from the north end of the street to the south reveals a colorful history, often painful contrasts and tremendous hope for the future.

'Out in the country'

The western edge of the city's original 1836 plat ends at Park Street. It was barely more than two blocks, starting at Lake Mendota. The "park" in Park Street is what later became the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Bascom Hill.

Across from the Memorial Union, at the corner of Park and Langdon Streets, overlooking sailboat piers on Lake Mendota, stands Helen C. White Hall, a concrete behemoth and temple of learning; it contains the library for the College of Letters and Science.

At 455 N. Park St. is an example of 1960s Brutalist architecture: the George L. Mosse Humanities Building, which houses the departments of history, art and music. Humanities has been defined as a great sculpture but a poor building; what it lacks in natural light, it makes up for with leaking rainwater.

South of University Avenue originally were fields sloping to swamp, defined only by the artificial high ground of the Milwaukee Road rail line completed in 1854, south of West Dayton Street.

Just beyond lay a neighborhood that would set the pattern for all of Park Street's racial and economic trials. White Madison Protestants called it Columbus Park. It's recalled today as Greenbush.

The lost community is remembered as an Elysian neighborhood where Italians shared food and fellowship with Eastern European Jews, a few Irish and, increasingly after World War II, African Americans. It was thoroughly integrated.

Greenbush was developed by George Praegler, who became one its first residents in 1885. The neighborhood was built on ashes - literally. Praegler used coal ash from the nearby rail yard as fill.

The modern face of Meriter Hospital, 202 S. Park St., is brick and dark glass. A pedestrian bridge arcing across the street serves as an unofficial gateway to downtown and as a convenient spot for banners proclaiming public events.

When built in 1903 it was "out in the country." Many physicians boycotted it at the time for exactly that reason. Madison society sneered at the area. The Ku Klux Klan marched in 1924 to protest the neighborhood's mixed citizenry.

As early as 1916, a UW study blamed landlord greed, city neglect and geography for Greenbush's perceived social ills, which in retrospect boiled down to crushing poverty. By the late 1950s, the neighborhood was targeted for "urban renewal." Most of it was bulldozed by the Madison Community Development Authority.

But Greenbush had a unique strength, and it set the pattern for much of Park Street that came afterward. Before the Beltline, Park and Regent served as the junction for Highways 12, 13, 14 and 151.

Car culture

From here, Park Street increasingly becomes a story less about people and more about business. That's because it was built for cars. Starting at Haywood Street, most blocks suddenly become twice as long. South of Wingra Creek there's even a block five times as long. The lack of cross-streets could hardly have been better planned to keep residents from each other and to prevent stable neighborhoods.

The city is trying to correct the damage. Its 2004 Urban Design Guidelines for Park Street contains a simple suggestion that speaks volumes about the street's current architecture: "Pursue traffic signal timing throughout the whole corridor that allows sufficient time for pedestrian crossing."

It was in this part of Park Street that Asian immigrants settled, one group that didn't immediately make its home in Greenbush. Asian Midway Foods, 301 S. Park St., is a modern reminder, and the northernmost of the street's three Asian markets. It features a vast range of exotic shapes and smells, including Korean radishes - not to be confused with Chinese radishes, both 69 cents a pound. The grocery also offers fresh pork skins for $1.56 per pound, pork tails for $2.63 and pork snouts for $1.69. And Oscar Mayer wieners.

Additional shapes and smells can be found at nearby Lane's Bakery, 448 S. Park St., where sugary treats of every description are offered inside a faux chalet of cream stucco with brown trim and royal blue awnings. But the most notable feature of Lane's may be the loyal legion of fans that meets daily to sit on plum-colored chairs and enjoy coffee and camaraderie.

Lane's is likely to close by the end of summer, and eventually be redeveloped as a mixed-use property. The business has been on Park Street since 1957 and at its current site since 1987. The fourth-generation owners, brothers Chuck and Mike Lane, declined to comment.

"We're here every week," says Brian Richards of Oregon. He and his wife, Debbie, bought their wedding cake at Lane's. Since then, they've been bringing in their eight children every Sunday - or at least as many as will fit in the car.

"They all really love it," says Debbie. Even the children's sleepover guests don't feel their weekend is complete without joining in the family doughnut tradition.

Across Drake Street from Lane's is the Ideal Body Shop, 502 S. Park St. It's a reminder that, in the 1940s, Park Street was best known for its nickname, "Gasoline Alley." At one time, the street had 28 gas stations and 13 other auto-related businesses.

Ideal began as a blacksmith shop in the 1800s. While the business may continue elsewhere, a five-story mixed-use development has been proposed to replace the current 1924 building.

Doing business on Park Street has been "absolutely wonderful," says Ideal owner Pete Dottl. "It's a good area. The neighbors are great."

Not all are pleased, however, with the prospect of a tall building replacing the body shop. "Many neighbors are concerned about the height of the [proposed] building, and also the design of the building," says Caitlin Seifert, president of the Greenbush Neighborhood Association. "The modern design doesn't fit in with the historical aesthetics of the neighborhood."

It's not unusual in this stretch of Park Street to see joggers - but only for a block or two. They're customers of Movin' Shoes, which allows patrons to take footwear on a test run around the block. According to staff, at least one customer abused the privilege by taking a spin around Monona Bay.

The Ichiban Sichuan Chinese restaurant, 610 S. Park St., has pale lime walls with purple accents, and tables with large glass lazy Susans. Entrees can easily be shared by rotating the platter. This is not merely a nod to America's desire for convenience; according to staff, in China it's considered bad form to pass food.


Fast food was introduced to Madison in 1928 on Park Street. The California-based A&W had been selling franchises for just seven years when it opened at 900 S. Park St. A sign on the side explained to Madison, "It's different." The initial, modest building has since been replaced several times. Today it houses Famous Dave's BBQ. Nearby, at 801 S. Park St., a $4 million four-story mixed-use development called Erin Square is under way.

At 916 S. Park St. is the new Barriques. "Business is pretty good," says co-owner Weygandt. "We get a nice mix of students, people with families who live in the immediately surrounding areas, obviously lots of folks who work at the nearby hospitals, and a good smattering of business people who are doing their impromptu meetings."

With all the redevelopment occurring on Park Street, "I think everything points toward it being a better and better spot," he says. "I've always felt that a lot of these service and restaurant businesses in particular seem to sort of lead the other development."

The decor of Barriques' Park Street store, formerly Atomic Interiors, is eclectic, featuring salvaged items like recycled bicycle gears and barn doors. "We try to repurpose as much material as we can." Weygandt agrees that "repurposed" may even serve as a metaphor for contemporary Park Street development.

Across the street at 1010 S. Park St., at the corner of Fish Hatchery Road, piles of brick, rebar and sun-baked earth are all that's left of the Bancroft Dairy. The plant opened in the 1920s and closed in 2004. Its dairy bar was famous among area children for its "Pig Trough" sundae. A $25.2 million, four-story medical center is being built on the spot.

At the end of Park Street's 900 block, Lakeside Street recalls its namesake, the Lakeside Water Cure, also known as Tonyawatha Springs. Located in what today is Olin Park, the resort was renowned for the curative properties of its natural waters.

Not far away is Wingra Creek, which is completely artificial. It was created to control overflow from Lake Wingra; we're not yet outside the historic marsh area.

Nor are we outside Gasoline Alley, which today presents a tremendous opportunity. In May it was announced that the former Thorstad Chevrolet, 1702 S. Park St., will be redeveloped for multiple uses. The property is huge - 13 acres, the longest block on the street. Despite its size, it's currently assessed at only $2.73 million.

Nearby is the roughly parallel Beld Street, which was Park Street until 1948. The first portions of the Beltline were completed in 1950. In anticipation of connecting with it in South Madison, the city and state joined to acquire a new right of way, shifting Park Street west, according to Eric Pederson, land records coordinator with the city of Madison Engineering Division.

We're now in the Bram's Addition neighborhood, annexed by the city in the 1940s and soon afterward nicknamed "Hell's Half-Acre" for its poverty and crime. On the other side of Park Street is the Burr Oaks neighborhood, annexed in 1959 (a portion of it is still part of the town of Madison); formerly it was a golf course.

When Greenbush was bulldozed, many of its residents moved to other areas all along Park Street, especially to Burr Oaks and Bram's Addition. But the formerly integrated Greenbush residents ran into housing restrictions; relocated African Americans residents were ghettoized at Park Street's very end.

"The effect was disrupting community infrastructure, even increasing segregation," says Rebecca Krantz, of Many Stones Consulting. As an intern with the South Metropolitan Planning Council in 2000, she summarized nearly 40 planning documents dealing with South Madison. Her report remains one of the most concise descriptions of south Madison history.

End of the line

We're now as far south as we can get on Park Street. The earliest portions of the Villager Mall - renamed the Village on Park in 2010 - were built on the 2200 and 2300 blocks in 1960. Today the Madison Community Development Authority is working to remake it, with input from residents who want to see it primarily serve as a de facto neighborhood center.

On weekdays, the mall is humming with students attending classes at Madison College. On weekends, the center for activity is the Goodman South Madison branch library, 2222 S. Park St.

The thoroughly modern facility is lively, curving, colorful and, above all, busy. To visit on a Saturday is to see the spirit of Greenbush alive and well. Young people of every color make it a (politely whispering) beehive of activity, asking questions, taking classes and using computers. If the United Nations had daycare, this is what it would look like.

"South Madison is Ellis Island," says head branch librarian Chris Wagner. "This is the first stop, not just for people from other countries, but for people who are new to Madison. I love it. I wouldn't want to work any other place."

A Hispanic woman had come in earlier to tell Wagner, "I don't live near here. I come a long, long way, because all of you here care. Please keep caring about us. You do things for us."

Wagner suspects the unspoken subtext: that other white, Anglo-Saxon Americans haven't cared. "I have a strong identity with even just the concept of south Madison," she says. "It has such a strong definition. It has such a strong cultural heritage."

Wagner went to library school 25 years ago at Park Street's other end, in the Helen C. White building, overlooking Lake Mendota. She can't help but notice the contrast between the street's beginning and ending.

"Clearly the privileged versus the underprivileged," she observes. "It's really interesting to watch the divide."

Next door is the Urban League of Greater Madison, which relocated from downtown in 2009 to play a part in revitalizing the area.

"We have thoroughly enjoyed being on Park Street," says Urban League president and CEO Kaleem Caire, a native of the neighborhood.

"In two short years, we have nearly doubled the number of adults we serve through our workforce training programs, from 225 in 2009 to 462 in 2011," says Caire. "Having the library, Madison College, Access Community Health and other partners close by has made it easier to refer and provide multiple services to our clients."

As for the future, Caire says "the plans for South Park Street must include greater voices from residents in the community." One thing they don't want is to become the "nonprofit service area" for the city, he adds.

"Instead, they want similar amenities that other areas of town desire: places to shop, a café where they can eat and socialize, an accessible grocery store with healthy food, health and fitness facilities, and more organized recreational activities for children and adults. They also want redevelopment of old and blighted properties in the area."

Peng Her, project director for the Urban League's south Madison Promise Zone, says that what makes south Madison special "is that it's truly a neighborhood where diverse communities live and celebrate each other's cultures. It's this type of energy that will move the entire city forward."

Mayor Paul Soglin agrees. "The history of Park Street and the challenges met over the years are an important facet of Madison's story. Its future, with recent and ongoing developments, and the involvement of hundreds of involved and creative citizens, is bright."

Related: Videographer Ben Reiser and news editor Judith Davidoff discuss the Park Street neighborhood over breakfast at the legendary Curve diner.

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