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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Overcast
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Is Madison still special?
Compared to the rest of the country, the answer is yes

Late one night in November, trying to turn back some spending by the Madison city council, Mayor Paul Soglin blurted out, "We're not special anymore!"

Under the circumstances it didn't appear to be a strategic or long-considered remark carefully uttered at just the right time, but a spontaneous expression of frustration over a legislative body that wanted to spend more than he did.

I can relate. Most mayors can, I suppose. No matter how liberal we might be, in liberal towns like ours we almost always find ourselves in the position of needing to be the fiscal scold, the stern parent among spendthrift kids.

But the comment struck me because mayors are usually big-time cheerleaders for their cities. They're always saying how special their community is for its innovative mass transit system or its clean water or its giant ball of twine. (That'd be Darwin, Minn. Population 350 proud souls.)

Soglin can be refreshing in his candor, especially when he's mad about something, which he often is. He's no cheerleader.

But is he right? Are we no longer special?

Magazines love top 10 lists. If there were a magazine for button collectors, I'm sure they would have their annual Best Cities for Buttons! issue every February. Some of these rankings are, frankly, teased if not tortured out of suspect data, but when a city keeps popping up on one list of good places after another, you start to think that it might be special.

In recent years Madison has been ranked the best city for men, the best city for young adults, the third best city for young professionals, the most educated city in America, the most secure city in America, one of the most recession-proof cities in America, the best city for an active retirement, the safest place in the country to raise a kid, the third best-run city in the nation, the city with the best job market and the city with the best gay hockey scene.

We also consistently have among the lowest unemployment and crime rates in the nation. So claiming that we are not special anymore seems like an odd thing for anyone to say, much less our mayor.

Soglin was probably talking about the increase in poverty in Madison, and he is surely correct there. We do have an increasing population that is not just poor, but black and poor and Hispanic and poor. We are growing and becoming more urban in every way.

According to the most recent census, Madison's poverty rate is 18%, compared to 14% nationwide and 12% in the state of Wisconsin. But it's not out of line with other cities that we like to compare ourselves with. Portland has a 17% poverty rate, and Boulder and Ann Arbor each come in at 21%. It could be true that college towns, with their tolerant ways and relatively healthy social service systems, might be a destination for people trying to find the first rung on the ladder up.

The answer does not seem to me to buy them a bus ticket out of town, but to help them find that first rung on the ladder.

And consider what it would be like to be special in the wrong kinds of ways. I have been reading an excellent new book called Detroit, by Charlie LeDuff. LeDuff writes that Detroit has lost almost two-thirds of its population since its peak. A city the size of San Francisco plus Manhattan would cover the vacant lots of Detroit. Madison struggles to develop a few vacant acres on East Washington Avenue, and our population edges up at a steady 1% or 2% a year.

Detroit was recently ranked the 30th most dangerous city in the world, with a murder rate of 49 per 100,000. Madison's murder rate is about 2.2 per 100,000, and it has been steady for decades. Detroit has 11,000 unsolved homicides. Last I checked we had a handful.

There are 62,000 vacant homes in Detroit, which is close to the total number of houses in all of Madison. A lot of those houses burn. There are thousands of arsons in Detroit every year, but one-fifth of the city's firehouses are closed at any given time due to budget cuts. We have so few fires in Madison that insurance companies recognize the low risk by giving us some of the best rates in the nation, yet we recently opened two shiny new fire stations, and another is on the way.

There may be some hope from a newly confident president who seems more willing to show his liberal stripes. In Chicago the other day President Obama talked about his anti-poverty initiatives, including a much-needed increase in the minimum wage and new job training programs. And certainly, gun control, if enacted, would help. But we're still a very long way from the kind of comprehensive urban strategy and investment we need to make real change in a place like Detroit.

I know the grass is always greener someplace else. Madison has its problems. But spend a few days with Charlie LeDuff and then ask yourself if we're still special.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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