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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Good fun or good riddance? Two views of the Mifflin Street Block Party

It's spring, and you're 20 years old. You've just finished a busy semester. Final exams and papers are due in about a week. And soon you'll be packing up, leaving your friends and going home for the summer, back to a home that isn't really yours anymore. In fact, you don't really have a home. And you have no idea what you will do for the rest of your life or who you will spend it with.

For those of us who went through all that a long, long time ago, it's easy to forget what it's like. We tend to romanticize those years, forgetting the tension, the uncertainty, the fear of making a mistake in life choices that will haunt us for the rest our lives.

But in order to understand the Mifflin Street Block Party, it seems to me we have to start there, by trying to get into the heads and hearts of college students.

With all that going on their lives, social gatherings where they get a chance to talk about it with their peers are really important. Add the first blush of warm weather into the mix, and you get the urge to party with your friends outdoors. Further add the traditional college-age rites of passage in experimentation with lifestyles, music, alcohol, drugs and sex into the mix, and you get Mifflin.

Rowdy parties are nothing new on this campus or many others. Reports of riots on Langdon Street in the fall and spring go back well before the advent of Mifflin in 1969. For the city of Madison to believe that it has the power to stop these forces of nature - well, good luck with that.

All this is not to say that the city is wrong in trying to shut down Mifflin. I went there every one of the eight years I was mayor. For the most part those years were pretty quiet. The crowds were generally good-natured. More than once I was stopped by students and asked to take pictures of them with police officers. They had no idea I was the mayor; the cops were the celebrities.

But there was always the undeniable ugly side of it all. I would see clearly underage kids who were very, very drunk. The detox center was always full. There were often reported sexual assaults and, I have to assume, more that went unreported.

So, while we were able to keep the lid on and avoid serious mayhem for eight years, I can't say it was the kind of event that responsible adults could condone or encourage. Maybe the city is right to come down hard on it, as it now has.

But here's the issue. Young adults will be who they are; they will be who we were. They will do stupid things and take unreasonable risks. Sometimes that will end badly in one way or another. And we're kidding ourselves if we think we can protect them from the exciting and sometimes painful process of learning things the hard way.

The primal forces of nature behind Mifflin aren't going to disappear because of a strongly worded letter from the Madison Police Department. The smarter strategy might have been to work with the event and try to nudge it into something more healthy than what it has become, the way we were able to transform Halloween on State Street into Freakfest.

To be sure, that model has its limitations. What makes Freakfest work fundamentally is the gating and ticketing of the event. That's probably not logistically feasible on Mifflin Street.

So, in the final analysis, while I might have taken a different tack, I have to support the city in its effort to end Mifflin. It has become little more than an underage drunk fest with nothing much in the way of redeeming social value. It has gotten to the point where responsible city leaders had to ask themselves if they weren't essentially condoning a lot of dangerous activity by more or less standing by and letting it happen.

I understand what it's like to be in their gumshoes. But let's not forget what it's like to stand in the sneakers of the 20-year-old kid, teetering on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, staring into an uncertain future and trying on different personas. Let's understand the positions of everyone involved. Let's see if we can find a way to let nature take its course, let the harrowing journey of youthful self-discovery play out, but in a way that is as safe and as healthy as we can make it.

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

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