A storm looms over Lake Monona on a Sunday evening in early June, but votive candles cast a comforting glow in the walkout basement of Dave Mollenhoff's lakeshore home. A jazz number called "Mellow Guitar" keeps the mood low-key as neighbors filter in for their quarterly social gathering. Soon the basement is filled with conversation.
"We've been doing this for 19 years, and I don't think people realize how unusual it is," says Mollenhoff, a Morrison Street resident and historian who has penned a book on Madison history.
Morrison Street sits between Baldwin Street and the Yahara River. Although it is only three blocks long, the ties among those who live on the 1500 block are strong. But things were not always this way.
"I'm kind of the history of the neighborhood because I grew up on this street," says Ellie Jacobi. She says everybody knew each other when she was a girl in the 1940s. But when she returned to Madison after college and out-of-town work, the community was not as tight-knit as it had been.
"A lot of the other people were new," says Jacobi, who, with husband Paul, found a condo on Morrison Street near Ellie's aging parents in the 1980s. "People just took it for granted that everybody's kind of their own little island."
Morrison Street joined the Neighborhood Watch program in 1994 after several cars were broken into. At one meeting, neighbors enjoyed each other's company so much they decided to hold regular get-togethers. They have since shared ice-cream sundaes, cocktails and holiday singing. They've celebrated happy times together and helped each other through hard times.
"There is something about being in contact that brings people together," says Jacobi.
Paul knew how important the Morrison Street gatherings were to maintain neighbors' bonds. Before he died from leukemia in 2006, Paul asked Ellie to fetch Dave Mollenhoff. "He wanted Dave to promise that he would keep this going."
Across the room, Lauren Bloom is telling Mollenhoff she has to leave the meeting early.
"My son has a play date at the park," she says.
"How about leaving a report?" Mollenhoff asks.
Bloom writes down a family update on a piece of paper, detailing events that transpired since the group last met around Christmas.
Bloom, a Madison native, left the city for sunny Austin, Texas, but returned after eight years. She knew she wanted to live on Morrison Street and was familiar with the neighborhood's communal feel. But she was still pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome she received.
Her arrival, in fact, appeared in the agenda circulated to neighbors for the upcoming quarterly get-together. "Welcome Lauren and her four-year-old son, Eli," it read. Bloom was astonished. "They found out who I was and they said, 'Please come!'"
Some might cringe at that much togetherness with neighbors, but residents of the 1500 block of Morrison Street say they find comfort in sharing their lives with those they live closest to.
By now neighbors have found seats on the couches and chairs arranged in a semicircle. Mollenhoff is delivering last-minute announcements before families begin their quarterly life updates, the highlight of the gathering.
"It's not just a social," says neighborhood resident Mary Fiore. "It's also a check-in. We share what's going on in our lives."
Fiore and her husband, Bill, have lived on Morrison Street for 19 years. Originally from Sioux Falls, S.D., Mary met Bill when they were in college. Bill spent much of his childhood in Winter, Wis. The two moved to Arizona but returned to Madison. They appreciate the city's Midwestern hospitality, and Morrison Street was no exception.
"We met our next-door neighbors right away," Mary recalls. "When they had their first child, we were the first ones at the hospital. I think we held the baby before even the grandparents did!"
Mary sees little reason why other neighborhoods could not adopt Morrison Street's model.
"People say, 'I don't know my neighbors. We don't have what you have,'" she says. "It's so easy to do it! Invite them over. It just snowballs from there."
Not everyone attends, but Mary says most do: "Everybody's always invited."
Caring for others
Rae Kaiser and John Ganahl live in a contemporary white stucco condominium on Morrison Street. Kaiser, a type designer from Stratford, Wis., says she was instantly drawn to the large painted numbers marking the angular building's street address.
"It was like, 'Oh! I need to live behind one of those doors,'" she says.
Her husband, John, is an actor from Waterloo, Iowa. They moved to Morrison Street knowing the homes were close together, one yard blending into the next. What John and Rae had not anticipated, however, was how the geography would contribute to the intimacy they share with neighbors.
"You share a little bit of your life with each other," Ganahl says. "If you can open your doors to your neighbors, they'll feel connected."
Kaiser adds: "I do think people who buy here or rent here grasp the closeness. It's that little bit of keeping your eyes open, caring for the next person."
Carolyn Betz can attest to that.
She says her husband, Richard, experienced a sudden cardiac arrest while riding his bike to work about a year and a half ago. "His heart just stopped," says Carolyn, who was at work at the time. "He just keeled over in the street with no pulse and no breath."
A hospital social worker called Carolyn to tell her that Richard was in a coma. They were not sure if he was going to survive.
Carolyn went to the hospital, where a doctor told her to call her family. A neighbor brought the son to the hospital.
Carolyn and her son went home that night, and by the next morning word of Richard's hospitalization had spread down Morrison Street. Her doorbell rang. Three neighbors stood outside. "We heard what happened to Richard. What can we do?" they asked.
Some neighbors prepared meals while Richard was in the hospital. After his release, they helped drive him to physical therapy and joined him for neighborhood walks.
"People from all over the neighborhood would volunteer," Richard says. "We barely had to ask."