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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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A Central Park for the people
The onetime dirt field becomes a perfect place for a party
Congratulations, it's urban greenspace!

I've served as an emcee for all nine of the annual La Fête de Marquette music festivals. That means that, over the course of nearly a decade, I've introduced 100-plus acts. I've only mispronounced one. And friends, that was a king-hell bummer. It was the very first year.

Madison temps on Sunday, July 16, 2006, soared into the mid-'90s. The sun scalded everyone who dared to emerge from the shade, of which there was virtually none. For all the heat it may as well have been Lafayette, Louisiana, where Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are based. They were standing behind me on stage.

It's hard to recall exactly how I butchered the word "Mamou." I do remember it coming out of my mouth and thinking, "This is taking a long time for a word that only has two syllables." But I pressed on. I thought I could catch up to the mess of vowels I was spraying through the PA and somehow correct myself. Then, in a dead panic, I broke the emcee's cardinal rule.

I stopped and started again.

"Ladies and gentlemen! From Lafayette, Louisiana...." The faces in the crowd said, "Please stop." But no. I was nearly there. "Steve Riley and the...."

Broken dishes, old marbles and loose change fell out of my mouth. Now it was official. "Mamou" was a complete and total evisceration.

A collective groan came from behind me.

Riley's Cajun music made the sweaty throng forget my car-crash intro. Still, as great as the music was that first festival weekend in 2006, the view from the stage was nothing special.

A local TV station announced the festival would take place at "the new Central Park." But it wasn't new and it sure wasn't a park. At least if by park one means grass, trees, drainage, lighting, access, power, restrooms and benches. It was a long stretch of dirt bordered by railroad tracks and more dirt.

"During the day, with the heat and no shade, we thought 'we'll never make it,'" said Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center executive director and La Fête founder Gary Kallas. "But it was a hit because of the late-night crowd. The heat broke, and people came."

La Fête returned to the corridor the next year. But the third annual festival relocated when the city asked too much for the use of the corridor.

Fast-forward to late last month. On a muggy, overcast Wednesday morning Mayor Soglin, flanked by Ald. Marsha Rummel and others, cut the ribbon on the new Central Park. And, lo and behold, it looks like a park. Not a fancy one. But a park for sure.

Soglin's podium was set up in front of the grassy knolls on the west end of the property. "C'mon back here behind me," Soglin motioned to the approximately 50 who had quietly gathered for the ceremony. "This is about the people, after all." It was true. Looking at the faces behind the mayor from the media side of the podium was a reminder that Marquette/Williamson Street residents had as much to do with the new park, over a decade in the making, as government officials.

Kallas stayed on the periphery of the ceremony, smiling. As did La Fête musical director Bob Queen. But afterward we walked the grounds, and they pointed out where the tents and stages would appear this coming weekend, when La Fête de Marquette returns to Central Park.

That first year, right after I butchered Steve Riley's band name, I turned and faced the bandleader. He corrected me. Oh, did he ever correct me. I walked off stage and wanted to walk straight home and hide. I doubt if he'll remember the incident, but I'll have a chance to finally get "Mamou" right when his band returns to the La Fête stage on Saturday. In the new Central Park.

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