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Madland: State Street's changing place in Madison
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The old school turnover isn't limited to restaurants.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

One of Madison's essential characteristics is its transience, particularly in a downtown defined by the university. As a college town, the seasonal rhythms are defined by the school year, and the flux of incoming and outgoing residents creates its own cadence of change.

Such changes are reflected in the downtown landscape. Over the last decade, a new round of dense development has come to the isthmus, especially in the student apartments south of State Street. The recession brought a lull, but the cranes are returning, and multiple new projects are in the works. The most ambitious of these is the Hub at Madison, a massive complex planned for the corner of State and Frances. It has already been transformative.

Businesses on State Street open and close all the time. Some only last a few months, while others last over a lifetime, attracting generations of patrons. When it comes to closings, the last few months have witnessed some serious attrition among those longstanding businesses.

A row of storefronts along the 500 block of State provides the most visible set of closures. Kabul, Buraka and Hüsnü's, a trio of restaurants focusing on Turkish, East African, and Afghani cuisines, respectively, provided a cosmopolitan vibe to the campus end of the street, particularly for new students and visitors to Badgers and WIAA games at the Kohl Center. Kabul and Hüsnü's have been open for decades, the former dating to the early '90s and the latter to 1979. Buraka is a little newer, its longtime food cart business taking root in a basement space at the turn of the century.

All are now closed due to the Hub, which is scheduled to open in the summer of 2015. Several other businesses were rousted by the development. A Jimmy John's is returning to its old storefront just up the street. Roast Public House, a sandwich joint that has a good shot at joining the ranks of beloved State Street spots, has already reopened across the street.

Kabul has found a new spot, but both Buraka and Hüsnü's are now shuttered, at least for the time being. Buraka's final weekend saw dozens of fans crowd into the restaurant to say farewell. A similar scene occurred at Hüsnü's that weekend; when I dined there that Friday night, it was filled with fans both new and longstanding who hoped it can find a new location.

These restaurants make up only half of the recent high-profile closings.

Just up the block from the Hub site is Gino's Restaurant, as old a State Street institution as any. Serving pizza and red-sauce Italian to students, faculty and tourists since 1963, it closed on Halloween. After a half-century in business, with the first decade serving a State Street buzzing with auto traffic, owner Gino Gargano is retiring. The upstairs portion of the restaurant is already slated to be taken over -- by Kabul, actually.

The old school turnover isn't limited to restaurants. One block up is the space formerly occupied by Yellow Jersey, which closed at the end of September. Opened on University Avenue in 1971 and moving to State Street three years later, the "outlaw" bicycle shop was a harbinger of the bike culture that would take over the city. The business continues with a shop in rural Arlington in Columbia County.

Finally, there's Shakti, a New Age book and gift shop located another block up State. Open for more than 40 years, it will be closing in January. Its windows are currently plastered with going-out-of-business sale signs.

Altogether, this makes for the closing of one State Street business open since the '60s, three more since the '70s, and another couple with more than a decade under their belts. Their reasons for closing differ. The 500 block restaurants were due to a new development, but Gino's was the result of a retirement. The Yellow Jersey said online sales compelled it to adapt its business model (and move), a factor also cited by Shakti in its closing.

This spate of closings is getting noticed, and it's raising the perennial concerns about the character of the city's signature streetscape. Downtown parking (a familiar complaint), malls, the bus system, online shopping, corporate chain gentrification -- all continue to be cited as factors driving this turnover. Debate over the health of State Street and its mix of storefronts is as intrinsic to its identity as the changes themselves.

One thing that is definitely changing is the place of State Street within the isthmus milieu. It is diminishing as the city grows, with what we call "downtown" expanding over the last decade-plus to include a resurgent Capitol Square and King Street, and a denser student district (complete with more storefront businesses) centered on those new apartment blocks. Then there's the East Washington corridor, pioneered by the High Noon and Brink Lounge, solidified by the Constellation, and soon to boom with the Gebhardt development and potential StartingBlock incubator. The central business district now radiates from the Square away from as well as towards the university.

The long history of changes in the city's streetscape are well documented at Lost Madison, a smartly curated and well-trafficked Facebook page that provides glimpses into scenes that are fading or lost to human memory. Following these recent closings, it published an interview with Gino Gargano, and a post about Shakti closing became its most-viewed item since launching. "Another connection to Madison's famous counter culture vibe from the '60s and '70s will disappear," it noted.

As Madison grows, these changes will continue to drive debate, as will competing visions for the city's future.

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