The Marquette Neighborhood Association opposes efforts to raze and replace this 1889 home at 1112 Spaight St.
As John Martens tells it, Willy Street is losing that special something that makes it, well, Willy Street. It's overdeveloped, he says, with new buildings that lack imagination. Gentrification is choking its social diversity. A small handful of politically savvy residents leverage too much power. Williamson Street, he says, is beginning to look like Monroe Street.
"When developers started licking their chops in the '90s there was a pretty good mix economically, educationally and racially," says the 63-year-old architect and property owner. "There was a strong working-class character here."
Sipping coffee at Ground Zero, a café on the first floor of the 108-year-old Madison Candy Company building - one of two properties in his Willy Street portfolio - Martens reflects on the area's changes.
"Now that it's so desirable it's become dominated by white, educated, alternative-types with means," he says. "[It's] morphing into a socioeconomic monoculture of, frighteningly, my own peers."
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Williamson-Marquette Neighborhood on Madison's east side has slowly moved from its troubled past to become what Madison Magazine in 2009 ranked as one of the city's "great neighborhoods." Spurred by new development, strong neighborhood institutions and unrivaled civic vitality, a steady influx of new residents has reinvigorated an area that not all that long ago was eligible for federal anti-poverty grants.
Naturally this evolution has stirred intense disagreements among some who saw Wil-Mar through its roughest years and the new arrivals who come to indulge in the spoils of its revival. Traffic, development and the area's historic integrity remain perennial concerns. But as its demographics trend younger and more affluent, Wil-Mar's notorious hard line against development and growth appears to be softening.
Unlike Martens, Marquette Neighborhood Association president Scott Thornton applauds the area's appreciation since he moved in about 10 years ago. "When I moved here I didn't find it to be that eclectic," he says. "It was more eclectic years ago when I was a student...and it's trying to come back."
The neighborhood has long been imbued with a strong sense of collective responsibility. Amid Willy Street's shops, bars and restaurants are a number of nonprofits that service the needy, disabled and mentally ill. For residents, Wil-Mar's social diversity is a source of pride, but that isn't to say it's without prejudice.
"I don't think we're that tolerant, to tell you the truth," says Tom Christensen, a 30-year resident and Willy Street business and property owner. "But our self-identity is around that we're a place for all people."
When road construction wraps up in October, Williamson Street will have a sleeker, more contemporary feel. As calls for more density gain traction, it might also be regarded as a symbolic paving of the way for sustained growth.
In December, developer Marty Rifken expects to break ground on a five-story mixed-use development abutting Martens' Candy Company property. Rifken says the neighborhood will see more infill projects like his, among other changes many will likely find unpalatable.
"Rents are slowly going to go up," says Rifken. "The lifestyle is going to change, and you're going to have some expensive condos coming in. You're going to see a lot more housing in this area."
Culturally, modern Williamson Street began taking shape in the late 1960s, after the area's manufacturing base decamped and residents followed. As businesses along Willy Street struggled, old homes became cheap rentals that attracted students, artisans, tradesmen and, over time, the destitute. Martens, who arrived in 1969, has fond memories of those years.
"We had greasy spoons, welding shops, little grocery stores, bars, and they all kind of blended together," he recalls. "People tended to congregate and work together more in the '70s. I think that's really when the reputation of Williamson Street - of the new Williamson Street - began."
But reverence for the old days isn't universal.
"When I came in there were regular shootings and stabbings, people found in the gutters, and petty crimes. Houses were in disrepair. Things were pretty rough," recalls Christensen, who owns the upscale Kitchen Gallery and four Willy Street rental properties. "Human beings always anchor themselves in good memories of the past."
Wil-Mar's political awakening came in 1968, when the Marquette Neighborhood Association formed in response to a proposed freeway through the rail corridor.
During the 1970s, cooperative businesses like Nature's Bakery and the Willy Street Co-op launched, building on the area's growing eclecticism. Jane Capito, 66, was drawn from California in 1976 by Willy Street's primal therapy scene. "People gravitate here who have a much different view of what life is about," says Capito, owner of Lazy Jane's Café and Bakery and Mickey's Tavern.
Near the end of the decade, residents' push to preserve the neighborhood's historical integrity led to the formation of five different historic districts that set the tone for how buildings could be remodeled and reshaped.
Renewed civic interest in Third Lake Ridge - Wil-Mar's residential core - prompted the city in 1978 to develop a modest plan to prod Willy Street businesses to follow suit. One initiative involved showing business owners how to spruce up their buildings with inexpensive upgrades.
"That didn't fly very well," recalls Archie Nicolette, a city planner who helped develop the plan. "These were all very marginal businesses that were struggling to stay afloat."
For its part the city did something remarkably simple: It planted street trees, which had previously been chopped down during a street-widening project in the 1950s.
"This was an important step," says Nicolette. "What it did was start to change the feel of the street. But trees are a long-term investment. It took a long time before the street discovered itself."
The good fight
The Greater Williamson Street Business Association's Willy Lives! campaign kicked off at the onset of road construction to promote spending along the corridor. One night earlier this summer, William "Tiny" Alexander and his wife dined at a Willy Street restaurant. "It was full of people from the neighborhood," says Alexander, who owns the Willy Street Pub & Grill, a.k.a. the Wisco. "I thought that was grand."
To a large extent, businesses define a neighborhood. But relations between residents and Willy Street businesses weren't always so synergetic. For a long time, says Nicolette, residents viewed them as a nuisance because they brought in traffic and more noise.
Alexander says he got a taste of this attitude in 1989 when he purchased his tavern. "They told me they didn't like people like me coming into the neighborhood and buying up the businesses," he recalls. "I said, 'Who? An east-sider?' I don't even go to the west side. I hate it."
Nicolette also felt residents' fury in 1994 after he proposed building a parking lot that would have required knocking down a house and dead-ending Few Street. "That was when people got the meanest in terms of name calling," he says.
Martens was crowned a pariah in the mid-1990s when he moved to demolish an old warehouse on the 700 block. Most agreed the building was unsalvageable, but residents didn't want the MG&E plant behind it exposed to the street.
Community backlash to these and other ideas led it to be pegged as anti-development, a label some call unfortunate. "They're fighting to make projects the best that they can be," says Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center on Willy Street. "If we all just say, 'Go ahead and do what you want,' that's going to be bad."
Now some worry the pendulum has swung too far the other way, with the neighborhood caving to development pressures. Today, Rifken's five-story building on Livingston Street has broad support.
"If I don't get full support from the neighborhood right away then I don't do the project," says Rifken. "It's not worth having fights with neighborhoods because you're not going to win. "
Chain outlets have largely left the street alone for this reason. In the late 1970s, residents fought vociferously to push Taco John's off a property that later became Willy Street Park, a victory that may soon be commemorated with a historical marker. But the noticeable lack of corporate encroachment may have more to do with the size rather than politics of Wil-Mar's population.
"It's not easy to keep a business viable on Willy Street because you don't have the concentration of residences like you do on Monroe Street," says Christensen, whose Kitchen Gallery store is moving to King Street. "Infill at the maximum amount possible is the best thing we can do for the area. Without people, this street will never have a thriving business community."
The other half
For many years the corner building at 1054 Williamson St. was an Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse, behind which, on Ingersoll, is Luke House, a nonprofit that provides free meals to the needy. Roman Candle Pizzeria, a local chain, now does a brisk business on the corner spot. Here, diners can feast outdoors, just feet away from the line of hungry people outside of Luke House.
"To me, Roman Candle is really the epitome of change in the neighborhood," says Ald. Marsha Rummel, who served four years as Marquette Neighborhood Association president. "They had a new idea for that old building."
Next to Roman Candle on Willy Street is a two-bedroom flat that Life Hardyman, 32, moved into as the AA clubhouse was leaving. Over the next seven years her rent increased less than $100, and utilities were always included. When new tenants moved into her old unit this past August the new property managers not only stopped paying utilities but hiked the rent by $200.
The increase would have squeezed Hardyman and her twin sons from the flat had she not already planned on moving out of state. She hopes to return to the neighborhood now that a family matter has brought her back, but worries she'll be unable to find a decent place she can afford.
"Why should it only be for people who have lots of money?" asks Hardyman, a pastry chef. "It's getting to the point that a lot of people, especially single parents, can't afford to live there."
It's this loss of diversity that Martens laments. "To have the ability of someone who can pay only $700 a month as opposed to $1,200 is an important part of this community," he says.
Thornton says affordable housing is a priority for the Marquette Neighborhood Association, but Christensen argues that market forces tend to prevail. "Low-income people have never had a place where they can say, 'We'll be here for 100 years,'" he says. "Eventually development will come in and enhance the property and they'll be moved to somewhere else."
Common Wealth Development, whose mission includes community building (it created the Willy Street Fair in 1977), business incubation and affordable housing, has for 32 years been trying to counter these market forces.
"Healthy neighborhoods are a mix of income, of lifestyles, and of people in general," says executive director Marianne Morton. "Diversity makes for a more interesting, vibrant community. We wish we could develop housing faster."
The group's portfolio includes more than 100 housing units. Twenty-five homes have been purchased through its homeownership program. And it recently acquired three more properties on Jenifer Street.
But keeping rents affordable over the long term amid rising property values is a complicated challenge that relies on creative financing. Common Wealth's Yahara River View project along the east rail corridor required nine funding sources to ensure lower rents for its 60 units into the foreseeable future.
Christensen believes that Wil-Mar's stock of Section 8 and subsidized housing has anchored the diversity, while Nicolette notes the neighborhood doesn't have a lot of new housing. "What that means is that a lot of the old buildings are still standing and are probably affordable because of the condition they're in," he says.
Another trend working against the preservation of affordable housing is a push for more owner-occupied dwellings, at least within Third Lake Ridge. Support for reducing the number of rental units was voiced this summer by supporters of a couple seeking the demolition of a two-unit building at 1112 Spaight St., across from Orton Park.
"A pretty good percentage of the neighborhood might favor the kind of redevelopment this represents," says Martens. "But there's also a strong counterargument that rental properties are part of the makeup of this community and always have been."
'Like a family'
Those who've been around 20 years or more tend to say they were first drawn to the area by cheap rents. More recent arrivals tend to cite Wil-Mar's livability.
Hemmed in by the Yahara River, Lake Monona, the bike path and downtown, the neighborhood is like a town within a city, its businesses, parks and schools all within walking distance.
"You can actually have a cool life here as a young person with children," says Angela Cleary, 32, a single mother of two. "I know everyone in my building and everyone next door, so I feel really comfortable, like it's a family."
And like many families, the neighborhood is unafraid to dispense tough love among its own - as the young couple seeking permission to demolish the house at 1112 Spaight. St. in order to build a larger home have found out.
Their architect has called the two-story colonial, built in 1889, "remarkable only for being the one eyesore around Orton Park." And at least two residents on the block agree it's not much to look at. But while some used the ensuing debate to push for more owner-occupied housing, others saw the potential demolition as eroding Wil-Mar's architectural history.
"If you're going to live in a historic district you have to understand the historic district is there to preserve the historic homes," says Thornton. "It's a usable home."
Martens and six others on the Marquette Neighborhood Association's planning and development subcommittee shot down the couple's proposal, in part because the new house would look historic.
"Historical buildings are good because they represent the age in which they were built," says Martens. "If we're just imitating the past we're not providing any kind of history for the future."
The association split 4-4, leaving Thornton to cast the tiebreaking vote against demolition.
"A lot of people care about the history, and we're upset by how close the vote was," he says. "It just doesn't make sense to tear down a house because you like the location but want a bigger house. That might work in Monona, but not here."
The city's Landmarks Commission will tour the home in October. Should it support the demo, both Plan Commission and Common Council approval would be needed for it to proceed.
Konkel says residents, now thinking of the neighborhood in different ways, are more willing to sacrifice some history, especially when it comes to energy conservation. "Because of changing lifestyles the older houses don't work for some people anymore," she says.
Cleary sees it as the maturation of the neighborhood's go-green character. "The old guard set the standard and the newbies are trying to attain it," she says. "That's how you get street cred on Willy Street."
The road ahead
When Willy Street reopens in October it will be several feet narrower. Some say that will slow traffic, while others fear it will cause congestion. "It's the shortest distance between two major parts of the city," says Martens. "On the isthmus there are only so many roads a person can take."
Attesting to the neighborhood's political prowess are the new amenities it wrestled from the city. There are new benches, more trees and bicycle parking, a fountain near the Yahara bike path and bio-vaults to prevent debris from entering the lake.
"They also wanted to underground some overhead wires, but that was pretty expensive," says Nicolette. "This is the benefit of having a strong neighborhood where people show up to meetings. It makes city agencies listen."
The changes don't end there. Several public arts projects are in the pipeline, including poetry stamped into the sidewalks, a gateway sculpture on the 600 block and historical points of interests.
In late September the Willy Street Fair celebrated its 32nd year. Poor weather didn't keep many from coming out for the last of the neighborhood's four summer festivals. Wil-Mar's community spirit is undeniably intact. What's open to debate is what kind of community it is.
Martens says his worst fear is that "this once freewheeling neighborhood could become a virtual gated community, differing within only by the degree to which its inhabitants adhere to their own predictable values."
Willy Street has always been in transition, unsure of what exactly it wants to be. That's part of what makes it so dynamic. If history is any indicator, it will continue to straddle the past and present, with an ambivalent eye on the future.
"Neighborhoods aren't something that just stay the same," says Nicolette, who retired in April. "Willy Street was once considered the bum district, but it's now moving in the other direction, and who knows what's going to happen in the future. Right now, this neighborhood is sitting pretty good."