In Isthmus' April 23 article on plans to renovate State Street's Elizabeth Link Peace Park, Ald. Mike Verveer told reporter Joe Tarr the city has been talking about making the changes for "a decade almost."
Verveer is way off. The very first article I wrote for Isthmus was about the city's plans to get rid of Link Park and turn it into a mini mall and parking garage. That was almost 20 years ago, in the summer of 1990.
Back then, vandals were painting "scum park" on the landmark's fixtures, and State Street merchants and others were more openly saying the city needed to wipe out the lonely strip of green space. The perceived problem: the homeless, substance-abusing and mentally ill people who sometimes gathered there were an unsightly annoyance for downtown shoppers. As a rule, visual reminders of the nation's forgotten underclass are not conducive to commerce.
According to Tarr's fine summary five weeks ago, "The plans call for a small building off State Street, which will include a visitor center, a room for police and public restrooms (among the few downtown). There will also be an amphitheater stretching away from State Street for small concerts, and a waterspout for kids to jump around in on hot days."
That all sounds fine to me, but I wish we were able to be more honest with ourselves. Verveer's denials and the Chamber of Commerce's euphemisms notwithstanding, the purpose for the proposed $1 million makeover is to get the scum out of Scum Park. Once the park is no longer designed as a place for people to just sit around, it will be easier for the police to discourage people from doing so. Especially when the police have their own "room" right there.
Throughout the United States, downtown revitalization has essentially meant pushing social problems out of the sight of people who might have money to spend. Manhattan did not get rid of prostitution, pornography and dime bags; it just moved them away from Times Square and put up a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in their place.
Before I wrote the Isthmus piece back in 1990, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times and the three TV news teams had each taken a crack at the story. They took seriously the need to plant new concrete parking and retail structures, and they all had a little light-hearted fun with the idea that the bums would have to find somewhere else to sleep off their stupors and harass passers-by.
After my Isthmus piece came out, there was another round of coverage in the dailies and the nightly news questioning the wisdom of the project, and it eventually collapsed of its own weight.
I remember Ald. Andy Heidt at the time saying something to the effect of, "The whole thing sounds pretty pie in the sky just to get a few people off State Street."
In 2001, the period Verveer was probably remembering when he told Tarr the city has been looking at alternatives for Link Park for only a decade, the city was talking about putting a "vintage carousel" in the park. That didn't happen either.
The latest proposal sounds more likely to become a reality. The Urban Design Commission is hearing presentations about the plans today, and the city could begin construction as soon as October.