By Renard Teipelke
The picture of the United States in the media often tends to be limited to the coastal areas versus the ‘crazy’ heartland. There are many states that are probably more important than the Mid-Western state of Wisconsin – situated at Lake Michigan near the Canadian border. Anyhow, I will show by the example of two cities, Madison and Milwaukee, that there are actually relevant things to say about the state and that both cities, despite their very different features, share something other cities are missing: a distinct original character.
„Go straight through the State Capitol building, take the South-East exit. You will save time on your way to the post office.” What a lovely woman. After having seen almost everything in the central part of Wisconsin’s capital city Madison in less than three hours, I get a tip on how to reduce the five-minute walk to the post office by approximately 45 seconds. I do not know where the 233,000 citizens of this beautiful city are hiding, but the urban center is definitely very small. There is not much to see. Nevertheless, Madison is worth visiting. Even more: it is worth living in Madison, because it is one of these unique cities that completely live up to their character.
Often described as one of the most tolerant social-liberal places in the United States – presumably extraterrestrial for many Americans – Madison is showered with nature’s blessings: Nicknamed The City of Four Lakes, Madison’s setting could hardly be any better.
With regard to the demographics, one might complain that the city’s ‘feel good-atmosphere’ correlates with the 84% white majority and only small percentages of racial and ethnic minorities. However, the state of Wisconsin is even whiter over all, thus making Madison more diverse in comparison. The city can be lucky of being the state’s capital and having the main campus of the public University of Wisconsin – making both the top employers in the city which has had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the US with less than 4% even during the economic crisis! So taking the college kids, university professors, and public employees together will help us to understand why the city is social-liberal as well as highly educated. This also explains why the city provides a perfect basis for new businesses. Furthermore, it is one of the safest cities in the US. (cf. Forbes lists: 1, 2)
If this is not enough, we can read the list of sister cities, including like-minded twins like Freiburg (Germany) and Obihiro (Japan) – both characterized by a green policy agenda. Former Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Lee S. Dreyfus, best characterized Madison when saying: “78 square miles surrounded by reality.” My impression of Madison was that at least its atmosphere (like on State Street) resembles that of an ideal ‘people’s republic.’
If I think about other social-liberal cities, I would ask why Madison has not become a ‘normal’ city having been economically so attractive? Is it the public sector and the unions?! This year in and around Madison’s State Capitol building during the massive protests for public union-bargaining rights, Americans witnessed how strong unions can put enormous pressure on politics and how they influence the city’s atmosphere.
But I still have another idea of a Madison-specific feature that has prevented a San Francisco-ization: University of Wisconsin-Madison students and their lifestyle. Obviously limited to a couple of days of observation, my impression was that UW-Madison students were the exact opposite of west and east coast lifestyle MTV teens. Less glamour, less bling-bling, fewer ‘Pimp my ride’ cars. It might be the key to its still down-to-earth social-liberal character that people purposefully move to Madison. And if we take a look at the map, their decision becomes even more meaningful, because moving to Madison means to move far away from the economically bustling metropolitan west coast and the sophisticated, politically active east coast into one of the most rural states of the US. Three hours away from Chicago, but also far away from any other economically booming area or rising city. Maybe it is exactly this geographically isolated setting together with this exclusive universe of tolerant social-liberal thinkers in close touch with nature that made and has preserved Madison’s distinct character.
More on Madison, see here.