Roach: That great street

As this issue of the magazine celebrates 40 years of naming all that is best about our town, one asset has become the center of controversy — State Street.
State Street Madison
Photo courtesy of Richard Hurd

As this issue of the magazine celebrates 40 years of naming all that is best about our town, one asset has become the center of controversy.

State Street.

To be specific, there is a debate as to whether our city’s signature thoroughfare should be a place for large vehicles, or people.

In a remarkable statement, four past Madison mayors banded together to issue a public plea urging Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway to back away from her plan to have new high speed bus routes run down State Street and instead have it become a pedestrian mall. Notably, none of them accomplished this during their terms. But their position should be lauded nonetheless.

Public transportation is important to Madison and any city. It provides a lifeline to those without cars. It reduces pollutants. It connects our east side with our west side, which is no easy task for a city built on an isthmus. Public transportation is a city’s fundamental obligation to its citizens.

But as someone whose family once had a business on State Street and has been a witness to the evolution and decline of Madison’s most important stretch of pavement, it seems obvious that State Street must become a place for people and not large machines.

The reason? Because the financial and cultural future of Madison hangs in the balance.

My viewpoint as a Madison townie is informed by living away for a decade and then returning to my hometown with fresh eyes in the mid-1980s. Further, my work demanded weekly travel for more than 25 years, which took me to every state short of Hawaii and Alaska.

Here is what I found in those travels: State Street, the symbolic and literal link between one of the world’s greatest public universities and one of the nation’s most beautiful state Capitol buildings is nowhere near what it could be. And not nearly as cool as some think it is.

In fact, considering what it could be, it’s a disappointment.

On this page over a decade ago, I wrote of my first visit to Boulder, Colorado, and a stroll down its signature lane, Pearl Street. It was a revelation: a pedestrian mall that was clean, broad and loaded with interesting shops and dining options. Most importantly, an abundance of human beings of every kind wandered about. What was most amazing is that not all these people were strolling. Many were just sitting and talking and observing. In many ways, Pearl Street felt more like a park than a street.

I am no city planner, but it seems to me that every city should have a heart. A common gathering place that its citizens can visit for no reason other than the pure joy of living in a community that makes them proud and happy to be a resident.

For State Street to be that heart, it must accept that it has serious competition.

The first major competitors were two massive malls on the city’s east and west sides. But those places are in decline, which is opportunity staring Madison in the face.

State Street is also in new competition with the downtowns of Madison’s growing bedroom communities and their increasingly large tax bases. For perspective, look at what Middleton is doing.

There are hints of what State Street could be, offering hope. Fresh and creative new restaurants and hotels have popped up over the last two decades. The farmers’ market continues to attract swarms of folks from all over Dane County. Now, imagine if State Street felt like that every single day. The potential is thrilling.

Pleasant Rowland and Jerry Frautschi have already made a remarkable investment in the heart of our city. It’s an investment yet to be matched by city leaders with dollars nor imagination. In the wake of the pandemic and protests, State Street is in dire need of help. Its small businesses, already undercapitalized, are now desperate — if not gone altogether.

The most common word I hear about State Street these days is this one: sad.

The mayor and council are in a unique position to make Madison history.

They simply have to understand that Madison has many streets.

But only one State Street.

John Roach, a Madison-based screenwriter and producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at