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May 22, 2007

Madison: List city, U.S.A.

Jennifer A. Smith

Madison, Wis., is one of those places that, for better or worse (mostly worse in my jaundiced view) finds its way onto many a list. From Richard Florida's "creative class" list of the best smaller cities in which to live, to the Money magazine rankings that put Madison #1 in America in 1996 to the current Forbes magazine list that dubs us one of the best cities for empty nesters, there's a lot of Madison hype out there.

Although Madison is not my original hometown and I had lived in a bigger city immediately before coming here, it's grown on me. Having lived here a dozen years now, I can see ways in which it's grown and improved. One example: when I came here in 1995 there was a dearth of independent and foreign films, something I'd come to take for granted in Minneapolis. Since then, a top-notch film festival has been established and will celebrate its tenth year in 2008, the UW Cinematheque brings fabulous and rare finds to the community and shows them for free, and several commercial theaters are also regularly programming art-house fare, including the splashy new Sundance 608 theater.

Although I will never be a native Madisonian and there are many ways this city can be self-congratulatory and grating, I've become a bit of a Madison defender, much to my surprise.

In recent months and years, two well-known writers/consultants on workplace issues and shifting demographics have moved here: Rebecca Ryan (of the forthcoming book Live First, Work Second) and Penelope Trunk (of the Web site Brazen Careerist and the new book of the same name). Ryan is a Wisconsin (but not Madison) native; Trunk is not.

I realized I'd become a touch defensive about Madison when I read this on Trunk's blog: "I'm not going to tell you that Madison is a bastion of culture and innovation. It's not." What rubs me the wrong way is that it's the limited perspective of someone who's barely acquainted with her new city. I, too, was a little underwhelmed when I came here. But that's the catch of local culture, I think, especially in smaller cities: you've got to know what's there and--this is the crucial part, folks--GET OUT THERE AND EXPERIENCE IT.

And Madison's culture is hardly secret: we've got an alternative weekly (the paper I contribute to), plus two dailies and countless blogs and Web sites to keep one informed. Theater runs the gamut from professional companies to a funky, $8-a-seat hole in the wall (and I mean that affectionately) that only produces new, original work. There are two art museums, local galleries, restaurants from Indonesian to Nepali to Peruvian. In the sciences, we're home to Jamie Thomson (the world-renowned stem cell researcher) and Richard Davidson, who is doing groundbreaking research on the brain science of happiness. Internationally acclaimed conductor Edo de Waart lives here, and the Dalai Lama spoke here earlier this month.

I could go on, but I won't. My point is simply that, if you can't find culture and innovation here, you're not tryin' - and the same can be said of many, many small cities around the country.

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at May 22, 2007 6:00 AM


Hi, Jennifer. Thank you for linking back to Brazen Careerist, even if you don't like what I wrote :)

I think a big problem with talking about what is good about Madison - or any other city -- and what needs improving is that it's all relative. Mostly, it's realtive to what we have experienced and what we wish for ourselves.

For example, if you come from New York City to Madison, you say, "The camping in Wisconsin is great." If you come to Madison from California you say, "The camping in Wisconsin isn't that great. It's basically just one type of climate."

So talk of, say, culture in Madison, is all relative. And so it talk about schools, for example. (There are national rankings of schools. I never hear talk in Madison about where schools fall nationally.)

I hope this makes sense. I really like living in Madison. And now that summer's here I feel like I'm in vacationland heaven. But I wish it were not such a controversial thing to suggest that Madison is not perfect.


Posted by: Penelope Trunk at May 22, 2007 8:54 AM

Hi Penelope,

Thanks for responding! (I thought you might -- I can tell from your blog that you are interested in that give-and-take with people who read your posts.)

My intent was not to make it "controversial" to say Madison is not perfect -- no city is, and there are plenty of things in Madison that I gripe about. What I was reacting to is this idea that, if you leave a bigger city, you're automatically giving up "culture," whatever that means to you. I personally think it's more an issue of scale. And in the end, I think that what is most important is that people take the time to immerse themselves in the culture, if that's what they value. I think someone attending a local theater performance or art show in a small town in Wisconsin could arguably have a more "authentic" cultural experience than someone sitting in a multiplex in a large city watching yet another sequel. Culture and innovation are there to be found, wherever you look.

Thanks for stopping by, Penelope. I think your blog is provocative, even when I don't agree.


Posted by: Jennifer A. Smith at May 22, 2007 9:36 AM


There is plenty of talk in Madison about the national rankings of schools. Check out the School Information Systems, a website dedicated to discussions concerning education in Madison.


Posted by: Jesse Russell at May 22, 2007 11:14 AM