Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

CNU 19 – A Sort of Homecoming

Dateline: 9:43 am June 2, 2011 Filed under:

It has been 14 years since I graduated from UW Madison (I was half my age when I started school here in 1993), but as I biked up State Street I couldn’t help but sing Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages to myself – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

“What time is this place?” is the question that UW professor William Cronon asked at the CNU 19 opening plenary last night at the Overture Center on State Street. Much has changed, and much has stayed the same. The Overture Center had previous incarnations as various theaters. The nearby capitol square is now known for the recent protests of (and some support for) Governor Walker’s union policies, but on Saturday it will host the Madison Farmers Market as it has for decades. I rode a bicycle down State Street, but it wasn’t my old mountain bike from college – I was riding a bike rented from a kiosk as part of Madison’s new bike sharing program. The faces have changed on the Memorial Union Terrace, but the timelessness of enjoying a summer’s evening has not.

It is possible, 14 years after spending my formative years here, to experience the joys of discovering a wonderful city. The Monona Terrace is wonderful. How many convention centers have windows first of all? And how many have sweeping views of a breezy blue lake out those huge windows? Furthermore, the rooftop at Monona is a public gathering space for Madisonians, hosting tai chi, concerts and other events that most convention centers don’t offer. I’m seeing the city through new eyes again.

Listining to William Cronon ask “what time is this place?” was about the transect from urban to rural and the relationships between the two, and of everything in between over time. Mesmerizing (I can’t believe I never attended a lecture of his while I was in school!). Cities, suburbs and even rural and wild areas are always evolving. But it is the capitol square in Madison and public spaces like it (the Memorial Union Terrace or rooftop of the Monona Terrace) are where people of all walks of life can meet, be it on opposite sides of a vegetable purchase at the farmers market, opposite sides of a protest about unions or opposite sides of a pitcher of beer, and come together to engage in the fundamentals of a functioning democracy.

“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Cities change but seem to remain the same all the time,and they are perhaps now more important than ever.

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