This is take two at reviving the blog. The first attempt stalled out with trouble posting to facebook. The previous post explains the new (temporary?) name. I know, it’s absurdly vague, but I like the freedom to write about anything.
Now that we are settled into life in Madison, we have returned to Madison’s problems. Perhaps, in some ways they are why we moved away in the first place. We have learned our lesson, though, and will not leave again. At times since moving back into the near east side have been amazed at our good fortune to live in this little utopia. From our quiet, tree-lined, family-friendly street we can walk to a half dozen locally-owned restaurants, as well as choice of coffee shops, liberal churches, a local theater, various art galleries, multiple bus lines, a bike path to downtown, and a large park along one of Madison’s two beautiful lakes. You can also walk to a branch of the library and a fabulous new community center… and see the Capitol dome from certain vantage points… I could go on. It is easy to imagine the good life sharing vegetables from the community garden with like-minded neighbors.
The trouble with utopia is that you have to live with the rest of the imperfect world. This is a problem on two fronts. First, people argue over how to protect utopia from outside influences. In Madison this is an endless debate over whether chain stores should be allowed in, whether density is a lesser evil than sprawl, and how to finally clean up the lakes when much of the pollution that feeds their algae blooms comes from outside the city’s jurisdiction. Madison has been called 70 square miles surrounded by reality. While I take umbrage with this characterization on a number of fronts, I can sometimes see it’s truth if narrowed down to the hip and hippie east side. Reality is SUVs instead of cargo-carrying bikes, and in a shared world the presence of the former threatens the safety of the latter.
The second major trouble with utopia could be described as the do-gooder’s dilemma. We don’t have enough problems to solve in our own neighborhood. How can a young idealist make a difference in what’s already a utopia? Our local elected representatives already agree with us, so lobbying feels pointless. After marching to the Capitol once again doesn’t free Tibet we feel called to go someplace we can make a difference, some place with problems. After a few years away in the peace corps or teaching in the inner city you may find out it’s not always pleasant living in a place with problems and decide to make your way back to utopia.
Of course Madison, just by being a city in the United States, does have some problems. Maybe not so much in Utopia, but definitely in parts of Madison. The neighborhoods are somewhat segregated and the neighborhoods of color are disproportionately poor, with the social problems that accompany poverty. The UW liberal arts grad do-gooder wants to stand up for social justice and equality. Yet she’s vexed by the realization that the white girl going into the black neighborhood to solve its problems stinks of colonialism. And the truth is utopia is rather white and middle class. While somewhat less pale than the more affluent west side, the near east side is still fairly homogeneous. Which is irksome to the educated white liberal. Utopia is supposed to be diverse.
(More to come on race relations in the Midwest.)