Exploring the history and cultural landscape of Madison, Wisconsin – Part 4: The Mifflin Street Cooperative mural

September 21, 2007

Mifflin Coop Mural 004
It was a dark and stormy afternoon. In the midst of the seemingly endless days of August rain, for some reason I no longer remember, I decided it was imperative that I drive to Downtown Madison to pick up my mail at the post office.

That’s how I happened to find myself creeping along a semi-flooded North Bassett Street, wondering if my automobile’s brakes would survive the cruise though the muddy water.

Perhaps it was the slow pace, or perhaps it was some complex and mysterious diffusion of neurotransmitters; but whatever the explanation, it’s what happened during a brief second or two of that journey that forms the basis for this post. I was suddenly keenly aware of my surroundings and I noticed that something significant had changed: the mural on the wall of the Mifflin Street Co-op had been permanently and irrevocably altered. Three new, first-floor windows had been hewn out of the brick wall. In the process of creating these windows, the mural had been defaced.

What intrigued me was the lack of outcry, the absence of outrage. Or had I missed or overlooked them too?

On the last Monday in August, my schedule and Mother Nature’s were in alignment. So on that bright and sunny day I drove Downtown to take photographs of the mural in its present incarnation.

Somewhere in one of my brightly colored African baskets that have, over the years, become de facto homes to all the cards and photos I’ve purged from my wallets to make room for newer cards and photos, there’s a Mifflin Street Co-op membership card. But if you want to see what the cards looked like, you probably should visit Paul Soglin’s blog, Waxing America. Paul has done an excellent job of compiling information (including a lengthy history by Michael Bodden) about the Mifflin Street Co-op.

I was never involved in the creation and governance of this legendary Madison institution. Nor was I a frequent shopper. Nevertheless, like thousands of other Madisonians, past and present, the Mifflin Street Coop was a part of my history and the mural was a vivid reminder of all that had transpired in that neighborhood during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

My interest in the building and its history goes much farther back than the 1960s. That building at 32 North Bassett Street has been home to a grocery store for more than a century. Mark Kopelberg, a fellow Madison Central High School alumnus, remembers when his grandfather’s grocery store – The Supreme Food Market – was at that location. This spring, he e-mailed me a photo of the store during one of its even earlier incarnations:

Mifflin Street Grocery 2

This photograph, probably taken in the 1880s, is courtesy of Mark Kopelberg.

“Attached is a photo of my father’s home, though taken about 30 years before he lived there,” Mark wrote. “The first floor was my grandfather’s grocery store, my father, his brother and my grandparents lived on the second floor. My family sold the building in 1964.”

According to an article by Barry Adams, published in the Wisconsin State Journal on December 6, 2006. “Other occupants, according to city directories, have included Samuel L. Capron in 1919, Jas Salter in 1933, Supreme Food Shop in 1947 and White Front Grocery, which closed in 1968.”

After I took photographs of the mural and the new windows, I moved to the front of the building and took some more photographs, including one of the building permits to one of the [old] windows. As I was doing this, a man exited the building. He was curious about what I was doing and I wanted to know more about the murals, so we introduced ourselves.

He was Bobby Peterson, the public interest lawyer who, in 1994, founded ABC (Advocacy and Benefits Counseling) for Health, a Madison-based nonprofit public interest law firm with a statewide service area. The agency’s mission is to provide information, advocacy tools, legal services, and expert support for Wisconsin children and families, particularly those with special health care needs, to obtain, maintain, and finance health care coverage and services.

ABC for Health purchased the building from the Mifflin Street Coop this summer and moved its offices to 32 North Bassett Street shortly thereafter. It sounded as if ABC for Health was, in its own way, an anti-establishment organization as was the Co-op, not a pack of running dogs of capitalism. Why then had they defaced the mural to add more windows? Peterson said it was to provide more natural light for the people working in the organization’s offices.

In addition, Peterson noted that murals such as the one on the Mifflin Street Co-op are not intended to last forever. That reminded me of an article by Leah Pietrusiak I’d recently read in Time Out Chicago. It was about a mural on Chicago’s West Side that has invigorated a vacant lot but was now in the process of being obscured by the construction of a warehouse building. Jeff Zimmerman, the artist who created that mural, told an interviewer he wasn’t surprised the mural was now hidden, because he expects that his paintings and the buildings they are on will eventually disappear forever.

Peterson showed me some spots on the mural that had begun to deteriorate long before ABC for Health bought the building. Here’s a close-up photograph of some deterioration under the middle window:


The current mural was painted in August 1987 and replaced a previous mural depicting food processing and distribution that had been up since about 1975. The project was directed by Chicago artists Olivia Gude and Jon Pounds. It was a joint project of the Mifflin Street Co-op and Survival Graphics. In an interview with Kris Kodach, published in the Wisconsin State Journal on August 18, 1987, Norman Stockwell, a cooperative staff member said the mural “will stand for the next 10 to 20 years as a symbol to all who pass by of the cooperative spirit of the Mifflin Community.” Clearly, the current mural, which cost about $7000 to create, was not intended to last forever either.

Peterson says ABC for Health would like to replace the current mural with one that more clearly represents his organization’s mission. It too, however, is unlikely to last forever.

Notes: The top photograph of the mural was taken on June 26, 2006. The other two photographs of the mural were taken on August 27, 2007. The black and white photo, probably taken in the 1880s, is courtesy of Mark Kopelberg.

Gorgo September 21, 2007 at 2:51 pm

I understand the desire to preserve things of beauty in the community … but isn’t “outrage” a bit of a strong sentiment to have about a change of this sort? There’s much more important things to be outraged about.

D Strand September 26, 2007 at 8:11 pm

Hi Nadine and all,
Very interesting post. Since I grew up on East Mifflin Street, I always make sure that people don’t confuse it with WEST Mifflin. Yes, it was a very unique place and I did go in there once in a while. I was probably the most conservative person to ever go in there. I’m surprised they served me. But, all of Mifflin Street has a special place in my heart, East and West!

Kirt July 16, 2008 at 6:12 pm

I was also surprised to see the mural defaced. I thought the new owners would be sensitive to the mural’s history, and its connection to health, although through good food and good nutrition.

Its true murals don’t last forever, UNLESS a community supports them, appreciates them and works to preserve them.

Is it too late, or can ABC Health restore the mural and prevent further

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