Fedoras, benches, cars, and community: Perambulating around the Capitol Square and through some memory banks

May 6, 2008

Decades ago, I did a series of black and white photographs of people sitting on benches on Madison’s Capitol Square. They were part of a photography exhibit that never happened. One day, perhaps, I’ll find the time and money to digitize them because they’re remarkable images of a bygone era.

Men on benches

Monday afternoon, I stopped to take a few photographs of people sitting on benches on Madison’s Capitol Square because some of them were men wearing fedoras. When I downloaded the images and looked at them more closely, I realized they were very confusing. The men were probably “Public Enemies” extras taking a break. The fedoras were part of the 1930s-era look the filmmakers have been attempting to recreate as they shoot at locations throughout Wisconsin. But the shoes were wrong. And soda pop didn’t come in cans 75 years ago. I’d captured a bit of history, but what would it tell someone 75 years from now? It doesn’t capture an era, merely a miniscule portion of a series of events that, while they’ve thrilled many Madisonians for the past several weeks, will likely mean little to future generations.

But the more I stared at the images, the more I realized they were meaningful to me – not as bits of current history, but because they evoked images of Madison’s past that had nothing to do with gangsters and motion pictures. The photographs reminded me that the Capitol Square was once a lively, exciting place to be – especially on nights and weekends.

For decades, the benches on the Capitol Square were metal and had a certain grace and gawky beauty not evident in the clunky, awkward wooden benches there today. More importantly, they were on the Capitol side of the sidewalk and they faced the street.

I couldn’t find an image of the Capitol Square benches from the 1930s, but the one below, taken in 1949 by Wisconsin State Journal photographer Richard Vesey, is almost perfect for my purposes, because its subject is sitting in almost the same place on Carroll Street as the men in the photograph I took yesterday. The man in the 1949 photo, however, is sitting on one of the old metal benches and he’s facing the street.

Benches on Capitol Square Whi-31925

1949 photograph by Richard Vesey of a man sitting on a bench on the Capitol Square near the intersection of Carroll Street and West Washington Avenue. WHi-31925

Not all that long ago, there used to be lots of parking on the Capitol Square – and there used to be lots of traffic circling it on weekends. When I was a kid, my grandparents would take us out to dinner on weekends. Then we’d join the scores of families driving slowly around the Capitol Square, gawking at people and other cars and some of the fancy neon signs atop buildings. Sometimes, we’d park and watch the passing parade of pedestrians and motor vehicles while sitting one of the convenient, although not very comfortable, park benches.

Today, the Capitol Square attracts hordes of people for the Dane County Farmers’ Markets and special events such as the Taste of Madison, but it’s often a lonely, sometimes forbidding place when the sun goes down.

Blather about carbon footprints and cleaner air and the price of gasoline (if the chap in the 1949 photograph owned one of those gas guzzlers parked in front of him, he paid about 27 cents a gallon for gasoline), but the real issue for me is community. A few seasonal events that draw large crowds to the Capitol Square have little to do with a sustained sense of community. The people who sat on the park benches and gawked and the drivers who took a few spins around the square after dinner tended to know one another – from school, from work, from the neighborhood. These days we’re less social, less interested in our neighbors and neighborhoods. We hunker down at our computers, play video games, and numb ourselves with television.

These days we’re too often frightened about walking around Downtown. A friend who occasionally visits Madison, stays at a Downtown hotel, and enjoys walking around the areas and neighborhoods near the Capitol Square he remembers from his childhood, recently told me he wasn’t even sure he’d feel safe doing so anymore based on what he’d read online in the local newspapers. I sent him a link to an article about a new boutique hotel that’s going to be built near the Camp Randall Stadium. Wouldn’t he feel safer there? His response was prompt and angry and it was about community: “This is this clown’s way of destroying that part of the neighborhood,” he wrote.

Our fathers and grandfathers wore fedoras on their heads. Today, when I walk around the square lots of people are wearing iPods in their ears. Men tipped their hats and acknowledged one another when they met on the Capitol Square not all that long ago. Today that civility, that neighborliness, that sense of being part of a Madison community, seems to have vanished along with cheap gasoline.

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