Perhaps the best way to explain the Mad City: Madison is populated by droves of people who came for college and never left (this humble author included). And those who left probably only did so because of the winters.
A Wisconsin governor’s aide once quipped, “Madison is 60 square miles surrounded by reality.” His precision inarguable, it has become a proud bumper-sticker slogan in the city. Madison may be reminiscent of other leftist hot spots such as Berkeley and Ann Arbor, but the salad days of revolution are long gone.
Financial institutions are rather more conspicuous than cubbyhole political storefronts, and corpulent lobbyists seem to outnumber radicals. The student population rarely raises a fuss anymore, unless to overcelebrate UW sports teams’ championships or holidays in beer-soaked student bacchanalia (tear gas for drinking, not for war protesting).
Still, the capital is a wacky place. Octogenarian Progressives mingle with aging hippies and legions of university professors, and corporate and Capitol yuppies don’t seem out of place. The student-body omnipresence is a given—everyone in Madison is considered a de facto student anyway. It remains the “Madtown”—one agreeable, engaging, oddball mix. (Milwaukeeans’—nay, much of the rest of the state’s—stereotype of Madison is of a time-warp bunch of radicals gone touchy-feely who think they live at the center of the universe.)
No guidebook hype—Madison is a lovely town, ensconced erratically on an isthmus between two lakes. You’ll find endless greenery, a low-key downtown, a laid-back way of life, and a populace appreciably content if not downright enjoying themselves. Civic pride runneth over. No surprise, then, that after years of being a bridesmaid, Madison was finally named by Money magazine in 1996 as the best place to live in America; it would repeat the honor two years later. (Just google “Madison” and “best” and see how many media have celebrated the city.)