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Is Music the Answer to all our Development Questions?

Living in the heart of Madison of downtown Madison in 2014 is a little hectic. There are a lot of issues on the table and it's hard to know which ones to get worked up about, which ones really matter, where to put my own energies. I care about parks, public space, art & culture, biking conditions (i.e. traffic), and generally good-living in an urban setting. All this adds up to community. In current parlance, it's also related to place-making. 

Just last week, we neighbors got a big announcement via the newspaper:  A developer "plans" to build a large music venue on the 1000 block of East Washington. It kinda came out of nowhere, I thought, and I actually follow these things a little. Naturally, it created a big stir of concern. Those of us that live within spitting distance wonder who has been talking to who? A 2000+ seat concert hall coming to our neighborhood? Where are those people going to park, for one thing? And is it designed to appeal to those of us within walking distance? And why across the street from a large, open-air stadium recently refurbished to host things like concerts? Or a block from the new Central Park, also a venue this summer for many music stages?

So, the question is about public input. Generally I really, really think that people should do more, talk less. I mean, who really wants to go to a million meetings over the course of many years to discuss ongoing plans? That is one of the reasons I get behind the place-making model. It's about people doing their good ideas, however small and insular, because they all add up to great stuff that defines a place and makes it cool. It's Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper, and it works, according the experts. 

The scene at Reynolds Park on the Solstice made me so happy. It was perfect, and I don't imagine a single meeting was held to organize it. When it's a good idea, just do it, right?! A group of friends who sing together signed themselves up to perform as part of the Make Music Madison line-up (though their performance didn't make it into the schedule). The small crowd that gathered to enjoy was just so sweet, and everyone seemed to content to be there. 

Months ago I wrote a little wishlist and hoped someone would make some music happen at Reynolds. I knew I had too many things going on to be in charge, but I sure did want to be a happy bystander. Because music makes a place into a place-to-be. And Reynolds has the potential to be a great place to be.

Make Music Madison is only in it's second year, but it has momentum. "Performed by Anyone. Enjoyed by Everyone." Indeed. The city was alive on Saturday, music on so many corners, people out and about, mellowing out and enjoying the vibe. 

Ironically, the night before the announcement about the 2000+ seat music venue, I was at a meeting with a group called Willy Wash. This group envisions a corridor of smaller music clubs, along with a music-based charter school, performance spaces in parks, and more. Music, music, music. They are thoughtful people, cognizant of the importance of gathering input and building a community of interest. However, from what I can tell, few from the public seem to attend their open meetings. And they didn't seem to know anything about the coming announcement, either.

Do we just have too many things to think about (the Public Market? the East Johnson Street construction and how to support the businesses? what is the Salvation Army planning to do? is the tech start-up really happening? are property values and air quality going to drop while energy bills spike when all those gorgeous trees come down? was it not actually a tornado that came onto the isthmus?) to attend meetings? Or does everyone have their own agenda and insist on going their own way. When is it better to go the diy way?

Thirteen years ago, or thereabouts, someone must have had the idea to start a Tenney-Lapham art walk. This year, a neighbor artist named Ken Vogel got out of his studio and exhibited some of his amazing puppets, thanks to a friends' encouragement. I brought home a singing, banjo-playing Pete Seeger. Thank goodness some people can just have a good idea and then do it without making too much trouble. 

I'd add Smaller to the the recipe for good place-making.

Why the Fools Flotilla matters

2014 Fools Flotilla, photos by Ray Pfeiffer Komifoto

We have wheels made specifically for rolling a canoe on pavement. My two kids are small enough they can both ride in the canoe to be pulled the 0.42 miles from our house to the Yahara River for the annual floating parade. They look forward to canoe rides of all kinds, happy to wear their life-jacket outfits and play with big-stick-practice-paddles. The oldest has memories of past Flotillas. 

The Fools Flotilla was started by a friend of mine, so the first year I went for her, to be supportive. This year I actually had fun. The kids are not so small anymore, so I relaxed and enjoyed the atmosphere instead of fretting about tipping over or pinching little fingers. We All had fun.

But those other years, I wondered a little why we were doing it. It is my kind of thing - costumes, community show of funkiness, nature + culture. And yet it's some work to get the family wrangled on a Sunday morning for organized fun. I think now it matters for these reasons, if not more:

1.  It's a holiday. Many of the holidays we celebrate are prescribed, defined, and constrained by a variety of things. We are not necessarily celebrating what we truly believe. Yet for as long as anyone can remember, people have celebrated holidays. It seems like part of what makes us human. I like that for my family, we have a few holidays that are not on the regular calendar, but that do what holidays are supposed to do as far as I'm concerned: mark the passing of a year, take us out of our normal routine, bring us together with people we enjoy hanging out with, and remind us of the beautiful things in life. In this case, the Fools Flotilla is a way for my family to say we value our river and green space in our neighborhood, we see connections between art and nature, and we are not opposed to dressing silly, making a scene, and living creatively.

2. We need visionary community leaders. These are not the people who are doing very important jobs to deal with urban issues, conduct studies to plan development, find and manage money, and keep the place working. We live in the First World, we assume things work, we complain about our First World problems, and we have hobbies. What gets people excited is a vision in action. People show up to be part of it, and it's because visionary leaders are catching us in the gut, helping us to see what we, too, believe is a better way. I love that the Fools Flotilla is growing - there were more than 50 boats in the river this year - organically, building an audience of fans along the banks and on the bridges. It's not huge, but it's gaining a real, organic momentum that will, I think, be critically influential in the coming years as big decisions are made about the future of the neighborhood and city. This TED talk is about how great leaders inspire is worth watching. 

3. Creativity is contagious and temporary art is memorable. Madison's BLINK program, funded by the Madison Arts Commission, is founded on the truth that ephemeral public art makes a big mark on individuals and a place (in contrast to the traditional public art that looked like a famous and now-dead leader riding a horse). I personally remember art that surprises me, makes me smile, leaves me feeling like I had an experience. The Fools Flotilla inspires us who get in boats, at least, to push our own boundaries of creativity. Some people decorate their boats, other people decorate themselves, their kids, or their pets. I think all of us enjoy having creative outlets, we all benefit from being exposed to more expressions of creativity, and it's really cool when families find ways to make art together.

4. It's playful. It's good for adults to have an excuse to play. I loved pounding on my canoe like it was a drum when the surge of boats passed under the bridges. The huge, collective echo-beat was awesome. The band played songs like "Row Your Boat" we could all shout along to. I was so swept up in the big game of it all, I was shocked when I looked at my watch. I had been in the flow, having fun, playing right alongside my kids and my husband. Another TED talk here by Csikszentmihalyi, who figured out that flow makes people happy.

So now I'm fully on board. I joined the River Alliance of Wisconsin, I'm talking up the Flottila at community meetings, and I'm keeping the memories alive with my kids. Have you been to May Day in Minneapolis? It started small, too.

BLINK and the art is gone.

The exhibition will come down in two short weeks. If you didn't make the walking tour with the artists (John Miller in the picture above), get out there and see it quick!

In theory, I want you to be surprised by each piece. I want it to be your own discovery, a wonderful serendipity that makes you feel like you are momentarily on vacation in your own neighborhood. I want you to be so excited, you tell people "You'll never believe what I saw today while biking/boating/walking by the river..."

But if it takes pictures you make you curious, or photos on facebook to make you feel like you are missing something, that's fine, too. I've seen lots of people stopping to take pictures of the art, laughing, curious, seemingly having a good time.

My family has twice now made the occasion to picnic under this tree and installation by Thomas Ferrella. My kids call this whole thing "my art project," which is a concept familiar to two and four-year-olds. It has been my project for the past months and I'm thrilled with how it turned out. Thanks to everyone involved, my co-curator Helen, and Karin at the Madison Arts Commission. Thanks for going to see it all, enjoying it, and coming up with more ways to make life fun and inspired!