The Triangle's Survival

An Exploration of Madison's Greenbush neighborhood, then and now.

Introduction

Madison has seen the birth and death of many homes, but this one was different. The Queen Anne style house was built in 1894 and it was absolutely alluring.  It was set back from the street, just a bit more than the others.  The covered wraparound porch made it feel secluded, like a cozy oasis, yearning for people to enjoy its privacy.  It stood proudly at the corner of Mound and Mills Streets in Madison’s Greenbush neighborhood.

It was 2013 and the home was for sale.  Yes, it was beautiful. And sure, work needed to be done on the inside.  After all, the wear and tear left behind by previous college tenants would leave even the strongest of homes in need of a little attention.  But there was something special, extra special, about this home.  It cost only $1.00 to buy. 

But on the day it went on sale, there were no buyers.  And there would be no buyers.  For it was just the house that was on sale.  “You couldn’t have the land, but you could have the house at almost no charge.  You just had to get it out of there,” John Perkins told me.  Sadly, while 1022 Mound St. would be a special place to call home, the ground it stood on was even more special . . .  at least, to the city planners of Madison. 

No one bought the house.  The cost of picking it up--  intact --  and moving it elsewhere outweighed the benefits.  So it was demolished.  Because, like I said, it was the land that was “special.”

Today, only bulldozers and construction trailers stand outside the plot that is, that was, 1022 Mound Street. 

.....

This is the story of Madison’s Greenbush neighborhood, sometimes known as “The Triangle.” Well, I guess its less of a story and more of a tribute – for a majority of Greenbush’s quirky, historic and quintessential Madison qualities were demolished way before that beautiful home shared their same fate.

1022 Mound St. from "The Greenbush-Vilas Neighborhood: A Walking Tour"

Chapter 1: Getting Inspired

I did all the research I could on the Greenbush neighborhood. While a  writer is often discouraged from allowing the reader inside their mind, I will let you in for a second.  I had a hard time getting inspired at first.  Gasp! You're probably wondering why on earth I chose this topic then. But you're wrong. I knew there was a story here.  It was a story that needed to be told.  I just had to hear it, see it, feel it first.  Online, I found a "Greenbush Walking Tour" guide from 1991.  I decided to follow it, step by step, landmark by landmark, as any visitor would have.  After all, it's hard to feel like a traveler in a city that you have called home for the past four years. I walked out of my home on Langdon with a big, fancy camera that I gripped awkwardly in one hand, even though the strap was fastened tightly around my neck.  Feeling suddenly very inspired, I told myself, "I'm gonna capture every moment of this 'walking tour,' of this experience. Silly of me to think that I could feel the heartbeat of a special place without exploring every nook and cranny myself."

But what I experienced during the upcoming hours was a myriad of emotions that I did not expect to feel.  I had previously thought that most of the urbanization, gentrification, or dare I say "ethnic cleansing," of Greenbush had already happened.  But I am naive. Sadly, only a few of the landmarks in the 1991 walking tour guide still stood, tall and proud. But forever endangered.  The rest, like 1022 Mound St. were en route to becoming another high rise with a pool on top. 

This all sounds so pessimistic, I know.  But the Greenbush spirit endures.  Despite every effort to urbanize the historic triangle of land between Regent St., Park St. and West Washington Ave., the Greenbush heart still beats.  Let me show you. 

Chapter 2: Greenbush Beginnings

To truly understand a place, one needs to understand its past.  In this case, you need to look back over 100 years to when Greenbush's colorful and controversial history began. As I said previously, the Greenbush neighborhood is described by many as the triangle of land bound by Park St., Regent St. and West Washington Ave.  It still rests within the same borders that shaped it so many years ago. 

Esty Dinur, in her story, “Remembering the Bush,” states that establishments started popping up in the late 1800s.  One of the first Greenbush buildings was the Gates of Heaven Synagogue on West Wash. In 1903, Madison General Hospital was erected on Mound St.  The birth of St. Mary’s hospital on South Brooks St. soon followed in 1912.

In 1922, the Italian Workmen’s Club was incorporated on Regent St. According to those who work there today, it is one of, if not the oldest, acting Italian clubs in America.  Now, black and white photos of the club’s past Presidents and Vice Presidents cover the walls of its interior.  This organization wears its pride on its sleeve.  It is one of the few buildings that survived in its original condition. 

As Greenbush began to hustle and bustle, it attracted the eyes of foreigners.  Immigrants were yearning for the acceptance that only a vivacious neighborhood like Greenbush could provide.  And so they went. 

Chapter 3: The Ellis Island of Madison

The "Bush" soon became an enclave of cobblers, carpenters and barbers; of bricklayers, painters and common laborers; of grocers, butchers and restaurant owners; and of clubhouses, pool halls and neighborhood taverns." 

- Dave Cieslewicz (Madison Mayor 2003-2011)

Mayor Cieslewicz said it right: The Greenbush neighborhood was an eclectic amalgam of all types of people, professions and properties.  Catherine Murray recalls in her piece, “A Taste of Memories,” that the Greenbush neighborhood was the starting point for almost all immigrants who arrived in Madison.  These were people looking to start their lives on the right foot, in pursuit of the ever-elusive “American dream.” And damn, was Greenbush a good place to start.  It was an ideal locale for foreigners because everyone was largely accepting of one another, regardless of race, religion or social class. 

"African American and Italian boys played sports together on an abandoned lot off of Regent Street, the Jewish proprietor of Novick's grocery store encouraged my great-grandmother to buy food for her family on credit when her husband had missed work due to illness, and very few people locked their doors," Murray recalls.

Greenbush was idyllic in this sense.  Families from different backgrounds came together and engaged with one another in ways that we rarely see today.  Sadly, the factor that unified these people, that put them all in the metaphorical "same boat," was their financial troubles.  Additionally, Madison residents on the outside looking in, simply didn't like what they saw. 

“Everybody was poor . . . and other parts of the city were prejudiced against the neighborhood, so we all stuck together,” Joe Cerniglia, a Greenbush native, told The Daily Page.  

On the inside, life in the triangular Ellis Island of Madison was all right.  But people taunted from its borders: What most of Madison saw by the 1920’s was nothing more than a “festering slum.”

Chapter 4: White Noise

Clutching my camera, I walked down State Street, grimacing at the new apartments going up where a bunch of ethnic restaurants once stood.  One of the many sky high cranes was spinning, mechanically, methodically, hundreds of feet above my head.  In hindsight, I should have understood this to be a foreshadowing of what I was about to see. 

The first stop on the Greenbush Walking Tour was a Madison Landmark House. I stood in front of it, 302 South Mills St., and looked down at my Walking Guide.  I was happy to see that the home in the picture still stood defiantly before me.  But still, I could sense the ephemeral nature of its existence. So I snapped, snapped, snapped with my camera, as if trying to capture something fleeting. 

Madison’s first homeopathic physician lived in that home from 1815-1881, the guide told me.  Knowing that this was one of the oldest buildings in Madison, I wondered what the walls would say if they could talk. 

I continued on.  “This is so quintessential Madison,” I told myself, as I took photos of petite colonial homes with worn-in porches and bright red Wisconsin W’s in the window.  This was Badger Nation at its finest.

I was trying to ignore the background noise of construction that infiltrated the neighborhood’s charm. But the droning only got louder as I approached 1022 Mound St.  John Perkins, the Greenbush Neighborhood Association President, had warned me that the $1 residence was no longer there. But I wanted to go anyway, to relish in the memory of the cheapest mansion never sold.

Construction vehicles obscured almost the entire street. Piles of unearthed soil spilled out of a deep hole in the ground, right where the Queen Anne Style home once stood. Children in a playground across the street laughed and chased one another, already accustomed to the constant hum of construction, the white noise of urbanization. 

“How did this happen?” I asked myself.  “Why is this happening?”

I began to understand the worry shared by Greenbush residents and Madison historians. 

Chapter 5: The Triangle Renewal Project

I went to the historical society looking for answers.  I needed access to the newspapers from the early 1960’s because Google searches were not giving me what I needed.  As I scanned the microfilm, my jaw dropped.  The enormity of the urban renewal project in Greenbush began to substantiate itself in my mind. 

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, in January 1962, the federal government approved a grant of nearly 2.8 million towards the “Triangle Renewal Project” that would eventually uproot over 1,000 people from their homes.  

The August 16, 1961 edition of the WSJ explained that the Triangle Renewal Project demanded “land acquisition and clearance, improvement of all streets and preparation of land for new development.”

In reality, this meant that the project demanded the removal of long time residents without properly providing for the new lives they would have to build. 

Everyone knew it, Greenbush, and the people who lived there, were going down.  

Chapter 6: Where do we go?

The Wisconsin State Journal was following this story closely.  In May 1961, they published an article discussing the contested nature of the situation.  Greenbush residents were doing everything they could to stop the monster plan that would uproot them.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was contemplating taking legal action.  After meeting with Roger Rupnow, the director of the Madison Redevelopment Authority (MRA), they realized that the MRA was not determined to provide adequate housing for displaced Greenbush residents. 

In a rare humanly moment, the MRA decided to amend their original plan to include 60 units of housing for the elderly, the Wisconsin State Journal reported in July 1961. 

But where was everyone else supposed to go?

In 1962, WSJ confronted this question.  The story gave voices to the Greenbush residents who faced their future with worry. 

“We came home from war with $500 a piece and we put it into this store,” said Harry Schackter, owner of G and S Supermarket and Kosher Delicatessen in Greenbush.  “There are places that ought to be torn down around here, but why do they have to do it all at once?” he asked.

On 11 Murray St., the Taliaferro family had packed up all of their belongings.  “But they [had] no place to go and, being Negro, things are difficult.” The Taliaferro family lived with Elaine Shivers, one of the pioneers of the Greenbush neighborhood. They represented one of the many interracial families of the area. 

The city had promised Greenbush residents that they would raze the homes in stages so that everyone would have time to find new homes.  But the MRA’s “three stage” demolition system was not upheld. 

“They’re buying and tearing down houses all over the area. The result is that there is a large amount of anxiety,” another resident told the WSJ. 

Dispute over housing units for displaced Greenbush residents ensued. But little progress was made.  

The bulldozers entered and the people fled this way and that. By the 1970's, the Triangle resembled someplace different altogether...

Chapter 7: The Spirit Remains

I turned my back on the plot of land that once belonged to the cheapest mansion never sold and decided to make my way to St. Mary’s Hospital on South Brooks St.  I was told that the original brick building, built in 1911, was still there, easily accessible.  Turns out, only a wall of exposed brick remained.  The exposed brick wall was refurbished and spruced up to the match the light red brick exterior of the hospital.  It could only be reached from the inside and now served as the backdrop of the "Winter Garden," an art installation with flowing water and elaborately designed structures.  A way to see some color in the gray of winter, I guess.

On the relatively ancient wall was a timeline of the hospital’s history, starting with a plaque commemorating the original edifice erected in 1911. Carved into the wall was a glazed glass panel depicting Mother Odilia Berger, the founder of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary congregation, which began St. Mary’s health care ministry in 1912.  Engraved into the glass are the words: “Here at whatever hour you come, you will find help and human kindness.”

I appreciated that the hospital, squeaky clean and brand new, with its sprawling gardens and hidden alcoves for patients to catch some privacy, was proud of its past.  The original building may not stand in full, but the tribute to its history lessened some of my newfound cynicism about construction in Greenbush. 

Exiting the hospital, I was smacked by a cool, sharp breeze coming right off Lake Monona.  I thought about how the Greenbush Triangle was once just a marshland next to the lake and, for about the 100th time that day, was astounded at man’s ability to turn nature into concrete. 

I continued down Erin St. until it curved into Wingra St.  The two roads met at a small park that overlooked Henry Vilas Zoo.  Standing high on a bluff above Lake Wingra, I paused and watched a father with his two children and a blue-eyed huskie.  Father and son were throwing a Frisbee while the dog sniffed the flowers, wagging its tounge and its tail in unison. The daughter giggled on the swings, clapping her hands and begging for the pooch's attention.  I had been looking for the Annie C. Stewart Memorial Fountain built in 1917, but lost sight of my original intention while admiring this family enjoy their afternoon, laughing, running, soaking up the first warm day of Spring.  I managed to snap a photo of the now-crumbling fountain and continued on.

Annie C. Stewart Memorial Fountain, 1917

Chapter 8: Greenbush 2.0

... By the 1970's the Triangle resembled something different altogether. It had largely been rebuilt into apartments for the disabled, retirees and low-income families.  For ten years, families moved in and out of the apartment complexes, one of which is the Bayview Apartment Complex on West Washington Ave.  Although this in no way resembled the Old Greenbush neighborhood, it still attracted ethnic families and so the multi-cultural spirit of the Triangle was sustained. While the old Greenbush neighborhood was home to Italians, Jews, African Americans and Eastern Europeans, Greenbush 2.0 was home to Nigerians, Colombians, Mexicans, Cambodians and Native Americans.  As the houses were torn down and the buildings went up, one diverse population moved out and another moved in.

The Greenbush community began celebrating their ethnic diversity in 1985 when they held the Annual Triangle Ethnic Fest.  According to "Visit Southern Madison," it was billed originally as “a unifying force in drawing the elderly, individuals with disabilities and family residents of the area together.”  The first festival was held in October and the residents provided all the food and entertainment themselves. The menu included food from Vietnam, Laos, Colombia, Nigeria, Mexico and America. The multicultural tapestry of this triangular land had not been completely unwoven, merely re-sewn to represent something different.  

Chapter 9: Keeping the Faith

One of the last stops I made on my Greenbush Walking Tour was St. James Catholic Church.  I took pictures from the outside, clumsily walking backwards, farther and farther away from the front doors so I could fit the whole thing in the shot.  For the first time in awhile, I felt compelled to enter the house of worship.  I find religion to be a tricky subject, but something was drawing me in.  First, I tried the door farthest to the right, only to find it locked.  I tried the next one.  Locked.  And the next one. Locked. I took this as a sign to finally go home and get some rest but a woman called out behind me. “You can try the one all the way to the left.  It should be open, it’s always open.”  I turned around, my gaze meeting the eyes of an elderly woman of color and she smiled at me, heading inside.  I followed her and was immediately shocked at the grandeur of the parish that didn’t look that big on the outside.  Sitting in a pew in the back row, I thought about how grateful I was to take the day exploring a part of the city that I had never been to before.  

Every time I enter a house of worship, I light a candle and make a donation in honor of a long lost friend.  I approached the candles to the right of the altar and placed a bill in the donation box.  Just as I was about to turn around, something on the floor caught my eye. I looked down and saw my bill laying there.  So I put it through again, and to the floor it fell. 

The bottom latch of the donation box was fully hanging open and the box itself was empty.  I giggled at this little imperfection. Out of what seemed like nowhere, a man in his late 50’s approached me and nimbly got on the floor.

“There’s a problem with the latch.  This is embarrassing,” he said, while pulling a screwdriver out of – literally -- nowhere.  He fixed it, gave me a warm smile and walked away. People were starting to gather by the piano in front of the altar.  They laughed at the silly sight. 

My dollar bill found a new home inside that tin box and I exited the church as my two new friends, accompanied by a few others, began choir practice.  Their beautiful voices echoed the familiar words of “Amazing Grace” and even when the doors closed behind me and I began walking away I could hear the words.  “…I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” 

Chapter 10: Looking Inward

For some reason, as I walked home, I got a little emotional.  I even began to cry a little.  It was a combination of things.  Graduation was around the corner.  My plans for next year, which previously seemed so solid and attainable, were starting to melt away, like even the most secure opportunities sometimes do.  But more than anything it was nostalgia I was feeling.  I was nostalgic about leaving Madison, about losing something that I hadn’t even lost yet.  In just a few hours, I had seen, felt, explored and engaged with a community in Madison that I had never so much as given a thought to before. 

Four years living in this magnificent city, and I started to realize that I only knew a little bubble of it.  I vowed to myself that I would spend my summer exploring the parts of Madison I had never seen before, so I could say I really knew, really lived in, really explored the city of my college years.  

Chapter 11: The Triangle's Keepers

The Greenbush Triangle is going to be okay.   It may not always be considered the Ellis Island of Madison, but its history will forever speak to the neighborhood's flexibility, strength and ability to grow, even in the wake of ruin.  

There are some kind and determined people watching over it.  There is John Perkins, the Neighborhood Association President, who has lived in Greenbush since his undergrad days.  He spoke with me about his desire to keep current residents up to date about any developmental changes that may be coming. There is the St. James Parish and choir, who return and sing their hymns daily, filling the streets with their impassioned, melodic voices.  There is the father, the dedicated family man who takes his kids to the little Park where Wingra St. and Erin St. bend into one another.  There’s the smiling woman at the desk of St. Mary’s hospital that, for some reason, allowed me into the hospital to take pictures without a visitors pass.  She wanted me to be able to tell this story.  There is George Fabian of Park Street Shoe Repair, one of the few original Greenbush survivors. He likes to hang out at Wayne’s Barber Shop with his other Italian buddies.  Everyone who lives there now serves as a testament to the Triangle’s strength and desire to exist, to remain, and to thrive. 

The Greenbush Community is so strong I am no longer worried about city planners coming in and demolishing it.  The Triangle was able to survive the "renewal" of the 1960's. Even after its insides were gutted, removed and replaced, its heart still beats and its soul still shines.

References

http://www.thedailypage.com/isthmus/article.php?article=22027 

http://greenbushvilaspartnership.com/history_greenbush.php

http://www.thedailypage.com/isthmus/article.php?article=37288

http://www.cityofmadison.com/planning/landmark/Greenbush%20Vilas%20Walking%20Tour.pdf

http://iwcmadison.com/about/

http://www.visitsouthmadison.com/visit/triangle-ethnic-fest/