You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
The Town of Madison is dead. Long live the City of Madison! (Did I do that right? I’ve never been quite sure how that particular phrase works.) On October 31st of 2022, the unincorporated Town of Madison ceased to be. It split up, and was absorbed into the cities of Madison and Fitchburg. With its acquisition, the City of Madison gained thousands of new residents, and millions of dollars in new property. For the purposes of today’s episode, we’re going to focus on just one or two of the dozens of parcels acquired in this past Halloween’s attachment. If you live in South Madison, and you already know what I’m talking about, let me just remind you that the zoom meeting to determine the future of your parks is tomorrow at 6pm. I’ll put a link to sign up in the online version of this story. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take ten minutes or so to catch everybody else up to speed.
As a kid growing up south of the city, Park Street was my gateway to Madison. Whether on field trips, or family nights out, so many excursions started with coasting to the end of the US-14 freeway, passing under the beltline, and taking that bumpy boulevard to campus or the isthmus. In my memory, the south end of Park Street has always been a bit run down, but it signified something special. At that first stop light, I’d look off to the left, and take in the sight of the bus transfer station, and rows of low apartments. This was it, the beginning of the big city.
Now, I was wrong about all sorts of things as a child, but this is one of my more interesting errors. Depending on where my eyes fell, I might not have been looking at the city of Madison at all. Until the end of October, 2022, many of the south parts of Madison were still part of the unincorporated town. Those of you who have spent any amount of time driving around Wisconsin’s countryside are likely familiar with the unincorporated community as a concept. Usually how it works is that a small group of rural residents feel geographically and culturally close enough to name themselves, but the group doesn’t have enough people to necessitate their own government. Usually, the unincorporated community will rely on the county level government to provide things like law enforcement, and social services.
So today when you hear the word “unincorporated,” you probably think of cute, remote communities, like Paoli, or Mount Vernon. There was once a time when the Town of Madison fit that category too, but eventually the city and town grew to meet each other. And as the town grew, it became clear that relying entirely on the county wasn’t going to cut it. So despite never quite incorporating, the Town of Madison did end up building its own government, which produced a handful of interesting little parks.
On the west side of the 2000 block of Fish Hatchery road, two streets jut into a low-lying section of the UW Arboretum. About a half mile in, they join together, forming a natural loop. This loop is stuffed inside with as many single family homes and duplexes as it can fit, but its outside is almost all wooded parkland. The far end of the loop is a trailhead into the Arboretum, but for whatever reason, its whole north edge belonged to the Town of Madison. So, that swampy strip became Harvey E Schmidt Park.
Maybe it’s because I visited during yesterday’s rain showers, but my first impressions of Schmidt Park mostly have to do with how wet it was. The park, I think, is meant to serve as a visual transition between the neighborhood and the arboretum, but I can’t help but wonder whether it’s also a bit of a flood barrier. Harvey E Schmidt park is a half mile long strip of land, squished between Carver Street on one side, and a lagoon on the other. Most of it is grass, with plenty of trees interspersed, and cattails along the water’s edge. Though, if the weather is at all wet, that water may creep up beyond the cattails in a lot of places. Boots were a good idea for this visit.
Schmidt Park seems focused on keeping as natural of a landscape as possible. I mean, I guess mowed turfgrass and landscaped trees aren’t natural, but there’s not a lot in the way of obvious human construction. The only play equipment is an artificial boulder, placed in the center of the park. You wouldn’t know it was fake, if not for a brass plaque saying it’s made for climbing. There are short signposts along a sort of trail, but whatever signs they held are mostly gone. I think they were once an informative nature walk. The park does, at least, have benches and picnic tables, and I think picnics might be its ideal use. Unfortunately, on busy days, it might be hard to visit if you don’t live in the neighborhood. There are a few paved parking spots, but otherwise no parking along Carver Street.
Fraust Park, on the other side of the neighborhood, has a similar limitation: There’s no parking along Martin Street. The park does happen to be right next to the Town of Madison government buildings, so I’m sure in the past parking there was fine. But who knows if the city will keep these buildings, or sell them off? I wouldn’t count on that access remaining, long-term. I hope there will be a way to access this park besides walking from the few nearby homes, as it has a lot of potential. Its lot is smaller, and much more square, than Harvey E Schmidt Park, but Fraust Park still has a couple acres of grassy fields to play in, much of which is shaded by giant hardwood trees. Beyond the fields, the park has some basic play equipment, a decent sized shelter, and a community garden. It also has a weirdly small basketball court. It’s one hoop, and maybe a third of a court’s worth of asphalt, not even half. I guess that’s fine for kids, but to me it seems a bit cramped. Clearly the town cheaped out a bit, as they definitely had space for more.
You can find the exact same weird little basketball court in the third and final of the City’s new parks: Rose and Morris Heifetz Park. Like Fraust Park, Heifetz is three acres of grassy fields, shaded under the trees that give the Burr Oaks neighborhood its name. As an actual recreation park, it’s more fully-featured than Fraust or Schmidt. The aforementioned court is present, along with a modern play structure, with slides and things to climb. The shelter here has electricity, and there’s a small community garden as well. There’s even a small-scale soccer field, but if the city decides to keep the goals in place, I’m sure someone will request that they put nets in the budget. At the moment, the goals are just the fronts, with no nets or even back structure, like two giant unfolded staples, stuck in the ground. I imagine the thrill of scoring a goal is immediately undercut when your ball sails onward, and rolls thirty yards past the end of the field.
Heifetz park has character, an atmosphere which makes it unique. It’s mostly in a mature family neighborhood, but it backs up to All Metal Recycling, and overlooking the soccer pitch are big piles of rebar and junked cars. Maybe that’s why, as a kid, South Madison felt like the big city. No suburban park could hope to be that cool.
As an adult, what would make it cooler is if the city managed to make use of the rail line along the same border. A well-worn trail links the back of the soccer field with the tracks that define Burr Oak’s northern edge. I don’t think trains come through often, if ever, so it would be nice if Madison could now extend the Cannonball Bike Trail alongside the tracks, like they did on the other side of Fish Hatchery a few years ago. This would also connect Heifetz to Fraust park, as the latter is just north of where the Cannonball currently ends.
But that’s just my opinion. If you actually live in these neighborhoods, it might benefit you to share your ideas on what the city should do with its new parks. Tomorrow, that is Thursday December 15th, 2022, the city of Madison will hold a meeting over Zoom to gather public input about these three parks. This is the first step in creating a master plan for the parks’ future care and development. I think you have to register ahead of time for the meeting. You can find the link to do so posted on signs at the park, or in the online version of this article.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.