Everything seems empty and old. Almost abandoned. Driving through the Darbo Drive area late at night after being on active and invigorated East Washington Avenue on Madison’s east side seems like a trip into a different world.
What used to be the McDonald’s is a vacant lot that has been reduced to sand and mud. Years ago, corporate decided to move the popular fast food joint further down East Washington Avenue. Today, it is part of a strip mall just a few blocks away from Darbo. What was once a family restaurant is now Wisconsin Auto Title Loans.
Across the way is the Salvation Army Gym. The gym and the lurking Department of Corrections building – dinosaurs both – represent the largest structures in the Darbo Drive area. Both have their issues in terms of, well, eye-soreness.
The newly-opened Richard Davis Lane, named for the longtime UW-Madison music professor, skirts across the side of the Salvation Army Gym. The fresh pavement of Davis Lane is the only thing that feels new about the area and it almost makes one feel guilty for driving on it. Darbo Drive itself faces a sleepy park and is littered with row after row of housing.
But life is happening inside this area. Will Green and company, mostly comprised of kids from his award-program Mentoring Positives, are preparing for a Darbo festival next month, an annual tradition. Soon they will be in Madison’s new Public Market selling their signature Off-the-Block Pizza, complete with a brand new crust.
For over 15 years, Green has been executive director of Mentoring Positives, working with kids from one of Madison’s toughest areas. He has taught the kids entrepreneurship through Off-the-Block Pizza and Salsa. He has also branched out to taking his program into the classroom at LaFollette High School, where he also coaches girls’ basketball.
His summer has been spent perfecting his pizza recipe and doing programming with the youth.
“We’ve got 12 youths that we are employing this summer,” Green tells Madison365. “They are meeting in Darbo right now and going to be doing some pizza production this summer. We’re hoping to have a nice little event in August where we show our pizza and let people come taste it. It’ll be like a little festival for the kids.”
Green brightens the mood of youth with things like that and with the different teams he has whether it’s a basketball team, salsa-making team, marketing team or pizza team.
He tries to brighten it with a trip down East Wash. Just a little way down the street. Past what used to be McDonald’s. Past the gym. Past the sorely-needing-updating East High School. Down the street, where The Spark and The Sylvee are neon-lighted beacons from another planet.
The kids ooh and aah at the plush surroundings. The Spark, an estimated $55-million dollar investment by American Family Insurance, is, in particular, a spectacular building. In addition to being home to employees from American Family, the Spark houses programs for young entrepreneurs. The Sylvee is a concert venue that is all lit up. Directly across the street are massive new plush condominiums with storefronts on the lower levels.
All of this progress is just blocks down the street. Will Green knows that progress is coming Darbo’s way and he wants to get ahead of it to make sure that when it does, no one from the community is left behind.
“I’m meeting with the City today,” Green tells Madison365. “They’re coming down to Darbo to see what the plan is for Darbo. I see the East Wash wave coming down here. How can we create something in Darbo that’s equitable for the people in Darbo? I would love to help shape that vision. I’m just trying to rally residents in the neighborhood to be a voice. Madison’s gotta stop talking about it and be about it. Darbo is the perfect place to inject minority-led initiatives and support minorities to be part of the growing city and not just be another pocket in this city. So that’s what we’re working on.”
Green wants the kids to ooh and aah about the structures in their own community, beginning with renovating the Salvation Army Gym and building other beautiful, artistic structures for the neighborhood.
“They’re gonna come down this far,” Green says of the development. “But I’m hoping it doesn’t look like the rest of East Wash, that our neighborhood people can’t afford. But I think Darbo should be the ethnic apex of Madison. We’ve got a lot of Latino people and Gambian people here. We could have arts. And I’m not talking about an ugly building like the gym. Go to DeForest and look at even their elementary school … and then go look at how La Follette looks.
“At the Spark Building, the kids were like ‘Oh my God, it’s amazing!’ That’s what I wanna have them be like in Darbo,” Green continues. “It’s gotta be something that looks really appealing and people want to walk it. And that’s what we can do. Create Darbo the way it really needs to be and it’s gotta happen right there on that space at the Salvation Army.”
You can go to any side of Madison and it is full of communities that are like small pockets of poverty surrounded by more beautiful, affluent areas close by. Walking through the campus of Edgewood High School and College is a different experience than walking through La Follette, Green pointed out.
Green feels like it is important that the City of Madison take a new approach to renewing the spaces, and thereby the psyches, of those small pockets around town.
“Some of the neighborhood resource team thought we should have a meeting with them and let them know how we’re thinking,” Green said. “Hopefully people’s voice can be part of what the city has in mind. Come on, man. Let’s get this right.”