Most people have heard about the disturbances and behavior problems happening at Philosopher’s Grove that has been affecting the pleasant atmosphere that the City pursues in this important area of Madison. This has been one of the hot topics of the week as Mayor Paul Soglin decided to take action in opposition to troublemakers and to have the city remove the 33 remaining granite and bronze artistic stones placed at this downtown crossroads. Along with the stones, the bus shelter will be also removed in order to avoid loitering and continued drinking, drug dealing, and fighting issues. Because of this uncomfortable situation, businesses in the downtown area have been affected. Still, several business owners do not believe that this mayoral approach will solve the problem.
Rebecca Cnare, an Urban Design Planner with the City of Madison who has been working with a group of City staff to try to improve conditions in the Philosophers’ Grove for several years, said that their hope was to make the area welcoming for everyone whether they are homeless people, downtown workers having lunch outside, or even as an impromptu play structure for children. She said that for the first 7 or 8 years the stones were exactly that: a nice shady spot that was welcoming to all. However the increasing behavioral problems and fear of intimidation has changed the tenor of the area, and a City staff team started to look at ways to improve the space. The City started out with small, incremental changes such as additional sidewalk cleaning, adding twinkle lights to the trees, chalkboards, and making it easier for people to reserve the space for performances.
Cnare said that additional changes were made this spring, when 11 of the stones were removed and the City contracted with the Business Improvement District for the “Top of State” activities program. “When the programmed activities are happening, the space is really transformed and has a welcoming atmosphere,” she said. “During kids’ day activities on Friday mornings, there is a wonderfully diverse crowd of kids playing and interacting with each other.” She also notes that some of the homeless are regular participants during the Ian’s Open Mic events on Tuesdays and have been known to “bring down the house” with their singing.
After learning some background about the issues, I wondered what the perspective from a Latino local business owner could be. I recently chatted with Sam Chehade, a downtown business owner originally from Cali, Colombia, who has managed Michelangelos Coffee House for over 19 years. Located at State St and N. Carroll St., this café, open 7 days a week, was initially created with the idea of welcoming everyone and offering a unique environment at which people from diverse backgrounds and all ages could eat, drink, work, or simply spend some spare time. Chehade kindly shared with me his thoughts about the increasing complications with the homeless population and other unpleasant happenings in the area.
While he values the fact that Madison’s downtown has great things to offer to the community, he contended that he never sees solutions that address the problem of people with mental illness, which he thinks is the main issue that the City truly needs to tackle. Chehade said that the problem goes beyond having seating areas for people to hang around, but is about the mental health of individuals who should also have opportunities to get off drugs, find employment, and get other necessary help to succeed in life. Likewise, the homelessness behavior situation is not the only issue. Madison is a college town and some young students are loud and aggressive very late at night. Hence, Chehade does not have the café open later than 11 p.m. “This is part of the downtown scene and I knew what I was going to confront when I opened the business,” Chehade said.
Chehade stressed that he has tried to help the homeless populations in so many ways. The bathrooms were open to everybody initially but people started to take showers inside them, get intoxicated, and even have sex. “We spent too much money on maintenance and we decided to offer this service only to our customers because they are the ones who keep the business going,” Chehade said.
Chehade pointed out that he does not want to discriminate against anyone as long as they behave well. Michelangelos is an independent business that has its own fashion that Chehade wants to preserve. He wants to serve all types of people and be sensitive and inclusive. This takes a lot of effort. “Michelangelo’s is an eclectic café that does not believe in borders or nationalities,” he said. The café’s mission statement is to serve everyone and that people should not be categorized under any circumstance or because of any physical characteristic.
“The mayor might know that the problem is deeper than removing the stones as the people who hang around the area will most likely migrate to other places like what happened with the Peace Park,” says Chehade, referring to an open area very close to his business where the homeless used to spend time. After the addition of an ATM and the banning of several people to the park, the homeless people no longer frequent that area.
Now some people debate how the City can keep pursuing the idea of being progressive and in which all citizens feel welcomed and fostering “inclusiveness,” which is one of the most important goals of city planners, city officials, and other equity advocates.
There are a couple of things that we as community should think about: How can we find methods for making improvements to public spaces and addressing the lack of outdoor spaces in the downtown of Madison while understanding the real need to face the mental health issues and subsequent behavioral problems facing our community? Simultaneously, how can the City create opportunities for local artists without excluding anyone and offer natural landscapes, food sources, and more outdoor recreational spaces within the Madison’s built environment, more specifically, the downtown?
I wonder what the philosophers would think?