Lecture #9:
A Path Out of Town from Madison: Driving West from Madison's Capitol Square


We'll be talking about Christopher Wells's Car Country (2013) in section next week, and that book will surely appear on the midterm exam. It's by far our most important reading for today's lecture topic. It is, by the way, available as chapter-by-chapter downloads via the UW-Madison Libraries portal.

Two weeks from today is the midterm exam, which means section next week will be devoted to reviewing for the midterm exam.

I. Introduction

In this lecture, we take a drive from the center of downtown Madison out into western Dane County. One way to think about today's lecture is as a history of the United States as Car Country, as expressed at the local level in our home town. Another way to think about today's lecture is as a historical geography of American transportation networks in the twentieth century, particularly of automobile transport as a defining feature of the landscape we experience today.

In the United States and Europe, cultural landscapes are symbolically perceived in four broad categories: Wild / Pastoral (or Working Lands) / Suburb / City. Today, in thinking about automobile transport, we'll be asking: How are these four cultural landscapes interconnected with each other?

Key points to observe about these four cultural landscape categories:

  • These are human landscape categories, not natural ones
  • Each exists only relative to (and in scale with) the others
  • They array along a continuum...
  • ...but derive their meanings from counterpoints with each other
  • Each embodies complex cultural values
  • All shaped by economics, policy, design, transport, other forces
  • All express long histories that are both material and cultural

Let's notice an especially interesting assumption that we often don't consciously recognize about the cultural landscape called "wilderness." Roadlessness has been a key part of the legal definition of wilderness since it was introduced as part of the legal definition articulated in the 1964 Wilderness Act. So at one end of the spectrum of American cultural landscapes, wilderness is perceived as lying at the far pole from the city, the wild place where we leave Car Country behind. And yet there's also a paradox here: we rely on roads and cars to reach the roadless landscapes of the wilderness, so the political support for wilderness in part depends on automobile access..

Today's lecture is not just a journey through space; it is also crucially a journey through time. So one way to think about a landscape is as layers representing different moments in time. (One of my favorite metaphors for this is to think of a landscape as a palimpsest - a medieval vellum manuscript in which a scribe has scraped off the ink of an earlier text in order to reuse the page to record a new text on top of the old one, yet the older text can still be glimpsed beneath the new one.)

Lecture began by contrasting the USGS 1890 topographic quadrangle map of the Madison Isthmus and the rural countryside west of the city's settled area, a link to which you'll find below. The key thing to notice about this map is that everything in it predates the automobile. As such, the map is a record of what Madison looked like before the advent of Car Country. The transportation networks on display here are twofold: 1) the grid of city streets on the Isthmus, which were designed for a world of horses and carriages and eventually trolleys; and 2) the railroad network as it existed as of 1890, largely built during the second half of the nineteenth century.

USGS, Madison West Topographic Quadrangle Map, 1890USGS, Madison West Topographic Quadrangle Map, 1890

Here's a question I urge you to keep track of, taken from the title of a 1973 book by Kevin Lynch: What Time Is This Place?

To illustrate how you would think through this question, I look at two sets of documents.

The first consists of aerial photographs of west Madison near the curve in the Beltline Highway. I'm going to first show you a series of aerials from 1949 to the present, then going to model how you'd see time in this place. One obvious narrative embedded in these photographs is to observe a gradual "rural to urban" conversion. So you can explore this conversion for yourself, here's a PDF of that part of the lecture's PowerPoint: PDF

The second set of documents constitute the rest of the lecture: aerial and streetview photographs along a route from West Washington Avenue to Regent Street to the Speedway to Mineral Point Road, starting at the State Capitol and proceeding west out of town as far as State Highway 78 west of Pine Bluff. The cultural landscapes we'll move through along what we might call a transect line, following the ecological technique developed for sampling the plants in a given study site, following a line across the site and counting all the organisms and species encountered along the route. In our transect, we'll encounter an array of cultural landscapes from city to suburb to rural countryside (including what pass for "wild" areas in western Dane County). But since the city has been constructed outward from its original center in the 1830s, we'll also move outward through more and more recent periods of history (recognizing that older parts of the landscape which have been transformed by more recent historical processes often remain visible as with a palimpsest).

To be explicit about the periods I'll use to build a narrative as we move west along this transect, here are the chapters in the story I'll be telling:

  • the Wisconsin State Capitol (completed in 1917 after previous building burned down in 1904; it is the fourth such building at this location, sitting in the square that has been at the center of the street grid of Madison's Isthmus since those streets were first laid out by James Duane Doty in 1836.)
  • Surrounding suburbs ("1880s streetcar suburbs") along West Washington St. west of Broom St.
  • Regent St. between West Washington and Camp Randall Stadium, exemplifying "highway strip" styles from the 1920s-1960s.
  • University Heights, laid out in 1891 and largely constructed between 1891-1930.
  • Forest Hill Cemetery, laid out in 1857-58.
  • Mineral Point Road east of Midvale Boulevard, largely constructed between 1940-1960.
  • Mineral Point Road west to Beltline, automobile suburbs built in decades following World War II.
  • Countryside west of Beltline, where rural farming landscapes are being transformed by exurban development as people search for "a room with a view."

II. Tracing a Path Out of Town

From the State Capitol, we drive past the houses on West Washington Avenue west of Broom St. Strikingly, most are double- and triple-decker houses, and all have porches. It's only if we recall that West Washington precedes the existence of cars that we can see that these porches were once centers of family life: children playing in the yard and the on the sidewalk in front was more safe in an era before heavy cars moving at dangerous speeds barrelled down West Washington Ave.

No less strikingly, because this neighborhood was built before the advent of automobiles, no provision whatsoever was made for parking here. For the rest of our journey west, we'll be looking to see how neighborhoods from different eras were constructed relative to the need to accommodate car ownership and transportation. Here, notice that driveways are punched out in the narrow gaps between houses, and back yards have almost universally been converted into parking lots, because that's the easiest place to find space for cars.

As we move west out of Madison, we'll see that porches disappear. We move onto Regent Street which, for the purposes of today, we'll call a "strip" -- a cultural landscape that emerged during the middle decades of the twentieth century as retail store owners redesigned their layouts and advertising to deal with customers in cars. How do you get people driving past in cars to stop and come into the store? And if they want to do so, where will they be able to park? Look at billboards to catch driver attention, and at buildings set back from the street with parking in front. Notice how the landscape responds to the presence of cars.

In this same area, the Greenbush neighborhood shows its roots as the first home of immigrant Italian stone masons who did the carvings so abundantly on display in the State Capitol and the Wisconsin Historical Society. As its original Italian and Jewish ethnic working-class residents moved out of this neighborhood after World War II -- and as people of color began to replace them -- it was increasingly regarded as "blighted" and became the object of efforts at "urban renewal" which removed the original housing stock and its residents. In Greenbush, institutional medical buildings from the 1960s hollowed out what had once been a working-class neighborhood.

We move past Camp Randall and into the University Heights neighborhood, where houses were constructed mainly from the 1890s-1920s. Here we again observe the problem we saw on West Washington: how to create parking space for residential areas built before cars. In the University Heights, parking originally began to appear as sheds in back yards, with driveways (often shared) inserted in the narrow space between adjacent houses to reach those sheds. Later, garages (almost always with space for just one car) were inserted when space permitted by adding lean-to's or other additions to existing houses. Only later in the history of the neighborhood do you a few houses begin to show garages that were designed at the same time as houses were built.

We next go down the Speedway, which got its name because the speed limit here increases from the downtown normal of 25mph to 30mph--which felt very speedy when the road first got this place name! Forest Hill Cemetery on the south side of the Speedway dates from 1857-58, and is a wonderful exame of a nineteenth-century romantic cemetery patterned on Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The concept of such romantic cemeteries was to visit graves and contemplate one's own mortality with a journey out of the city and "into nature" in the surrounding rural countryside. Forest Hill was at least a mile out in the country when it was built. (If you're interested, you can learn more about its history from this excellent website: http://foresthill.williamcronon.net, developed by a group of graduate students here at UW-Madison.)

As we move further west past the Speedway along the northern edge of the Westmorland neighborhood, houses dates from the era after World War II. One way we can know this is that garages are now built into the house facade, though initially only for a single car. Notice, too, that porches have begun to disappear. In automobile suburbs, more and more family life was happening in back yards rather than front yards. We also see institutions like churches moving away from the downtown along with their parishioners. Our Lady Queen of Peace on Mineral Point Road, for example, orients itself so that its backside faces the ride; its front faces south towards the large parking lot where its parishioners can park their cars.

The farther west we go, the more the facades of houses are consumed by their garages, as we see the emergence after the 1960s of two- and even three- or four-car garages. As we approach West Towne Mall (opened in 1970, followed by East Towne Mall in 1971), notice the prevalence of free parking—contrasted with the lack of such free space downtown—which in the era of the automobile suburb was essential to the attractions of this new retail landscape. Downtown merchants had increasingl trouble competing with large single-story malls like this one partly because of the parking problem, and partly because the growing numbers of customers driving to these malls and big-box stores from greater and greater distances enabled retailers to purchase products in larger volumes at lower wholesale prices. Much of the geography of post-WWII suburbia depends on these underlying economic relationships.

Continue west, go under the Beltline, and all of a sudden—because of zoning laws—we enter a landscape that is abruptly (and temporarily) rural.

Further west, we see Black Hawk evangelical church in the landscape, again made possible by cars bringing in worshippers from a wide geographic area. We are still solidly in Car Country.

When looking at rural America on the urban fringe, we might wonder at this question: why do well-to-do Americans so often seek to live close to nature, to have a "room with a view?" This landscape is on the edge of the Driftless area and from here we can see the line of urban development marching towards these fringe spaces. Once again, the car can help explain development here: working lands with working farms created the need for good roads to move dairy products, which now also create the conditions for residential development. But these areas retain their views only if grazing animals, farming, mowing, and/or prairie restoration prevent trees growing up to become forests that block the pastoral views -- and only until suburban housing developments don't grow up to block the views of the first exurban migrants.

Although the examples we've explored in this lecture are particular to Madison and Dane County, they in fact reflect patterns that are widely dispersed throughout the landscapes of the United States. Learning to recognize the history of Car Country, as Christopher Wells's book will teach you to do, will give you powerful new tools for reading the landscape of twentieth-century America and telling its many complicated stories.