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Is Madison the Berkeley of the Midwest?

September 9th, 2011

Madison is often referred to as “The Berkeley of the Midwest.” I'm assuming we've been blessed with this moniker because of the noted liberalism that garnered us attention in the 60's and 70's. But are the two cities all that alike now? That thought was in my mind as I drove into Berkeley for the first time since 1987. When we travel, I think it is natural to compare where we are to where we live as a means to make sense of the experience at hand. Especially when the comparison has already been made for you. I encountered this last week while vacationing in San Francisco as I wandered with eyes wide open and drank in the new places (not to mention some lovely California wines) with enthusiasm and wonder.  

The first thing I noticed was the recycling/compost/trash bins throughout the area. Since residents are charged for trash (in Berkeley at least), they recycle and compost like mad. At a Farmer's Market in San Francisco, the vendors happily educated us about what's recyclable and what's compostable. Now, we do both here in Madison, but they have different rules there as to what goes where, so I appreciated the lesson. In this case, I think Madison is as eco-friendly as the Bay area, but they have more government regulated programs to make it easier on concerned citizens of the earth.  

The second thing that wowed me was my nephew's school lunch menu. Definitely a big step up from what's served in Madison schools. In our defense, they have the climate (both politically and agriculturally) to support such healthy fare, and Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse and school garden pioneer) is from Berkeley after all. Again, Madison is making strides. Many of our schools have vegetable gardens harvested by the children, and REAP Food Group (Research Education, Action and Policy) has a farm to school lunch program in place. We are heading in the right direction most definitely!

The final thing that grabbed my attention as I compared the two cities was the bike culture. Yes, I did see bikes everywhere in Berkeley, and cars stop for them as they do for pedestrians (without exception), but our roads and numerous bike paths (and possibly lack of steep, winding hills) make it much easier to get around by bike. Even in the dead of winter. So yes, both cities are bike-friendly (and I saw a Madison-based Trek Travel bike team while in Sonoma), but here I think Madison shines a bit brighter.

There are multitudes of areas other than the three mentioned above in which the cities are compatible – a leisurely stroll along Telegraph Road to the Berkeley campus confirms that. So, yes, I ultimately agree that Madison can fairly be called the “Berkeley of the Midwest.” And doesn't “Berkeley: the Madison of the West” have a nice ring to it, too? I think so.