Journalist and historian Stuart Levitan said his latest book, “Madison in the Sixties,” is in many ways really about the role UW-Madison has in shaping the city.
“The university is just of transcendent importance to everything about Madison. It goes way beyond the whole protest stuff and it goes way beyond sports,” Levitan said. “Look at the people who come to the university and then do things in the rest of city life. I mean the importance of the university is profound and lasting.”
“Madison in the Sixties” is organized by year and broken down by subject. It begins with the saga surrounding Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace auditorium and civic center, which became the city’s skyline-defining Monona Terrace Convention Center. Construction began in 1994, with the center opening in 1997, but the debate about it raged throughout the ‘60s — and long before then.
Other main issues of the decade — civil rights, student antiwar protests and urban renewal — also figure prominently in the book, which looks at politics, land use planning and development, public schools, transportation and crime, among other topics. Each year has an “in memoriam” section and an interesting look at other important news stories of the day in “miscellanea.”
The book is written not just for history buffs, political observers and policy wonks, and will appeal to local news junkies. It’s got a “newspapery” style, Levitan said. “It’s a journalist’s history of Madison. Of the decade. It’s a very journalistic approach to it.”
From boxing to murder
The 1960 UW-Madison section includes the death of UW-Madison boxer Charlie Mohr after a fight, and the end of boxing on campus. Other schools soon followed suit, and not long after, so did the NCAA.
That same year brought a campaign visit by Sen. John F. Kennedy, who would make four more visits in the next five weeks before the Wisconsin presidential primary.
On Sept. 28, 1961, Levitan reports that flamboyant entertainer Liberace has dinner and a nap at the modest home of his father and stepmother on East Johnson Street before his well-received, near-capacity show at the Orpheum Theater.
By 1965, big passages are devoted to the Vietnam War protests, with much more on the protests in the following years.
In 1966, a 3-year-old girl gets stomped to death by Winkie the elephant at Henry Vilas Zoo.
The book details the gruesome murder of an 18-year-old freshman, whose body is left in the bushes in front of Sterling Hall in 1968. Christine Rothschild, from Chicago, was a member of the National Honor Society, student council president, and a part-time model. Police had a strong suspect, but not enough evidence for an arrest.
Levitan writes that 1968 is the “worst year for race relations in Madison, with tensions turning increasingly physical, and relations between blacks and the all-white police force hitting a new low.”
Going back to newspapers
Levitan, 65, grew up on New York’s Long Island and came to Madison in 1975, when he got a job as a reporter for The Capital Times.
He credits Capital Times editor emeritus Dave Zweifel, then the paper’s city editor, for taking a chance on him, hiring him not long after he graduated from a “little hippy dippy” school in Sarasota, Florida, called New College.
He worked for The Capital Times from June 1975 to September 1977. And then the strike paper, Press Connection, from 1977 to 1980, after newspaper reporters stood behind the striking printers union.
After the Press Connection folded, Levitan drove a cab and worked in the Legislature as a staff analyst for the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules. In 1983, he went to law school at UW-Madison and had a 26-year career as a mediator/arbitrator with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.
A former Dane County Board member, Levitan has been on the city’s Landmarks Commission for 12 years, with about half as chair.
Levitan wrote “Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Vol. 1, 1856-1931,” published in 2006, and started researching “Madison in the Sixties” after he retired from the state in 2015. It took a year and a half to research, a year to write, and then six months for the editing.
“The research was just a joy because I read every day’s newspaper for the entire decade. For three newspapers,” Levitan said. “And the newspapers were great.”
Levitan would spend all day at the Central Library reading and scanning stories on microfilm and indexing everything of importance. He also used the University Archives at Steenbock Library and materials from the Wisconsin Historical Society.
The final product is a 511-page, paperback coffee-table book ($29.95, Wisconsin Historical Society Press). Seventy-eight of those pages are devoted to footnotes. Levitan said he doesn’t know how much it weighs, but quipped, “It lands with a thud.”
“Madison in the Sixties” is in its second printing. Levitan sold the 3,000 copies in the first. It helped that the book arrived in time for the holidays.
The book’s appeal extends beyond city limits and that’s driven sales. Levitan points to the tens of thousands of alumni who attended UW-Madison during that decade and are now scattered around the country.
“They live in San Francisco and New York and Montana and Chicago, and they are interested in the time they spent here,” he said.
Levitan said he decided to focus on the ‘60s because it was the most exciting and important decade in Madison’s recent history, and set the stage — particularly with urban renewal and civil rights — for issues the city is still dealing with today.
“The importance of the antiwar movement was massive in the moment, but the stories of urban renewal had a more lasting impact on Madison as a city and that’s a story that was previously under-reported or not reported at all,” he said.
Levitan is most proud of the book’s look at the “Triangle,” the wider area of the city that included the bygone Greenbush neighborhood, settled in the early 20th century by Italians, Albanians, Jews, blacks and other groups.
Centered on Park and Regent streets, the neighborhood was razed in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal.
What happened in that section of the city is more complex and nuanced than people realize, he said.
“Well-meaning urban planners disregarded the cultural and social and interpersonal significance of a multiethnic, cross-generational community and thought that a complete removal of the neighborhood and the re-creation of something new was in everyone’s interest and they did not plan it properly and they did not execute it properly,” Levitan said.
“There are people who think the motive was malicious,” he said. “I think the motive was benign, but the planning was poor and the execution was poor. The planners saw inadequate infrastructure. They didn’t see the community and they just disregarded it.”
The lesson is that a city cannot save a neighborhood with a government program without first understanding the area and the people who live there.
“I think the city actually did get better at it,” Levitan said, citing Madison’s 11.5-acre “Revival Ridge” redevelopment, which opened in 2009 with five buildings containing 48 low-cost units in the Allied Drive neighborhood.
“The people inside the city learned the lessons, even if they didn’t publicize what they understood,” he said. “What the book accomplishes is explaining what happened and why, so it didn’t happen again in quite as poor a way.”