As one of the most traveled pedestrian intersections in Wisconsin, the intersection of State Street and Capitol Square is a colorful kaleidoscope of activity.
Summer mornings see a crush of visitors to the Dane County Farmers’ Market or Art Fair on the Square. The area’s restaurants, bars and cultural offerings, like the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and Overture Center, draw throngs of visitors.
Other times, an air of discomfort, even menace, invades the space, with groups of people hanging out for hours, some drinking in public, aggressively panhandling, urinating and defecating in nearby doorways and alleys, dealing and using drugs – especially crack cocaine and heroin – and engaging in prostitution.
Despite years of effort by the city and others to stabilize the area, disruptive and criminal behavior still plagues the top of State Street, frustrating business and property owners.
“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” said Maria Milsted, whose family owns part of the 100 block of State and West Mifflin streets. “It’s scary. It’s frightening.”
Chronic homeless people have long frequented the area. But officials said the more troubling behavior comes from others who congregate where State Street meets North Carroll and West Mifflin streets, drink and use drugs and prey on the homeless.
Some who frequent the area said the biggest problem is a lack of housing and other services, and said the intersection provides a place of community.
“This is our comfort zone and everybody knows everybody,” said a formerly homeless woman who declined to give her name but said she has been coming to the area for years. She dismissed well-documented evidence of drug sales and prostitution. “We’re all family and we love each other,” she said.
They also call out the problems created by throngs of young people who pour out of taverns and cause problems at bar time.
Efforts to address problems in the area have included social service outreach, surveillance cameras, special police enforcement, family programming, no trespassing signs and physical changes like removing a public art project that consisted of large granite stones used for seating. A bus stop near the intersection was also removed, but the steps have not dissuaded those causing the most trouble.
“It’s not for lack of trying,” said Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who said he has never feared for his own safety in the area but appreciates the concerns of others. “Do I get frustrated about a lack of progress at times? Absolutely.”
Police, who conducted seven special operations in the area in spring, are calling for more physical changes, including removal of more benches and bus shelters. The most costly and dramatic change would reconnect North Carroll and West Mifflin streets — which now end in cul de sacs before continuing along the Square on the other side of State Street — and reopening the intersection to vehicular traffic like the other corners of the Square.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Verveer oppose reopening the streets. The mayor said such a decision is tied to more complicated transportation decisions involving Metro Transit, while Verveer said the behaviors of a small number of people don’t merit such a drastic measure.
“There are multiple issues,” Rhodes-Conway said, stressing that the city must use data and target behaviors rather than groups of people. “We have to solve the right problem.”
In the long term, city officials hope several big projects will transform the area — a $43 million boutique hotel on the 100 block of State, North Carroll and West Dayton streets; Drury Southwest’s redevelopment of Madison Area Technical College’s Downtown campus building into hotel space with an eight-story addition; and a new Wisconsin Historical Society museum and private development at the site of the current museum and adjacent properties costing perhaps $255 million.
But those building projects are years from completion.
On a recent Thursday, Central District Neighborhood Resource Officer Ken Brown walked the area.
As he approached the area, officers in four squad cars responded to a call about a group drinking beer in the cul de sac on North Carroll Street by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Brown greeted several of the people he passed by name. One woman appeared to be recovering from an injury to her eye. The group included two little boys and two little girls.
Brown checked on a man passed out on a bench next to Ian’s Pizza. He took a partly full can of Hamms from him and poured it out. “Hey, you should have given me that beer,” said another man nearby.
As he left, he distributed a few cards from McDonald’s offering a free cone or sundae.
On the other side of the plaza, people hung out and sat on BCycle bikes docked in stations. Brown spotted a familiar man lying in a side doorway of the Historical Society Museum. “You can’t be sleeping here,” Brown told the man, who slowly complied.
Past a series of empty storefronts on the 100 block of West Mifflin Street, a small crowd near the front entrance to the Central Library listened to loud music. People’s belongings were tucked into bike racks and other spots along the building.
Brown asked the group to turn down the music, and someone did. “He’s a good guy,” someone in the group said as he walks away.
It was barely 5 p.m. The dynamic in the area would unfold for hours.
Promise, then problems
Although envisioned as a showcase, the intersection has seen problem behaviors for years.
The top of State Street was rebuilt in 2004, the first phase of a makeover of the famed thoroughfare, and featured a “Philosopher’s Grove” with artsy, granite seating and landscaping next to the Historical Museum, and small permanent stages near the Veterans Museum.
Initially, there were no major problems.
But in 2010, the city closed Lisa Link Peace Park, 425 State St., for improvements and many homeless people and others who hung out there migrated to upper State Street. Then, in late 2011, the city closed the Central Library for reconstruction, and more people were drawn to Philosopher’s Grove, the stages and benches.
Meanwhile, the buildings in the 100 block of West Mifflin Street have remained vacant for the Historical Museum project. More recently, storefronts have emptied in the 100 blocks of State, North Carroll and West Dayton streets in anticipation of the new hotel.
The broad public spaces and benches have become a magnet for people to hang out, while the abutting cul de sacs offer easy access for people to arrive, make connections and leave quickly by car. Nearby doorways, alleys and abandoned storefronts become de facto bathrooms, places to use drugs or engage in other negative behavior, police said.
The behaviors disappear during the Farmers’ Market, Jazz at Five or other highly attended events, but then return, police and others said.
Over time, the scene itself has evolved.
Some homeless who once frequented and slept in the area now spend days at The Beacon day shelter about half a mile away at 615 E. Washington Ave., which opened in October 2017. Many others have moved to housing opened by the city and partners on the East and West sides in 2016 and 2018.
Now, some who don’t spend the night in shelter gather and sleep around the Central Library, Overture Center and other spots, observers said.
“People will sleep where they feel the most safe,” said Jeff Turk, spokesman for the volunteer homeless outreach group Friends of State Street Family. “The population we serve on a nightly basis is very appreciative and docile. You have a population of people at their most vulnerable in a very vulnerable situation.”
At the same time, the area has attracted others — some homeless, some not — who police said cause the most trouble.
To help give the area a more active feel, the city created food vending sites at the top of State Street for the 2017 season. El Grito and Pickle Jar tried the sites but reported problems. This year, what should be prime locations are unused Monday through Friday, with carts operating in the area only during the Farmers’ Market.
“No one wants to be there,” said Matthew Danky, owner of the El Grito cart that has moved to another Downtown spot. “There’s a reason.”
The upscale Graft restaurant, 18 N. Carroll St., did not seek to renew a permit for its sidewalk cafe this year.
“It’s been difficult for my retailers and restaurants,” said Jason Ilstrup, president of Downtown Madison, Inc. “It’s been difficult for residents for enjoying quality of life.”
In December, the city sought proposals for “innovative and inclusive” efforts to enliven the space but the only two responses — a zip line down State Street and a public restroom and interpretive center focused on water — were costly and impractical, said Dan Kennelly, manager of the city’s Office of Business Resources.
“It’s on a downward trajectory,” said Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, whose private security firm, Skidmore Property Services, has 23 employees and contracts with many business and property owners, large and small, in the State Street area. “The bad behavior is getting worse. It’s more egregious and growing in quantity.”
The police have a frequent presence, monitor multiple cameras and conduct special operations, but offenders scatter and those issued tickets often ignore them.
In 2017, police conducted nine special operations resulting in 45 citations and nine arrests, and another 15 operations last year issuing 30 citations with 17 arrests, Central District Capt. Jason Freedman said.
“I definitely believe the police are trying to do what they can do,” said a frustrated Nick Martin, who owns Ian’s Pizza and said he hopes the new administration will impose tougher consequences for bad behavior.
But Dwayne Golden, who was formerly homeless and likes to socialize in the area, said solutions lie in housing and social services, not police enforcement. “Why are you going to give a homeless person a ticket that they can’t pay?” he said.
Policing has limitations, Freedman acknowledged, noting that people are free to assemble and the city has no enforceable loitering or panhandling laws due to court decisions. Officers must deal with many suffering from addiction, mental health problems, domestic abuse and other challenges, he said.
“These are deep societal stresses playing out,” he said.
“I’m most concerned about a homicide,” State Street Neighborhood Officer Kraig Kalka said, explaining that some people bring weapons to the area and there is fear of an incident between rival gang members or an innocent passerby getting caught up in something.
No one, however, is giving up.
Police will continue education efforts, outreach to get resources to people who need and want them, advocating for physical changes to the space and special enforcement actions, Freedman said.
Downtown Madison Inc. has identified focus areas including more social services for vulnerable populations, improving the physical space and stepped-up law enforcement, Ilstrup said. DMI also is exploring the potential of a “community prosecutor,” which could be attached to the district attorney’s office and focus on repeated, low-level offenses and a neighborhood business watch, he said.
Rhodes-Conway said better data will help identify the root problems and perhaps produce a short list of “people we want to pay attention to.” Any changes will likely seek to make the spaces less inviting for people to spend so many hours in the area, she said. But, she said, it doesn’t make sense to simply displace people and push them elsewhere.
“There is no one solution,” she said.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Maria Milsted's last name.]