When Judy and Steve Hughes moved into their home on the corner of Muir Drive and Morningstar Lane 30 years ago, they occupied just the third house on the block.
Judy Hughes, 64, recalls having to trudge across a field to reach the nearest bus stop on Troy Drive. But still, she remembers the inconvenience fondly. After all, for the lifelong Madisonian, the new home was a peaceful retreat from her Isthmus upbringing on the corner of Mifflin and Bassett streets.
Over the years, roads and houses cropped up around the Hughes’ home to create the Lerdahl Park neighborhood, but the area never lost its tranquil charm.
The neighborhood remains one of Madison’s most remote, among only a handful north of Warner Park. It’s separated even from its North Side counterparts by the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad to the east and the state Department of Health Service’s Central Wisconsin Center and Mendota Mental Health Institute to the west. A railroad underpass at Troy Drive serves as somewhat of a gateway to the neighborhood.
“It does feel isolated and I think that’s another reason we like it here,” Hughes said. “It’s so quiet and the only reason you would come here is if you live here or know someone here … You feel like you’re in a little village but you’re really not.”
Like much of the North Side, Lerdahl is economically diverse. Modest single-family homes and older mom-and-pop-owned apartment buildings along Karstens Drive give way to slightly larger dwellings toward the center of the neighborhood and a scattering of $1 million-plus lakefront homes to the south.
But in a city that has seen home values reach historic highs, Hughes says Lerdahl has maintained its middle-class appeal, bringing in young homeowners and new families to revitalize the neighborhood.
“When we first moved here there was lots of kids and all of the sudden they grew up and they were gone,” Hughes said. “There were all of these retirees and older people and then, all the sudden, many of the houses have changed hands and we’re seeing babies again.”
Geographically, Lerdahl is characterized by its dense tree canopy and agricultural land, which provide extensive recreational opportunities. To the west, Governor’s Island is a popular destination for dog walkers and ice fishermen. Its woods, coupled with natural habitats at nearby Warner Park and Cherokee Marsh, draw wildlife to the area in the form of wild turkeys, coyotes, foxes and deer, and make for interesting sightseeing.
But the heart of Lerdahl continues to be Troy Gardens, where in the 1990s residents and activists convinced state officials to take 31 acres off the surplus land list for use as community gardens and a small farm.
Today, the gardens attract a variety of users, including Hmong and African immigrants, and serve as a gathering place for workshops and events, such as pizza nights with ingredients picked only yards away.
But the gardens are also home to one of Madison’s most unique housing developments, where 20 townhouses sit among sprawling vegetable gardens and chicken enclosures.
Clare Mazack, 16, moved into the development when it first opened about a decade ago and teaches piano and violin lessons to a handful of the 42 children now living there. She attends East High School, but says many of the children in the Troy Gardens community are home-schooled.
“I think it attracts a certain type of family,” Mazack explained. “Some people like having a house to go back to, but they like going Downtown and having friends on different sides of town, going different places.
“But a lot of the families who live here like having all of their life in the same spot. They have their family, they have their friends, they have their food, they have their schooling. Of course, they go other places, but they have everything they need here.”
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