The soul of Madison lives in the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood, an unassuming old blue-collar district re-imagined as a vibrant haven for many of the funkier and more enterprising elements of the city's creative class. Bounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by a bike bath and East Washington Avenue, this part of town is at the same time sedate and festive. It is walkable, rich in its appreciation of quirky gusto, and colors its politics deep blue.
Situated along the north shore of Lake Monona between the Yahara River and Starkweather Creek, this is a diverse yet cohesive neighborhood that invests in its quality of life. A little over 20 years ago, its residents rallied to transform what was then a seedy porn house into the Barrymore Theater, restoring it to its former glory and establishing it as the beating cultural heart of Madison's east side.
Since then, the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association has enjoyed a renaissance. So has the neighborhood. Bursting at the seams for years, the Goodman Atwood Neighborhood Center is at long last on the verge of moving to new digs along the aforementioned bike path.
Olbrich Gardens has likewise grown both in size and ambition: The additions of the Bolz Tropical Conservatory and the Thai Pavilion -- along with an expansion in programming, the recent addition of accessible tram service and a host of other improvements -- have made Olbrich Gardens one of the state's leading attractions as well as a refuge for neighborhood residents seeking the solace of flora.
The verdant quality of life in the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood is further enriched by its tree-lined streets and its array of parklands, such as Yahara Place Park (home to the Marquette Waterfront Festival) and Elmside Circle Park (home to one of many Sid Boyum sculptures scattered throughout the neighborhood).
All the best neighborhoods are walkable ones, and Schenk-Atwood shines in this regard. The neighborhood's kids can walk to Lowell Elementary and O'Keeffe Middle schools. It is commonplace to see neighborhood residents carrying groceries home from Jenifer Street Market. Neighborhood dogs take their owners for walks every morning and evening. The faithful can walk to Trinity Lutheran Church or St. Bernard Catholic Church. Winter brings a steady parade of families carrying sleds and snowtubes to the top of Olbrich Hill for the exhilarating ride down its slopes.
But perhaps the most enticing and distinctive aspects of the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood are defined by its enterprises. This is the home of Revolution Cycles and Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, of Sugar Shack Records, the stalwart Schenk-Huegel uniform company and KNY Clothing.
Dining choices in the neighborhood include Monty's Blue Plate Diner, cornerstone of the Food Fight empire; Glass Nickel Pizza's flagship location; Bunky's Cafe, the revival of a Madison institution, with a menu that ranges from falafel, kabobs and other Meditteranean fare to pastas (including spaghetti on the board!); the Harmony's pizzas, burgers, platters and chili; Alchemy, which has succeeded Wonder's Pub at Schenk's Corners; the exquisite Himalayan menu at Dobhan; and Tex Tubb's Taco Palace, the most recent outpost established by the Food Fight empire. The neighborhood, apparently, likes a good food fight.
Judging by the variety of tavern options, the neighborhood also enjoys its refreshing beverages. In addition to the Harmony and Alchemy, the Ohio Tavern, Wilson's, Mr. Robert's, Ideal Bar and Mickey's Tavern have all established a niche in the neighborhood and built a base of regulars.
But if the quality of life in a neighborhood is measured by these factors -- its drinking and dining options, its walkability and enterprise, its parks and gardens, politics and quirks -- it is also measured in the ways its residents celebrate the place where they live. And here, too, Schenk-Atwood residents are distinctive. On the last Saturday in July, many of the funkier and more enterprising elements of the city's creative class gather along the block outside the Barrymore Theater to enjoy food, vendor booths, children's games and two music stages. But they're celebrating more than the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood. They're celebrating the cohesive soul of Madison.