Madison's bohemian past meets its go-go present in the near east side's Williamson-Marquette neighborhood. A hotbed of hippiedom in the 1960s and 1970s, eminently walkable Wil-Mar has preserved much of its eclectic heritage, thanks in large part to the independent-minded, politically committed people who live there. But the neighborhood is changing. Just ask anyone who's bought an apartment in one of the many gleaming condominium projects built in recent years.
Perhaps there's no greater emblem of the neighborhood's mix of old and new than the Willy Street Co-op, the natural-foods supermarket on the main drag of Williamson Street. Founded in 1974, the Madison icon is on the one hand a countercultural holdover, a redoubt for organic foods and communitarian ideals. Still, the co-op is smartly managed, and its emphasis on local, sustainable agriculture makes it a trendsetter.
Oh yeah, the eating at the Willy Street Co-op also is great, and that's one reason the neighborhood is a haven for food lovers. Locally owned restaurants line Williamson Street, and these feature cuisines to suit all tastes: Southeast Asian at Bandung, Bahn Thai and Lao Laan-Xang; Caribbean at Jolly Bob's or Jamerica; New Orleans fare at Bab's; gastropub grub at the Weary Traveler. The street also boasts a variety of friendly meeting places, including cheerfully funky coffeehouses (Mother Fool's, Ground Zero) and taverns catering to townies and small-glasses-wearers alike.
There's also a thriving live-music scene, with venues hosting rock, blues, folk, jazz and other sounds. In warm weather, the neighborhood's signature outdoor music confabs -- the Willy Street Fair, la Fête de Marquette and the Waterfront and Orton Park festivals -- feature touring and local acts.
Shoppers who'd rather skip the big boxes will discover that many of their needs are within walking distance. You'll find basics like groceries and hardware, as well as boutiques selling beads and bric-a-brac, CDs and fashions. Services include hair salons, a leftist print shop and a gas station that charges motorists to fill their tires with air, but not bicyclists.
Neighborhood lovers of outdoor recreation appreciate the fact that to the south, Wil-Mar is bordered by handsome Lake Monona. There also is a fine avenue for bicycling, walking and running in the Isthmus Bike Path, and grassy spots like Orton Park are fine for picnicking.
When it comes to housing stock, one of Wil-Mar's trademarks is the stately old bungalows that line many of its streets. But there also are plenty of those new condos, and rents are reasonable if apartment-dwelling is more your style.
Wil-Mar is an easy walk to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and downtown employers. If your commute takes you further afield, the neighborhood is served by numerous bus lines, as well as the bike path, a key artery in the city's superb bicycling infrastructure.
Take it from a longtime resident: If you want big-city amenities with small-town charm -- and a hefty dose of old-style progressive politics -- then Williamson-Marquette is where you should put down roots.