Norm Stockwell remembers when the Mifflin Street Block Party was about more than getting hammered.
When Stockwell worked for the old Mifflin Street Co-op, which sponsored the party in the '80s and '90s, he helped organize it. Each year had a different political theme: the environmental effects of pesticides, U.S. military intervention in Latin America. Between bands, speakers would address these topics. Proceeds from beer and food sales went to the co-op, community organizations and charities.
"The party in its great times was more than just a party," says Stockwell, now operations manager for WORT radio. "It was about getting out a message."
Ironically, stricter city regulations in the early '90s -- the need for more insurance and plastic beer-garden fencing -- made the event too expensive for the Mifflin Co-op to keep sponsoring. The themes were lost and the party became an informal drinking bash. That led to a riot in 1996, and this year, two stabbings, police injuries and scores people being arrested or hauled off to detox.
At a news conference Monday, Mayor Paul Soglin said the party needs to end or be greatly curtailed for safety and financial reasons: "Every dollar spent on police overtime is going to come out of some other program."
But Soglin offered few specifics about what could be done, other than to say, "My goal is to make it as uninviting as possible to people."
It's been tried before. Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents the Mifflin area, said that after the 1996 riot police changed tactics to "make the event less popular for a few years." This included making sure the sidewalks and streets were not obstructed, making it harder for people to congregate.
Soglin said he has no interest in making the Mifflin Party more like the Halloween festival Freakfest on State Street. He said he's always been opposed to gating public streets and thinks it's even less appropriate on Mifflin, a residential neighborhood.
But other Madison street festivals could be affected by some of the changes Soglin seeks, like requiring the Common Council to give final approval in issuing beer permits for block parties, especially for large parties. Currently these permits are issued by city administrators.
Council approval might not be a big deal, but Verveer says some organizers are worried about extra costs and requirements that could come with increased oversight. "I've already heard from event sponsors that are concerned this could have negative consequences on their event."
Isthmus associate publisher Linda Baldwin is worried about the impact on other street fests, like Art Fair on the Square, Taste of Madison, the Willy Street Fair and the Isthmus Block Party.
"It's important we learn from Mifflin," she says. "[But] I'm concerned we don't have a knee-jerk reaction and stop having the kinds of events that have been good for downtown."