William Henry sums up the thrill of the annual Mifflin Street block party like this: "The crowd. The mob. And being able to be belligerently drunk under the eyes of the cops, to be blunt." The UW-Madison student lives on the 500 block of West Mifflin Street, the party's epicenter.
"There's the chance that anything could happen," he adds. "Somebody could jump off a balcony. It's a drinking holiday. And it's a huge tradition."
It's exactly that anything-can-happen attitude that scares Madison police and elected officials, who would prefer that the party go away. Last year's version was marred by violence, arrests and stabbings. Students are revving up for this year's party, slated for May 5, but mindful of a stern warning from Mayor Paul Soglin: "If this year's block party were to be a repeat of last year's block party, there's no question it would be the last one." And UW-Madison Dean of Students Lori Berquam pleaded with students in an awkward YouTube video not to attend. The video went viral, with students ridiculing her efforts on social media.
While several students now living on Mifflin Street agree that last year's party got out of hand, they say they love the tradition and hope it continues. "The more they try to rein it in, the more people are going to push back," says Megan Reichert, a UW-Madison senior who lives on the 500 block. "If they try to shut down every party, people are going to react badly."
The party began as a protest against the Vietnam War in 1969, and from the start, there were conflicts with police. Mayor Paul Soglin, then a UW student, was arrested at the inaugural bash. The tradition has continued, usually peacefully but sometimes not - in 1996 there was a riot.
Last year, for the first time, the city allowed open containers of alcohol in the street. That turned out to be a big mistake. Police arrested 162 people for various drinking offenses. Two people were stabbed, three officers were injured, and four strong-arm robberies and three sexual assaults were reported.
The detox facility was at full capacity with the dangerously intoxicated by 8 a.m., and the city spent $130,000 on the party, up $43,000 from 2010. A Madison police report on the event concluded that the party "simply cannot continue." But city officials have tried to stop it in the past and failed. So they're bracing for the inevitable.
Madison police Lt. Dave McCaw says the party, which typically draws between 10,000 and 20,000 to Mifflin and the surrounding streets, has outgrown the neighborhood. Students travel from colleges around the Midwest to attend.
"People [from out of town] don't have ownership; they don't respect it," he says. "They may have no connection here, which is where we start to deviate from it being a block party.... It alters the whole face of the event."
Reichert agrees that out-of-towners cause much of the trouble. And she agrees allowing alcohol in the streets last year was a huge mistake. "They make us out to be violent and crazy," she says of media portrayals. "But the goal is to look out for one another."
Mark Woulf, the coordinator of city alcohol policy, hopes the event's atmosphere can shift over the next four years, the amount of time it takes for a student body to turn over. He also wants to bring back a political or social focus, when the party raised money for a cause and included guest speakers.
"Last year, the only message that got out was 'you can drink in the street now,'" Woulf says. "We need to get to the point where the event exists but there's a level of ownership with students."
Woulf also says the city needs to win "the social media war" by publicizing city ordinances and potential fines. Students living on Mifflin appear to be getting that message.
Reichert and her roommates plan on fencing off their lawn this year and only allowing people they know into their house. She's also taking precautions to protect her property, moving all her valuables to a friend's apartment off Mifflin Street.
She and her roommates might share a bottle of tequila (in honor of Cinco de Mayo, which is the same date as the party this year). But they won't be buying kegs of beer and selling cups for $5, as many other Mifflin households do.
"There are people who get eight or nine kegs," she says. "But if you sell $5 cups, you can get $3,000 fines."
Henry says he and his roommates will also be restrained in their party plans. In early March, they were busted for throwing a party and each given $1,600 fines. "It's just too much of a risk," he says.
The alder for the district, Mike Verveer, says although the block party is a part of the culture for his student constituency, the average Madison taxpayer likely sees it as a drain on city resources without any redeeming value. But that doesn't mean the city can stop it.
"It's inevitable that people would gather. We're trying to do the best we can to respond to that inevitability," he says. "It's very difficult to get our arms around something that's been happening for 43 years and is steeped in tradition."