Great neighborhood festivals are contingent on great neighborhoods. Great neighborhoods depend on neighbors who share a sense of where they are and sufficient commitment to it and each other to gather in celebration of common ground.
If you are fortunate to live in a great neighborhood, these qualities are as familiar to you as neighbors who hail you by name from down the street and ask after your well-being, who help shovel each other's sidewalks after a snowstorm of biblical proportions, and who tend your cats while you're on vacation.
If you are not so fortunate, a great neighborhood will welcome you to its summer festival, where you can discern the characteristics that distinguish it from other great neighborhoods. Among the more distinctive:
May 31, Monona. 608-221-1521.
One of those old-fashioned church celebrations that begins at 8 a.m. with a white-elephant sale, picks up at 11 a.m. when the food and beer tents open, and hits full steam an hour later when juggler Truly Remarkable Loon leads off an entertainment schedule that includes music by Joe Scalissi & the Dry Martinis and the Kristi B Band. Plus bingo, a raffle, coffee and pie, a bake sale and kids' games.
June 4-6, McKee Farms Park.
Now hosted by Fitchburg, this Italian Workmen's Club celebration remains rooted in the legacy of Madison's Greenbush Neighborhood and perpetuates the memories of that venerable community. Since its origins in neighborhood picnics at Brittingham, Hoyt and Olin parks more than 60 years ago, it persists today with a pasta dinner and pasta-eating contest, Italian folk-dance performance, a Miss Festa presentation, a Sunday Mass, scholarship presentations, Italian flags display, a raffle and music in abundance.
Isthmus Block Parties
Thursdays, June 10, July 8 & Aug. 19, Downtown Madison. 608-251-5627.
Isthmus throws three downtown block parties this summer, with music and refreshing beverages. The Cash Box Kings lead off on June 10 with rich Chicago-style blues at 5 p.m. on West Main Street's 100 block, followed by the Midwest Beat and Elf Lettuce on July 8 at the top of State Street, and Mighty Short Bus on Aug. 19 on East Main's 100 block, where the winners of Isthmus' annual Madison Favorites readers' poll are announced.
June 12-13, Yahara Place Park, Madison. 608-241-7143.
Convened along Lake Monona's north shore at the Yahara River, this festival has been cultivated from the grass roots to become an exhilarating pan-global music showcase while retaining the Marquette Neighborhood's funky informal vibe. Among the artists scheduled to appear at this year's 21st edition: Chilean cumbia/ska sensation Chico Trujillo, Austin Latin-funk phenoms Grupo Fantasma, Toronto's Great Lake Swimmers and the Afrobeat of Nigeria's Tony Allen Band, along with local cornerstones including the klezmer ensemble Yid Vicious and the Westside Andy/Mel Ford Blues Band with Barrelhouse Chuck. All that and much more music, plus Saturday morning's annual Dandelion Dash 5 and 10K runs and 100-yard kids' race, a coed volleyball tournament and Sunday canoe race, food by neighborhood restaurateurs, the debut of a second beer garden and lots of fun stuff for kids to do.
July 8-11, Madison. 608-257-4576.
Voyage all the way au Paris to observe Bastille Day? Are vous crazy? You can get your French fix right here in Le Republique du Madison. Staged in an area defined by East Main and South Dickinson streets and l'Avenue East Washington, this year's Wil-Mar Neighborhood celebration presents such performers as the electrifying Ivory Coast vocalist Dobet Gnahore, veteran Austin chanteuse Marcia Ball and Louisiana's Sonny Landreth and Trombone Shorty. You might want to bring a broad-brimmed chapeau, as the festival site can get mighty chaud under a bright sun.
July 24-25, Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Madison. 608-244-1001.
This church and its community have celebrated their Hellenic heritage for almost half a century. Yet, in a city known for its German, Ho-Chunk, Irish, Italian and Polish populations, this remains one of Madison's most underappreciated summer festivals. Held on the church grounds at 11 N. 7th St. as thousands of cars whiz past along East Washington Avenue, the festivities here somehow
manage to retain an intimate, welcoming charm. Maybe it's the glorious food - gyros, chicken and lamb dinners, along with what must be one of the most spectacular selections of homemade Greek pastries outside the greater Aegean region. Maybe it's the opportunity to tour the church itself and appreciate its architecture and icons. But it might also be the way the Greek folk music compels you and your kids to join in the culture's dance traditions. Opa!
July 31, Madison. 608-241-1574.
Stretching from the Barrymore Theatre down Atwood Avenue to Schenk's Corners, the Goodman Community Center's annual fundraiser brings the vicinity's food and craft vendors together with two music stages reflecting neighborhood residents' affinity for blues and rock. "We try to have an emphasis on activities for all ages," notes Goodman exec director Becky Steinhoff, citing bouncy rides, games and other fun stuff for kids. The result is an easygoing street festival with handmade goods that exemplify the buy-local ethic. And, of course, beverages to help you beat the heat.
Aug. 7, Troy Gardens, Madison. 608-240-0409.
Savor indeed: Community Groundworks (formerly Friends of Troy Gardens) celebrates foodways and shortens supply lines by hosting a vegetable feast prepared from the bounty of what executive director Jill Jacklitz calls "this beautiful land" on Madison's north side. Part of a 31-acre community of mixed-income green-built housing with restored prairie and woods, these gardens comprise a community of 330 family plots, a children's garden, an interpretive trail and partnerships with the Madison Area Community Land Trust, the University of Wisconsin and the Center for Resilient Cities. Jacklitz says the festival is "a reflection of this community and the gardeners," with music and children's activities also on tap.
Aug. 15, Bayview, Madison. 608-256-7808.
For more than a quarter century, the Bayview Neighborhood's residents have gathered near Park and Regent streets to celebrate their ethnic diversity in food, music, dance, arts, cultural and historical exhibitions and children's activities. The festival reaches out well beyond the Hmong and Italian heritage of many Bayview neighbors to embrace Arab, Gaelic, Greek, Hispanic, Ho-Chunk, Jewish and other traditions to a point bordering on the Pangaean.
Aug. 21, Warner Park, Madison. 608-258-0261.
At first glance, the African Association of Madison's celebration of African culture and heritage may not strike you as a neighborhood festival per se. But squint again and you'll recognize the sprawling neighborhood of all Africa and its diaspora - in cultural terms, perhaps the most enduring colonial power in all history. This summer's 12th annual event focuses on the persistent African influence on American cuisine, but you'll also find art and music and other manifestations of Africa's rich and ongoing traditions, including an African Village Tour. Prepare to dance.
Aug. 27-29, Madison. 608-241-7143.
On the site of a former graveyard now dense with tall old shade trees, the Marquette Neighborhood Association celebrates summer's waning days with this family-friendly outburst of music, neighborhood food and arts vendors. Bordered by Rutledge, Spaight, South Few and South Ingersoll streets, Orton is a quintessential, picturesque pocket park, and its eponymous festival exemplifies the way a great neighborhood festival reflects the personality of a great neighborhood - in this case funky, casual and engaged. The festival's most distinctive characteristic may be the perennial Cycropia Aerial Dance performance choreographed among the park's majestic treescapes.
Sept. 25-26, Madison. 608-256-3527, ext. 22.
This annual Common Wealth Development fundraiser extends the summer festival season an extra month beyond the traditional Labor Day horizon, packing a handful of entertainment stages into the 800, 900 and 1000 blocks of Williamson Street, along with a plethora of neighborhood food and arts vendors and a parade led by Jim Wildeman's impressive Bubblemobile. Wil-Mar's Gary Kallas likens this event to the traditional street fair that popped up in the '60s and '70s, a slice of Americana celebrating "that which is good in the human spirit - peace, love, understanding, community."