Mad about Madison

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The Capitol Building

The Capitol Building – Photo: Devery Cash

Wintry Madison street scene

A wintry Madison street scene – Photo: Devery Cash

Where is the gay neighborhood in Madison? It’s a question that Keller Williams real estate agent Devery Cash is used to hearing — and one that he’s grown used to answering.

“It just doesn’t exist,” Cash says. “There is one neighborhood outside of town, the Jennifer Street area, that tends to be a little more lesbian, but frankly, we don’t have any area in Madison that’s considered a gay neighborhood. We’re all interspersed here.”

At a time when gay men and lesbians in large cities across the country are choosing to live outside traditional gay neighborhoods, leaving many gay enclaves struggling to remain relevant, Madison seems like a model city for the future.

“This is a very open and accepting community. We just don’t have to have separate bars or separate neighborhoods. I guess we’ve always been a little ahead of the curve here,” Cash says.

Cash moved to Madison seven years ago from Mobile, Ala., where he was living a closeted life. He came out when he got to Madison and never looked back. “I have never felt frowned upon here,” he says. “I’ve always felt comfortable.”

And yet, to outsiders, Madison may not seem like it has a thriving gay community. Not only does it lack a gay neighborhood, there isn’t much of a gay bar scene. There are currently four gay bars in Madison, but even those aren’t strictly gay. “A lot of straight people go to the gay bars to dance,” Cash says. “We tend to mingle everywhere here.”

With just over 200,000 residents, Madison is surprisingly small.

“The majority of people live within the beltline, so we’re a very tight community here,” Cash says. Madison’s small size might help explain why its LGBT population is well integrated into nearly every sector of the community. An estimated nine churches in Madison call themselves “open and affirming.” The local fire chief is an out lesbian, and numerous LGBTs hold positions in public office. Madison native Tammy Baldwin was not only the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Wisconsin, she also was the first-ever openly gay non-incumbent to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

A liberal college town whose residents range from hard-partying students (hence, the nickname “Madtown”) to socially conscious activists, sports fans to artists, environmentalists to politicos, it’s easy to see why Madison is a good place for LGBTs to live.

“Because of the liberalism of the university, we draw a highly-educated population here,” Cash says.

Although the Madison real estate market has been hit by the economic downturn, the city hasn’t been affected severely.

“Short sales and foreclosures represent maybe five percent of the market here,” Cash says. “We’ve seen a slight decrease in prices and the number of sales are down about 10-15 percent over our peak years. We like to say it’s been more of a correction.”

The biggest change in Madison’s real estate market over the past fives years is in the downtown market. A major influx of new-construction condominiums has brought new vitality to the area, as well as new residents. “It’s no longer limited to just college students,” says Cash, who lives downtown. “This is a very appealing area for the LGBT community.” According to Cash, new-construction condominiums in downtown Madison range in price from about $175,000-$300,000.

Brimming with restaurants, boutiques, bookstores, museums and theaters, Madison’s downtown is pedestrian-friendly and just eight blocks from the University center. The State Street area — within five blocks of any point downtown — is closed to traffic and offers abundant shopping. The new Overture Center is a venue for concerts, symphonies and theater. The Winona Terrace Convention Center, two blocks from the capital, ensures tourist traffic on a regular basis. Capital Square serves as the site for art fairs, concerts, Taste of Madison and the local farmer’s market (every Saturday from Memorial Day through November).

Vital, thriving, open-minded and safe—the city’s low crime rate means you can walk just about anywhere at night without worrying — it’s easy to understand why Madison is an appealing place for so many people, especially gays and lesbians.

While Madison is consistently ranked near the top of the best cities to live in the country, it’s not without at least a couple of drawbacks. “The taxes are definitely high here,” Cash says. “For every $100,000 you spend on a home, you pay close to $2,000. We’re certainly not a diverse city as far as our population goes, and because there is some money here, housing tends to be expensive.”

And all that open-mindedness? Occasionally, it gets on the nerves. “Just about everybody’s a tree-hugger here,” Cash says.

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