Stu Levitan, a longtime resident of Madison, is famous for his books documenting the city’s history. His most recent book, “Madison in the Sixties,” focused on the cultural and political upheavals the city faced in the 1960s surrounding urban development, racial equality and the Vietnam War.
Levitan came to Madison in 1975 as a journalist for the Capital Times, but he has since become a lawyer and served in city government.
As a member of commissions, Levitan learned how to balance competing interests while advocating for economic development policies.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What initially brought you to Madison?
In 1975, a United States senator named Fred Harris from Oklahoma was running for president, and he was driving around the country in a Winnebago trailer.
I had just graduated from a small liberal arts college. My plan was to follow him around the country, write a big story called “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” sell it to Rolling Stone and be the Hunter Thompson of my generation. But I figured I needed a backup plan in case that didn't work out. So every city that we went to, I would go to the newspaper and see if I could get a job.
When we got to Madison in August 1975, I knew about the Capital Times. I knew it was this very important liberal newspaper here in Madison.
So I went to visit and see if I could get a job. I met Dave Zwiesel, who was the city editor, and he said, “Oh, our Washington correspondent, Irwin Knoll, recently retired. How would you like to be our Washington correspondent?”
I said, “That's great, but I'm 21 years old. I just graduated from college.”
He said, “Oh, you'll be fine, you'll be fine.”
So they hired me as an independent contractor to go back to Washington and be the Capital Times Washington correspondent. I was 21 years old hanging out in the Senate press gallery with what seemed to me to be middle-aged guys.
We did that for a year and a half, and I'd write two or three stories a week. I sent these faxes out and they paid me $25 a story. After a year and a half in the summer of 1977, they brought me out [to Madison] to work under the newspaper guild contract.
Afternoon newspapers have a work schedule where you show up at seven in the morning and you're done by three in the afternoon. So I was 23 years old covering the statehouse and city hall.
It was one of the best summers of my life. It was just great. At the end of the summer, they sent me back to Washington, took me out of the union, and I was again an independent contractor.
So when the newspaper unions went on strike on October 1, 1977, I was totally on my own as I was no longer in the union because I was an independent contractor.
There was nothing that the union could do for me if I honored the picket line and didn't work for the Capital Times. Thankfully, I understood that, so I quit the Capital Times and I went to work for the Press Connection. And, you know, the rest of my life follows.
What caused you to eventually leave journalism for law and politics?
The Press Connection lasted until January 1980, so I did that maniacally for two years. Then we went out of business, so I started putting out a little mimeographed newsletter of my own.
I became a cab driver for a union cab. I was on the road during the weekend graveyard shift, from 11 at night to seven in the morning. I did that for a couple of years. I also worked in the legislature as a staff analyst.
Then finally, I went to law school when I was 30. I was going to be in politics. I was going to be in government. I was going to keep my hand in the media.
In April 1981, I was running for the City Council. A woman named Nicole Gotthelf, who was the neighborhood president of the Bassett neighborhood, stepped up to run as well. She had much more grounding in the neighborhood. I knew right away that I was not going to beat her.
As soon as she got into the race, I said, “Okay, it's Nicole's. I'm not going to run seriously against Nicole.”
I have more sense than that. But I was still on the ballot. I ran such a non-campaign that the next year, when I ran for the county board, Nicole and her friends made sure that other people didn't run against me. So I got to run for my first election to the county board unopposed. I served for five years.
I really enjoyed being on the county board. I think I got some important stuff done. I wrote the fair housing code.
I wrote the ordinance that created a newspaper recycling ordinance in all the municipalities. We did not have the power to impose a newspaper recycling ordinance on all the municipalities, but we had the landfill. I figured out that if we could close the landfill to municipalities that did not have their own newspaper recycling ordinances, that would be the incentive to create their own newspaper recycling ordinances. And that's what we did. We passed the newspaper recycle, we passed the fair housing code.
I wrote the ordinance creating the Sensitive Crimes Commission. I thought being on the county board was a very rewarding thing to do. As I'm doing the county board stuff, I'm also moving through my last year of law school.
You served on many different commissions. What were the most important issues that you dealt with while serving on those commissions?
I was an arbitrator for the state of Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. My job was implementing the collective bargaining law that Scott Walker abolished 10 years ago.
My job was mediating contract disputes and arbitration grievances. I worked with good people, and it was intellectually challenging.
Over the course of time, I was on the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Plan Commission, the Community Development Authority and the Landmarks Commission, and became chair of all of those except the Plan Commission where I was vice chair. I was given this tremendous opportunity, this amazing privilege, of being able to participate in the land use and economic development issues and governance of the city for the last 40 years.
On the Zoning Board of Appeals, you deal with granting or not granting variances for people to deviate from the zoning code to build things because there are certain landscapes or other impediments.
The Plan Commission touches conditional uses, rezonings and neighborhood plans.
When I was chair of the Community Development Authority, we took a depressed, rundown village or mall and turned it into the village on Park, where you now see the Goodman Library and a new health clinic. I think that sparked the revitalization of the lower part of Park Street that has now taken off.
That was tremendously rewarding. The stuff we did on landmarks protecting Mansion Hill and trying to protect State Street was tremendously rewarding as well.
Your most recent book, “Madison in the Sixties,” was published in 2018. What was the research process for your book?
I read on microfilm every day's newspaper for the Capital Times and the Press Connection from 1960 to 1970. I have a hard drive with 276 gigs of data which is nothing but cropped and scanned clippings all organized by newspaper and month-indexed and tagged with headlines. That was the first phase of the research. I also did it for The Daily Cardinal.
Then I went to the Wisconsin Historical Society archives and went into the reports of the Madison Redevelopment Authority for the history of the Triangle Urban Renewal District, which is a very complex history. Then I went to the University of Wisconsin archives in Steenbock. They have this tremendous resource of oral histories.
I outlined the events and then just started writing. What I did do though, was fact check items that I've written.
For example, I'd write 5000 words about the Mifflin Street Block Party riots or I'd write 5000 words about the Dow protests in 1967. Once I'd written that, I would then send that to people who were there. I'd send it to Paul Soglin. I'd send it to the guy who organized the Dow protest and say, “Okay, here's how I have written this story. Did I interpret it right? Is there anything you'd like to add?”
If you give them something to respond to, they can say, “Yeah, I remember that. That's right.” Or “No, that's not the way it happened.” I found that to be useful. I got some verification, and I had some “No, you, here's what you're missing.” That kind of fact checking was a useful process.
How did researching and writing the book change your understanding of the decade in Madison?
There are a couple of ways. One, it gave me a really deep understanding of the Triangle Urban Renewal Project, which was on the Park Street [and] West Washington region, the most ongoing controversial thing in the history of Madison.
It was part of the old Greenbush neighborhood, which was the Italian, Jewish and Black neighborhood on the other side of the tracks, built on landfill.
It was the neighborhood for people who by economics, culture or law, were not allowed to live anywhere else.
Starting in the late 1950s, there was a federal program called urban renewal. This is identified as “Okay, we can get federal money, and we can improve the quality of life for them in that area.”
The ongoing popular understanding of it, especially among the people who lived there, is that this was an attempt by the federal and city government to destroy the neighborhood to get rid of the Italians.
Hostility and destruction came in when the city failed miserably in the relocation of the people who lived there. That was a total abject failure on the part of the Redevelopment Authority.
And it's a very delicate thing. The descendants of the Bush and who were either children or young adults lost their houses.
It's a very emotional thing for the city to come in and knock your house down.
The problem was, we knocked their houses down in 1962 and ‘63, but the city did not build public housing until 1964 and ‘65.
We knocked people's houses down, but they had no place to move. Either they couldn't sell or the Italians largely couldn't afford other places to move to. And the Blacks couldn't live in other places.
Think about being a 50 or 60-year-old Italian who has lived in the Bush since you came over in 1910 or ‘15. Maybe you don't even speak English. Your whole life is within this neighborhood. You walk to every place you shop, everyone you know lives within this area. And now that neighborhood is knocked down.
Additionally, we were not a well-governed city until Paul Soglin became mayor in 1973.
The city council was all middle-aged white men and I think probably all white, Protestant men, but certainly all middle-aged white men. You get Paul Soglin, elected as a grad student in 1968. You have your first Black Alder, Jeanne Parks, elected in 1969, and another woman, Ally Ashman, elected in 1968. You start seeing the ‘60s as we think of them, but through most of the ‘60s, it was white middle-aged, middle-class men. That's another thing that you'll learn.
What do you think Madison’s past can teach us about its present and its future?
The primary lesson is that the issues will remain until we address them. There's always been some degree of class warfare. There's always been some degree of racial tension. There's always been problems with providing affordable housing. There's always been problems with socially responsible economic development.
We're not going to solve all problems, but we can learn new ways to address them. We can empower community members representing previously unrepresented communities to participate in the exercise of power. That should make the decisions better.
If you don't learn, if you don't remember your history, you won't understand how ironic it is when it repeats itself.