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Sunday, December 03, 2023
A proposed arcade-style bar on Willy Street has divided community members on the necessity of another drinking establishment in the neighborhood. 

A proposed arcade-style bar on Willy Street has divided community members on the necessity of another drinking establishment in the neighborhood. 

Willy Street community spirit prevails, no thanks to franchising

Famous for its weirdness, Williamson Street, lovingly referred to by residents as “Willy Street,” is a haven from the growing threats of chain restaurants and big box stores occurring across Madison. 

As a neighborhood, Willy Street community members understand the implications of cultural displacement and the negative effects it can have on community bonds and small businesses. Confident in their sense of community, small businesses on Willy Street fight off the looming effects of franchise stores by banding together through community events to preserve the neighborhood’s unique charm.

In 1984, the Marquette-Williamson neighborhood solidified its stance on chain restaurants when controversy arose over a proposed Taco John’s drive-in on the corner of Williamson and Brearly Streets. The neighborhood succeeded at stopping the development of the chain restaurant, and the land was donated to the neighborhood before becoming Willy Street Park. The unwavering, robust community spirit exemplified in the 1980s is no different from the Willy Street community today.

As large chains pop up around Madison — including the addition of a Starbucks on East Washington Street — Tiffany Olson, owner of Madison Greenhouse Store, 1354 Williamson St, is doubtless in her community’s desire to shop local. 

“There’s five good coffee shops within a few blocks of there. Corporations moving into the area are bound to be a little bit disappointed because I do think most people are going to be loyal to independent, locally run places, which is really what [Willy Street] is known for,” Olson said.

Brendon Smith, Willy Street Co-op marketing and communications director, echoed a similar sentiment.

“It’s great not to see a lot of chain stores on Williamson Street, and I am hoping that’s not just luck,” Smith said. “Once the chains come in, it’s hard to keep a unique identity.”

These small business owners are confident in their community choosing to shop local, but the community on Willy Street is built by more than just shopping local. Willy Street businesses work to build bonds within their neighborhood by holding and supporting community events.

The Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center stands at the intersection of community preservation and community building. Annual events like Fête De Marquette and the Willy Street Fair work to bring community members and local businesses together to gain visibility for the neighborhood and their respective businesses.

Each year the Willy Street Fair brings together more people than the year before. Gary Kallas, the Executive Director of Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, predicted that an estimated 150 vendors and 25,000 people attended the annual event this past year, with one-third of the vendors coming from the Willy Street neighborhood.

“Through that growth, we’re able to promote more and lift up more promotion of various businesses and the community at large,” Kallas said. “[This event] essentially put[s] us on the map by saying ‘Hey, we have this wonderful place, come visit us, sample for a weekend, have some fun, clean up after yourself and then go home.’"

Each new community event on Willy Street offers a unique opportunity to bring the community together and continue strengthening community bonds.

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“Whether it’s the various small business boutiques or restaurants and bars, there’s a certain inclusiveness to Willy Street that invites and welcomes people of all identities,” Kallas said.

At the core of embracing inclusivity and togetherness to preserve community bonds is Willy Street Co-op a grocery cooperative founded on Williamson Street that aims to “cultivate and empower community, customers, employees and suppliers.” In efforts to engage the community and foster bonds, the Willy Street Co-op plans to rent a location across the street from their Willy Street East location for community classes and events.

“We knew what that room meant to us. But we didn't really realize what it did or could mean to the whole neighborhood,” Smith said.

While the future of Willy Street is uncertain for small business owners amid the threats of franchise stores, Olson is certain the heart and soul of the community will never change.

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