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By SHIRLEY NWANGWA, VIOLET WANG, and SAMUEL JOHNSON
MADISON, WIS. — The Willy Street neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin defies the cookie-cutter stereotype that many associate with the Midwest. This eclectic stretch enriches the city with its depth of character, charm, and craftsmanship that makes it a household name amongst Madisonians. Those who live here describe a genuine sense of community on Willy (or Williamson if you’re a stickler), especially in times when a tight-knit space may be just what you needed. The mentality of both Willy Street visitors and inhabitants can be summed up simply and succinctly: local food, local business and local culture. A “Walk on Willy” is a great way to experience much of what this neighborhood offers to all who traverse it.
Throughout Madison, it’s not unusual to encounter the endless lines of “morning brunchers,” awaiting a coveted spot at the city’s various breakfast locations. This phenomenon is no less true at the Willy Street staple, Lazy Jane’s Café. Known for its unique décor, welcoming atmosphere and delicious scones, this eatery attracts a crowd that is just as interesting. One of the owners, eponymously named Jane, takes pride in knowing that people “feel at home” in her café, where she has carefully curated the space to include personal art and quirky fixtures. Beginning at 7:00am sharp, you’ll find loyal customers and self-proclaimed regulars, chatting up the employees behind the counter. People are seen waving and saying hello to whomever is busy with their hot drink or pastry, oftentimes with an unfolded newspaper. Lazy Jane’s is the perfect place for anyone in the Willy St. neighborhood to start a busy day filled with everything from errands to shopping to a night out.
Right around the corner from Jane’s café is another community spot, one that promises a green-and-serene experience. Madison Greenhouse Store offers even more than its name suggests. Not only can Willy St. patrons pick from a variety of plants, but they’re also encouraged to use their colorful finds as art. There are cacti jelly fish on display as hanging mobiles and beautiful twine harnesses meant to showcase heftier botanical loads. The owner, Tiffany, was a longtime patron before deciding to buy Madison Greenhouse Store. She and her dog, Mia, are happy to show anyone around the store, where you can find gardening starter kits and stationery sets, featuring Tiffany’s paintings. After wandering through the store, your eyes and lungs are full, as plants and other items line the walls from floor to ceiling. It’s hard to pull away from this greenhouse wonder, but outside, there’s even more to explore on Willy.
At the center of it all, you’ll find the Willy St. Co-op, the go-to place for fresh produce and a haven for locally-minded community members. The communications director, Brian Smith, is proud to work at the Co-op and believes that it’s a symbol of the people of Williamson Street and all who shop there: they “care about where their food comes from…” A walk outside the building reveals another glimpse into the spirit of the Co-op. Musicians regularly perform to any audience keen to take a seat outside. Around the corner, an entire wall of the grocery store was donated to an art program that, with the help of Brazilian graffiti artist Panmela Castro, transformed the Co-op’s parking lot into a beautiful mural. Shoppers stop to admire the beauty of the art and maybe even leave with a little inspiration, in addition to their groceries.
There are many places on Willy St. that embrace creativity and an eye for the extraordinary. One such business is the Willy Street Treasure Shop, casually known as “Junk and Other Things.” Inside, gems are waiting to be chosen, like vintage chain clocks and funky tea kettles for every occasion. Jeanne, the store’s owner, highly recommends her shop for gifts and personal shopping for anyone on a hunt for something special. She also raves about fellow owners’ businesses, citing a laundry list of other stores to visit on Willy. Jeanne attributes the success of Willy St. to sense of community felt between patrons, but even more importantly, the owners themselves.
Down the street at St. Vincent de Paul’s, this sentiment is echoed. Genève, a manager of the Willy St. location, boasts about the relationship between businesses, facilitated by the Willy St. owner’s association. This positivity is evident to the people who come to St. Vinny’s to create masterpieces of their homes and the canvasses of their bodies. Whether one is looking to find an ensemble or prop that fits their personal style or even that of a character in a theatrical production, St. Vinny’s on Willy is undoubtedly the place to do it.
…Which leads us to Broom Street Theater, where the talent of local actors, directors, costume designers, and crews combine, bringing productions to life. Adding a play to an evening on Willy St. is a wonderful way to let the world fall away while giving your eyes and your emotions to the stage. You can also give of your pocket money — the performances are affordable, but consider tipping those talented actors in the actor’s box!
While the stops, restaurants and culture are hard to beat, what really makes the Willy St. neighborhood worth all the hype is the people! No warmer welcome is found than at the annual Fruit Fest, a Willy St. event that celebrates the LGBTQ+ community in Madison. After experiencing the beautiful mix of queens, queers and everyone in between, you’ll never want to leave. Willy St. awaits your presence, your patronage and of course, your posi-vibes. Come join the community — you won’t be disappointed.