They’re both great towns, but comparing them is almost pointless.
Keeping up with Madison’s place in the mythical firmament of America’s Best Cities (best for whom—retirees? High school dropouts? Lawyers? Musicians?) must be an addictive pursuit. The Wisconsin State Journal brought us the latest (and, to date, most anticlimactic) development last week:
This cringe-worthy piece haplessly goes for the hoariest cliché at the outset, with the face-smashingly irritating comparison to Austin, Texas, a city that bears little resemblance to Madison Wisconsin beyond both being the seat of a university and the state capitol: “Denver tops the list, with Austin, a city Madison likes to compare itself to, coming in second.” And of course, this story is hardly the first to use Austin as a reference point for Madison’s aspirations as a city.
First off, Madison is not a girl you met at a party. The author is trying to say that some people in Madison compare our city to Austin, and this is true, but these are all people who have never actually spent any time in Austin.
Anyone who has understands that the two cities are fundamentally different, and not readily comparable at all. Austin’s major metropolitan area has a population of about two million people and it has the 16th largest GDP in the nation as compared to metropolitan Madison’s population of 633,787 (according to a 2014 Census Bureau estimate) and 65th largest GDP. The average low temperature in Austin—year-round—is 41 degrees. The large population and temperate climate are factors that spur other stark contrasts; there are more than 250 live music venues in Austin compared to a few dozen here and, outdoor or patio dining on the superb and innovative Tex-Mex cuisine is a year-round affair.
Madison does indeed have one of the most exciting culinary scenes in the nation, for completely different reasons, but this is only glancingly referred to in the puff piece: “But the recreational opportunities, good eats, high-tech jobs, education and the arts all were positives.”
Then there’s a meaningless quotation from U.S. News & World Report's new rankings: “It exudes the casual, down-to-earth feel you’d expect in the capital of America’s Dairyland.” (What does this mean? Are there cows ambling down Main Street?)
“Much like in New York City, it’s somewhat rare to encounter a native Madisonian,” this quote continues. Yes, it’s just like New York City that way! Zany, right? Never mind that this is a bizarre assertion with no toehold on the real world. Madison is, rather, known for sucking people back into its vortex of comfort and easy living.
The article also helpfully points out that the “big cities from the Rust Belt didn’t fare too well,” noting Detroit at 86. Presumably this is to make us feel better about coming in at number 24—a burned out wasteland with a failing electrical grid and mile after mile of decaying buildings did a lot worse than us.
Fellow journalists and fellow Madisonians, we are better than this. There are lots of exciting aspects of our city, from our diverse music community to our world-class restaurants, that make Madison a fine place to live. But we are not Austin or New York (or Portland, Oregon) and never will be.
Stop pretending that repackaging mindless “Best place to live” listicles is news, and stop pretending that these dumb comparisons to Austin (or San Francisco) are anything but feeble pandering for insecure paranoids and deluded aspirational yuppies. Relax and enjoy what we have here, or I sentence you to choking down road dust in two hours of deadlocked traffic with the temps outside the burning metal of your vehicle notching 101 degrees. Along with their cool tunes and Barton Creek, that experience also defines Austin.
Editor's note: This article originally referred to the Wisconsin Newspaper Association as the source of a quote that should have been attributed to U.S. News & World Report. The error has been corrected.