Orton Park Ready to Celebrate

47th Orton Fest is here despite lingering noise and crowd concerns

In 1975 the festival was known as the MNA picnic. Rented from the City was a trailer that transformed into a stage. Courtesy: Richard and Judith Guyot

The Orton Park Festival (August 23-26) is just days away in this year of the perpetual summer. After Orton there is just one last neighborhood gathering to go, the Willy Street Fair. The Fair, The Fest, La Fete and Waterfront have been fantastic neighborhood celebrations; but may be a victim of their own successes as they have grown exponentially in popularity, and for some, threaten the beauty of the neighborhood they celebrate.

As a kid over three decades ago, the Orton Park Festival was the last event of the summer since it always seemed to fall on the Sunday before the first day of school. That would be Monday, the very next day. So it was a bittersweet time, filled with games, food, music, and my friends, but the first day of school always loomed.

Jane Roberts a 1975 costume contest entrant. Photo Courtesy: Richard and Judith Guyot

In the very early days, when I was under 10 years of age, they brought in a stage on a trailer and I was enthralled by how it transformed into a stage. One of my earliest memories was of my sister, who was all of six or seven years old, winning the costume contest when she came dressed as a lamp, the lamp shade from our living room on her head.

For the kids there were several games, my favorite being the Cakewalk, which is exactly what you think it is, kind of a cake roulette. You would march around a circle, stepping on pieces of 8 x 11 paper with numbers on them. The music would stop and a number was drawn. I would win from time to time. So did my sister that year of the lamp, marching around in a circle trying to see where she was going with that lamp shade bobbing along.

See the 2012 Orton Park Festival schedule here

Way back then it was definitely a more intimate neighborhood gathering with maybe several hundred people coming and going over the course of the day. The beer garten was

Activities for all ages have long been a part of the Festival. Courtesy: Richard and Judith Guyot (1975)

always active; I would work the soda stand when I was a bit older. Music was a constant, and by sunset things would wind down. Then my parents and others would begin the task of tearing down and cleaning up, after being there almost at first light to set up.

That’s what I remember about Orton Park, Willy Street, and the other festivals; we were always part of the machinery as much as we enjoyed the fun of these neighborhood gatherings, when the rest of the city was still turning their nose up at the Marquette Neighborhood. But in the last 10 to 15 years, suddenly its cool to come to the Marquette Neighborhood and eat at the restaurants, attend the festivals, and gasp! Live here! For the Orton Park Festival that has put the natural beauty of the spot at risk.

Now the festival boast upwards of 5,000 attendees over four days, and the weight of all that may be threatening the very trees that make the fest and the park one of the most

The soda dispensary circa 1974. Diversity of vendors has evolved considerably since then. Courtesy: Richard and Judith Guyot

special places in the world. The second of two meetings was convened recently to discuss this issue and the growing noise and disruption that the festival occasionally creates.

In response to neighborhood concerns, the Marquette Neighborhood Association has agreed to make changes to how the festival is configured according to MNA Board President Scott Thornton in a written response to Willy Street Blog.

“Changes this year are primarily to the set-up of the festival. Extra steps are being taken to make sure that the Orton oaks are protected during the festival. Additionally, MNA will be funding aeration and reseeding of the park annually in our budget.” Thornton said.

Read Scott Thornton’s entire letter here

Thornton added that a volunteer has stepped forward to perform a study of the noise levels around the park during the festival and that data from this and other assessments would be used to set guidelines for future events.

One Orton neighbor claims the stage sits on the root crown of this tree and the one to its left. City tests for Oak Wilt were negative; but he believes soil compaction during the festival is the major cause of this tree’s decline. Courtesy: T. R. Loon

“City staff had offered 110-120 db, but the attendees at the meeting felt gathering some information first would make more sense.” Thornton said.

For many years it was just one day that residents across the street from this park, that takes up one whole block only several hundred feet from Lake Monona, sometimes tolerated, but mostly embraced the event. Now that it has stretched to four days, with many times the number of people, and a much bigger stage with headlining bands most nights, its become a little more then some can bear.

For those of us who lived through the early years, which were wonderful ones, we are ecstatic about the success and popularity of our neighborhood events. Its validation of the kind of neighborhood we wanted to build. But we still have to live here and it may be time to pull in the reigns on some of these events and find a way to keep their character and still keep the neighborhood happy.

But how do you limit the size of these events that were built on the idea of welcoming and inclusiveness? Do you sell tickets? Operate it like a night club and have a max capacity with a line outside the gates? Do you you limit the number of days?

Read about what Cyrcopia Aerial Dance has planned for this year’s show

It may be tough to cut back too much since a festival like Orton Park is a major fundraiser for the Marquette Neighborhood Association, bringing in $40-50,000 each year for its neighborhood programs. But there is also a danger that the look and feel of these events and to a broader extent the neighborhood can be compromised if these events grow unchecked.

Signed Dr. Evermore sculpture, “FireBird”, will be in the 47th annual Orton Park Auction. Proceeds benefit the Williamson Street art initiative. Courtesy: MNA

The fight over the Plan B nightclub and its alleged noise issues is an example of some of the permanent growing pains the neighborhood has experienced.

Plan B opened approximately five years ago and has been a catalyst for other businesses in the somewhat commercially moribund 900 block of Williamson Street. Since its opening four to five other restaurants and businesses have opened up on the block. Plan B wasn’t the reason, but the block has become a magnet for foot traffic since it boasts eateries, a hair salon, clothing store, retail bread store, pottery store, plus the Third Lake Ridge shopping center which has anchored the block for decades.

The old timers, and the almost old-timers are very excited about all this activity; but one of the reasons that a planned Taco Johns was replaced by the Willy Street Park at the corner of Brearly and Williamson is because neighborhood residents care about its development. That’s why its unlikely a Subway or McDonald’s or other gaudy franchise will ever appear on Willy.

So lets enjoy the fun, but understand how something great like the Orton Park Festival can become a real problem if we don’t continue to have discussions about the future scope of the event and the character of Williamson Street – Marquette Neighborhood.

The Jazz Brunch, featuring food and music, will be Sunday morning August 26, the final day of the festival. Photo courtesy: MNA

For more on the specific debate on the Orton Park Festival, read this article from Madison Commons

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7 thoughts on “Orton Park Ready to Celebrate

  1. Orton Park Festival is just right. In fact 2012’s outing had more involvement in the planning from more neighborhood folks than ever in recent experience. Whatever ‘controversy” may be afoot regarding preservation of the trees, or irritation of park-area homeowner, the point of the fest is to gain interest from the neighborhood for the benefit of the same group. Mission accomplished? Somewhat. Room for improvement? Always.

    As a volunteer Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center Board director and a event professional, I get to hear of many developments in the run-up to each Marquetteville summer festival. For about 6 years I took it upon myself to organize recycling and trash teams now called MadisonRAH spnosroed by 4Lakes Sierra Club. I take great pride in numerous elements of each festival — I have been involved in all of them. Orton Fest is my favorite yearly. When new stewards of Orton Fest (and the others) come to power, their ideas may evolve these activities to totally different outings. This is the life cycle of a community. Rather than complain I chose to dig in, get new people involved, and offer positive, workable solutions. If you don’t like the festivals, life offers plenty of options out of town or some place else. Onward!

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