L.L. Bean’s insensitive marketing display highlights the two realities of downtown Madison.
L.L. Bean dropped in on Madison last week with a big “S’More Out of Summer” display that clogged the top of State Street for an entire tone-deaf day. The recreational-gear company’s display included a huge camping tent, benches, a swing, yard games, and a fire pit for roasting marshmallows, all arranged in a big circle that took up the width of street. It was as if someone’s glamping Pinterest board was insensitively plopped down in the middle of an area where people struggling with homelessness do often camp—and are reviled by the police, city officials, and downtown business owners who resent the presence of anyone who isn’t a paying customer.
Especially in the context of increasing hysteria around “bad behavior” in the “problem area” at the top of State Street and the subsequent vilification and criminalization of homeless people, there was something sickening about watching L.L. Bean employees roll out $130 sleeping bags in front of a $400 tent, just yards away from where people sleep on cardboard beneath torn-up tarps. I couldn’t have swallowed one of L.L. Bean’s s’mores—complete with branded graham crackers—if I had wanted to.
The outdoorsy marketing bonanza also raised questions about who the public space in downtown Madison is actually for. Those questions were largely answered the next day, when the Wisconsin State Journal published an article in which new Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway declares, “The party is over,” and “We want to encourage people to be in the space, but not to be there for hours and hours.”
She wasn’t talking about L.L. Bean, though. She was referring to all the fun that poor and homeless people have apparently been having in the same area. She went on to explain that there will be increased policing, added fencing, fewer benches, and fewer outlets where people might charge their phones. She asked volunteer groups to stop feeding hungry folks at the top of State Street, as if discussing pigeons instead of people.
Rhodes-Conway did attempt to soften the message by distinguishing between homeless people and the “real troublemakers,” but it’s unclear that the distinction will matter when police crack down on the area in the coming weeks. I’ve never been arrested but I’m pretty sure the cops don’t check to see if you’re suffering economic hardship and homelessness before they do it. The most vulnerable members of our community will be criminalized across the board. And everyone pays the price when we make our public spaces uglier and less hospitable. Will “bad behavior” come to an end if we follow police recommendations and eliminate the remaining bus shelters at the top of State Street? I doubt it. But all of us who ride the bus will get to stand in the rain.
The city has already taken multiple steps to make the public space at the top of State Street less hospitable. In 2015, the art installation known as Philosopher’s Grove was removed, also apparently in response to crime and loitering. A few months later, a bus shelter and bus stop were eliminated. Earlier this year, a new art piece was installed for the express purpose of eliminating a bench that “attracted criminal behavior.” Some of these changes were suggested by the police. All of them are in line with the Madison Police Department’s apparently ineffective philosophy for managing the area which, in short, is to make it as unpleasant as possible. We saw this spelled out in black and white in 2016 when a picture of a whiteboard from a police brainstorming session was leaked to the press (you remember—the one where police jokingly suggested getting rid of homeless people on State Street with quicksand, fentanyl-laced heroin, and bombs).
But for L.L. Bean and the wealthy white people L.L. Bean attracts? We will apparently re-route busses and shut down a block for the day. Feeding people? A-OK if it’s a part of a marketing strategy. They need an outlet to plug in their speakers and unironically blast Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA into a street where struggling veterans are among those getting busted for drinking beer in public? The city of Madison is happy to oblige, for the price of a permit. The city employed similar double standards when Zappos came to Madison for a Friends With Benefits Road Show in 2017. Zappos gave away free beer in the cul-de-sac on Mifflin Street, a place where drinking is prohibited every other day of the year. Apparently it’s not a problem if it’s sanctioned by a national retailer.
I don’t hate fun, free beer, or s’mores, nor am I really even upset at L.L. Bean (though I do think it’s gross of the city to lease out public space to private companies to host events that are essentially just commercials, and that issuing a permit to L.L. Bean for this event in particular was both stupid and offensive). I’m also not under the impression things are fine at the top of State Street. They’re not. And it’s upsetting specifically because it’s so clear that the folks spending their days (and many of their nights) sitting and sleeping there are not having a good time. They are having the worst time. No “party” is taking place.
What actually disgusts me is what L.L. Bean’s display of high-end camping equipment represents, in an area where people risk death from exposure every winter. It’s the fact that the juxtaposition is even possible. L.L. Bean chose Madison for its marketing extravaganza because there is money in Madison. That’s true at the very same time and in the very same place where people’s most basic needs are going unmet. Two wildly different versions of the same city revealed again, in a downtown that is increasingly shaped in the interests of consumption and wealth—all regardless of who is in office.