Willy Street: Study of a Neighborhood | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Willy Street: Image Gallery Essay

Study of a Neighborhood

Willy Street: Study of a Neighborhood | Wisconsin Historical Society


View down a sidewalk towards three people waiting outside of a coin laundromat on Williamson Street. Two women, one on steps of a doorway and another near a closed door, are sitting and reading newspapers. Next door to the laundromat is Star Liquor.

Coin Wash on Willy

Caption on the bottom of the frame reads: " 'I know most of the old men in the neighborhood,' Karen Jaster, house painter by trade says. 'I buy them cigarettes and adopt them but I don't take them home. A lot of 'em live in a door stoop somewhere. Most of them are dead now. Milton got killed last winter and Charlie froze in a van.' Despite the loss of old friends, Karen likes the Willy Street community. 'It's a nice neighborhood to grow old in.' Is the area changing? 'Only that it's getting worse in terms of transient people. There's more of 'em, more of a hassle with 'em.'" View the original source document: WHI 119242

Sometime in the spring or early summer of 1982, photographer Jack Greene set out to Williamson Street to create a photographic journal of the Madison neighborhood. He captured several images of people, buildings and scenes, producing a small collection of black and white photographs documenting Williamson Street. The artist attached a short blurb to the frame of each photograph, which describes the image or records the thoughts of the people featured. Thirty-four of his original photographs are now housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

EnlargeHead and shoulders portrait of Reuben Linstrom.

Ruben Linstrom

Caption on the bottom of the frame reads: "Reuben Linstrom: Born in Wisconsin Rapids 85 years ago, Reuben was a hobo in his younger days. 'In them days there wasn't much work but I could get work if I cut my hair. Now I feel like I can't work any more. You know you go to a doctor and he gives you a lot of medicine and then you feel worse than ever,' he laughs." View the original source document: WHI 119250

Despite being only thirty-three years old, the journey this collection has taken from the darkroom to the Wisconsin Historical Society remains a puzzle. Jack Greene won a mayoral grant for the project in April 1982. By August, he had completed the project and displayed his work in an exhibition in the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. We know nothing about the collection after that until Courtnie Duncan found it in an antique shop in Tennessee in May of 2015. Recognizing the cultural value of the photographs to the city of Madison, she launched a Gofundme campaign on the Historic Madison Wi. Photo Group Facebook page, soliciting funds to buy the collection and donate it to the Wisconsin Historical Society.  In less than a week the money was raised and the black and white photographs arrived in Madison.

The collection serves as an important reminder of the fragility of memory and the importance of recording and preserving history. How the photographs migrated from Madison to Tennessee remains unanswered. The photos and the captions offer insight into the recent past of Williamson Street. The beauty in these black and white photographs is not just the images themselves, but the memories they ignite and that they have preserved.

View the Gallery

Interested in learning more about the online image collections? Subscribe to our monthly email newsletter, and tune in to our featured gallery exhibits and special image highlights today!