‘The Monticello Way’

Northwest neighbors party with a purpose: to prevent crime
Michael Leon

Photo by Don Kosterman. Neighbors of Fitchburg’s Monticello Way gather Saturday, May 10, for a block party, held at the home of Nathan Hobert (far left).

Nathan Hobert also created a new Facebook page, “Monticello Way Community,” to help keep neighbors in touch.

The polar vortex injected a chill in the interactions among neighbors on Monticello Way last January, but it didn’t last.

On a beautiful Saturday in May, neighbors came from up and down the half-mile-long street on Fitchburg’s northwest side and people partied like it was 1969, vowing to meet again all summer long.

It wasn’t the great weather that brought folks together. This party had a greater purpose.

A rare and well-publicized February crime spree that saw numerous attempted burglaries in Jamestown, near the Fitchburg-Madison border, persuaded Maggie Newberry to think of a way to prevent them.

So Newberry, a realtor living on the 5700 block, began chatting with her neighbors, saying everyone should start putting faces to houses again.

“Burglaries don’t happen in our neighborhood,” she said. “I was telling everyone, we should bring back the block parties we used to have before. Everyone gets to know each other, recognize faces.”

Newberry recalled these block parties as a longstanding tradition that kept the neighborhood closely knit.

“We used to do it on our front yard when this was a cul de sac,” she said. “I told the new young couples on our street, ‘If you ever leave for a time, I’ll do your driveway, and watch your house.’ That’s the Monticello way.”

Newberry found a neighborhood enthusiastic about the idea of partying for safety and fun.

Wade Whitmus, also from the 5700 block, called the idea “perfect.” His family serves as the block captain for the Jamestown Neighborhood Association.

“Neighborhoods have traditionally been the core of growing up in communities,” Whitmus wrote in an email to the Star. “These days, with work obligations, sport activities and other demands on our time, it is hard to initiate and maintain connections with your neighbors in the traditional sense of days gone by. Today, more so than ever, it is critical for us to know our neighbors, get connected, and look out for each other.”

Nathan Hobert and his family on the 5800 block were so enchanted with bringing back neighborhood parties, he published a newsletter, the Monticello Way Messenger, printed it out, and distributed copies to all the houses on the street.

He even set up a Facebook page called the “Monticello Way Community.”

In a way, the Monticello Way area epitomizes the City of Fitchburg, with its bucolic atmosphere, hawks occasionally setting up families in nests on top of the huge ash trees, families taking walks and pulling children in wagons, and hardcore joggers running seemingly at all hours of the day and night.

“This is a paradise, and everyone is having fun as a means of keeping it that way,” Hobert said.

Having a blast

So it was the second Saturday of May, the Hobert family hosted the party in their gorgeous red ranch-style home, set among two huge silver maple trees and a giant poplar.

The party was replete with brats, hot dogs, burgers, beer, plentiful refreshments and a large inflatable bouncy house for the numerous children attending.

This was not the Mifflin Street block party. It was better.

“Every street should do this. People just kept coming. We were blessed,” said Hobert, who estimated that some 50 people dropped by between 11 a.m. and about 3 p.m. – though it actually appeared to be more like 90.

In any event, more similar parties are planned this summer, said Hobert and neighbors.

Two Saturdays later, Hobert’s children set up a lemonade stand; the following Thursday a group of about a dozen Monticello residents met for a Six Pack and a Brew meeting: Objective, just fun, beer, and getting to know people.

Hobert has been attending his Six Pack and a Brew monthly for a couple of years, and now he invites his neighbors whom he met at the Monticello Way block party.

“At the party it was cool to see Pat and Maggie Newberry who lived here since the 1970s chatting with a young couple who moved in a year ago,” Hobert said.

Deterrent to crime

Police are fans of the parties, too.

The Fitchburg Police Department puts out frequent alerts on email with burglary prevention measures, such as keeping garage doors closed and keeping garage door openers out of cars if residents are away from homes for extended periods. And it so happened that the rash of winter burglaries and attempted burglaries near the Madison-Fitchburg border occurred frequently by way of prying open home-attached garages.

Good police work apparently ended the burglary spree. And after police questioned suspects, the unusual rash of house burglaries ceased, police reported.

But police also say tight neighborhoods – with extra pairs of eyes on your home – are a proven crime deterrent. That’s one reason for the many neighborhood crime watch areas in most any urban community.

“The attempts in the Monticello Way area to get to know each other are definitely positive and increase the likelihood to know when criminal activity may be occurring and of course deters such criminal activity from occurring,” said Lt. Todd Stetzer of the Fitchburg Police Department. “The bond among neighbors getting to know each other heightens the knowledge of the neighborhood and teaches and allows neighbors to spot what is abnormal, suspicious activity and to report it.”

In so many words, quality of life in a neighborhood keeps away burglars.

Knitting a community

Nothing beats friendly neighborhoods and the familiar, comforting presence that people call home.

It’s the kind of place where a guy like Michael Vanhecker, a hulking, gregarious resident of the 5800 block of Monticello Way, takes out his snow blower tractor in the winter and does his neighbor’s driveway out of respect because the neighbor is a military veteran.

Fitchburg, a highly educated city of 25,260, is at a crossroads as issues of development and the environment have become more contentious than usual. A fact of criminality is that cities have more crime than towns and villages.

The city’s “Economic Development Vision and Strategy” report stresses the imperative to “build a community identity and a sense of place,” calling for a “stronger, more unified community identity.”

At this crossroads, the Monticello Way community is determined this neighborhood will lead the way toward the path forward, together with diverse political views and wildly varying life outlooks.

Take a walk down the street at 4:30 a.m. sometime this summer and you will hear a cacophony of birds singing so loudly that sometimes even hard-core runners must want to stop and listen.

Pick up your State Journal at 4 a.m. and your concern is that the couple down the street out for an early walk heard you return their friendly greeting, “Good morning,” before you’ve had some coffee.

Driving down the street, there’s Cody the dog with the folks whose father served in World War II. There’s Don Kosterman, the nature photographer and old-school journalist, doing his lawn and taking a break to talk to his neighbor passing by.

The atmosphere on Monticello Way has truly changed; face time, fellowship and libations do wonders for a neighborhood.

Summer is crime time. Concerns have been made public about adjacent neighborhoods.

On Monticello Way, observing the people interacting now, covering the block party weeks back, it’s fair to report of the planning and occasion of neighborhood partying: All objectives achieved and mission accomplished.

It’s going to be a good summer.

The neighborhood party: Re-tying broken links
The historic Hill Farms neighborhood on Madison’s west side represents the definition of a tight-knit neighborhood bound by commonality and shared purpose.

Planned as a city expansion in Madison with a shortage of housing and an abundance of returning G.I.s, Hill Farms remains an enduring example of a neighborhood begun with a sense a community.

Communities appear naturally disposed to festivals and celebrations when commonality is openly acknowledged, and the opposite – discord and crime – arise when commonality is denied.

In Dane County, the Mifflin Street Block Party, the WORT block party, the Monroe and Willy Street Fairs, Fitchburg Days, Verona Hometown Days (June 12-15), and other community parties come to mind.

Ethnic communities and neighborhoods are staples in most big cities in the United States. When people immigrated to America, they often settled in enclaves so that they could keep the sense of community that they were used to in small villages and towns in Europe.

This explains in part why there used to be distinct Polish, Norwegian, Belgian, German, and now Hispanic and black communities and areas throughout Wisconsin. That demographic composition of neighborhoods is now fading except in the most-segregated urban area in the United States, Milwaukee.

Observances of Juneteenth – the freeing of the last slaves – Irishfest, Polishfest, Greekfest, and the Mexican Fiesta, to name a few of the celebrations, are yet to come this summer in Wisconsin to celebrate and express appreciation of diverse cultures.

“Our hope on Monticello Way is that by making connections, we make a community of everyone,” said Fitchburg resident Nathan Hobert. “We start as a street, reacting to the misfortune of a neighbor (a February burglary of a couple away for a Valentine’s Day vacation). We help our neighbors and our neighborhoods by reaching out to get to know each other.”

Monticello Way block/street parties will likely never be as cosmopolitan and political as the original Mifflin Street Block Party, the Willy Street fair, or some other neighborhoods in Dane County. But this isn’t the purpose.

It’s to have fun outside, and a place to call home with your neighbors.

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