Eken Park sign

The Eken Park sign and butterfly sculpture garden near the corner of North Street and Commercial Avenue creates a sense of identity for the north side neighborhood. 

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Hemmed in by Highway 30 and East Washington Avenue and tucked behind the shadow of the former Oscar Mayer plant, Madison’s Eken Park neighborhood is often overlooked by the rest of the city.

It was once a booming neighborhood built for those working for Oscar Mayer and Rayovac. As those manufacturing giants contracted and eventually closed, the neighborhood stagnated, according to resident Ben Shannon.

“A lot of people don’t know this neighborhood exists,” Shannon said.

However, Eken Park is asserting itself as an exciting pocket on the city’s north side, and the neighborhood association is attempting to harness an influx of energy from new residents to revitalize the neighborhood.

“I think we’re trying to get a little bit of (a sense of identity) back,” Shannon said. “We would really like to present this neighborhood to the larger Madison community.”

The upcoming Eken Park Festival on Aug. 19 is an effort to increase recognition and showcase the best of the neighborhood.

Within the neighborhood, east side staple Dexter’s Pub, the renovated Tip Top Tavern on North Street and the newly opened Ogden’s Diner (though technically just outside of Eken Park) are creating community gathering spots. North Street Cabaret provides another draw for the neighborhood.

Eken Park is also poised to be affected by construction of a public market at the corner of East Washington Avenue and First Street in addition to the future reuse of the Oscar Mayer plant, which closed its doors for good at the end of July. Mayor Paul Soglin suggested the now vacant plant as an option for the Taiwanese manufacturing company Foxconn to expand in Dane County.

“It’s this really nice magic moment, and I think the festival captures it,” Catie Shannon said.

Ben and Catie, both members of the Eken Park Neighborhood Association, bought a house in the neighborhood seven years ago, after being priced out of their rental on Williamson Street — a common story from many of their neighbors, Catie said.

Today, in-demand homes are flying off the market within a week and unsuccessful offers at $25,000 above asking price are not uncommon.

Longtime Eken Park resident Tom Running said the changing demographic of the neighborhood, which is skewing younger, is one of the more noticeable changes. He moved to Eken Park in 1983 because he could afford to buy a house there on a modest salary.

“I am so glad that I stuck it out here,” Running said. “It’s absolutely blossoming right now.”

Out of all the neighborhood’s benefits — a growing business community, diverse group of residents, affordable housing prices — Running said he counts himself lucky that he and his wife live in a neighborhood where people know their neighbors by name and hang out together.

Neighborhood association co-chair Syed Abbas said the festival is about giving people within and outside of Eken Park an opportunity to get to know each other. It’s an “event where you drink, listen to music and shake hands with people. Build a stronger community.”

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The family-friendly event will take place from noon to 8 p.m. on the 700 block of Mayer Avenue, right next to the Tip Top Tavern. It features four bands, events for kids all day and food carts.

Branding for the festival, which includes a big-top tent, pays homage to when the circus used to perform in the neighborhood. There will also be a kids circus parade at 3:15 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.

While festival planners hope the event conveys Eken Park’s identity, the neighborhood association has been working to create a sense of place with signs and markers.

In 2015, the neighborhood used a city grant to create a butterfly sculpture garden and welcome sign at Commercial Avenue and North Street. It is also working to create a historical marker and gateway project at the corner of East Washington Avenue and East Johnson Street.

Ald. Larry Palm represents the 12th district and also lives in Eken Park. He said it is rewarding to see people in the neighborhood engaged and committed to knowing their neighbors.

“Other neighborhoods have good strengths and are always in that waxing and waning period, but certainly right now Eken Park has got it,” Palm said.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.