Best Places to Live

Madison, WI

Population: 243,122

Name, age, occupation: Rob Gard, 48, director of communications and writer

How long did you live in LA? 19 years

Where did you move? Madison, Wisconsin

Why did you leave LA? 

For all the laid-back perceptions of LA, it takes a lot of focused, intense energy to keep up, not to mention a lot of money. I had a great career and an amazing personal and professional network, but the cost of living was a deterrent to continuing my life there. I was in the Miracle Mile, an incredible neighborhood with world-class museums, restaurants and music venues. But the average cost of a home in the area was $1.9 million, so home-ownership was unlikely. There were also 60,000 people in that neighborhood, and I couldn’t keep up with that kind of intensity in my 40s as well as I did in my 30s.

But the biggest factor to leaving was feeling I’d plateaued with the kind of impact I could have on the community. I felt if I took my skills and experience to a part of the country that was on the rise, I could make a bigger difference in the lives of others. So, I returned to my home state to see what I could do there. 

What's the difference in your rent/mortgage payment in LA vs. Madison?  

I lived in a rent-controlled apartment for my last seven years in LA I paid $1,400 for a great Art Deco one-bedroom, plus $250 for utilities. The second I turned off the lights and turned in the keys to my landlord, the rent jumped up to $1,800. I’m now living in a one-bedroom apartment in a Prairie School home that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, paying $1,200 with all utilities included. 

How did leaving LA affect your career/creative life for the better? 

As I’d hoped, I’ve been able to dive quickly and deeply into a lot of community concerns that I am passionate about including education, equity, transportation and arts issues. Professionally, I found a career that beautifully combines my experience, skills and personal interests. You can see the needle move here and feel the potential for impact a lot more quickly than in LA. 

What's something creative you've been able to do in Madison that may not have happened in LA? 

I haven’t noticed a difference in terms of “what” I’m pursuing. But the big difference is in the impact of that pursuit. In LA, I worked on collaborations with musicians and visual artists that reached certain “in-crowd” audiences. Here, I’m finding those types of collaborations are morphing into projects and campaigns that could impact the cultural landscape of the entire community. 

What do you miss about LA? 

Friends, friends and friends. Weather is a close second. And the fact that LA comes alive when the sun goes down and the lights come up. No matter what you’re interested in seeing, doing, eating, drinking or experiencing, it’s there for the taking 24 hours a day. 

Tell us something surprising about Madison that people may not realize. 

There is extraordinarily great food here. James Beard winners and nominees. Innovative menus. As Chef Daniel Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat once told me, NYC and L.A. chefs may have more experience and more layered techniques, but Madison has excellent chefs who have access to fresher, better ingredients, so the end result is the same transcendent cuisine at half the price. Bar Corallini, which is maybe Madison’s hottest new restaurant, is a perfect example of that. Chef Giovanni Novella has a great Southern Italy cooking style that he applies to all kinds of meats and produce that is sourced locally. 

Another thing people don’t realize about Madison is how active it is! I thought I’d be able to slack off on the workouts here compared to LA. But you see people running and biking whether it’s 100 degrees in the summer or 10 degrees in the winter. No slacking allowed! Thankfully, there are five lakes and more than a dozen state parks that surround Madison, so it’s easy to get outdoors and burn off the calories.