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2020: A year of highs and lows, resilience for La Crosse

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For most people, it won’t be hard to remember 2020.

It was a year of the pandemic that underscored both our brightest spots and darkest flaws, and was filled with twists and turns, resilient moments, trauma and loss, and months of finding meaning in the little things.

But what did this historical year look like for La Crosse?

Over the summer, activists in the La Crosse area marched side-by-side with others across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death and other instances of police brutality and racial injustice.

Rally for justice

Demonstrators march in Riverside Park during a rally in June in the wake of George Floyd's death.

“We can fix this,” protesters chanted through the streets of La Crosse.

Local activists pushed for change here, calling for policing reform, more representation and shifting funds away from local police.

Ripple effects from the calls-to-action included a series of town halls, a new committee to evaluate representation in city hall and a new transparency web page from the police department outlining things such as spending, training and officer demographics.

The protests also helped encourage La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat to call for the Hiawatha statue’s removal from Riverside Park, after several decades of Indigenous communities and allies pushing for it to be taken down.

The statue stood for nearly 60 years in the park, a derogatory, incorrect depiction of local Indigenous communities that was initially erected to conjure up more tourism dollars for the area.

Hiawatha statue removal

Spectators watch contractors work to remove the Hiawatha statue from Riverside Park.

The School District of La Crosse also responded to calls from activists about the effects of policing young kids and the school-to-prison pipeline, and voted to remove police from its schools in a phased approach.

Members of the La Crosse community also became more invested in their natural resources this year.

This became evident when two groups battled over a new multi-use trail system along Grandad Bluff — both arguing on behalf of protecting and preserving the land.

Other investments in the environment came in the wake of calamities, including when the city of La Crosse announced it would be test a group of homeowners’ drinking water, after a Polyfluoroalkyl Substances contamination.

Connector trail openes

Four-year-old Weber Strauss of Onalaska rides his bike down the new Chad Erickson Connector Trial. The trail is among the many projects in recent years that offer La Crosse area residents and visitors more outdoor recreation opportunities. 

And although the year was largely dry, meaning residents in the area did not experience any major flooding, communities continued to grapple with an unprecedented and unrelenting high water table, contributing to basement flooding and more, and leaving many officials puzzled on what’s next.

La Crosse was also not untouched by the divided political nature of the world.

This was specifically true when a local Catholic priest published several videos with a right-wing media outlet, denouncing Democratic members of the church.

When the videos surfaced locally, groups of protesters met to support the priest, but more broadly, it re-energized a conversation about the relationship between politics and religion in people all around the world.

The region was the political stage for larger political events, too, including two visits from Vice President Mike Pence, a stump event from former presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and a visit from President Donald Trump — proof of the important role Wisconsin and the Driftless region play in electing presidents.

Trump rallies at La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway

Supporters greet President Donald Trump during a rally at La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway in West Salem.

On March 18, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in La Crosse County — a dark day that would be followed by even darker.

As the pandemic persisted, the La Crosse area made national headlines, listed as one of the worst metro areas in the country where the virus was spreading, and after having a sudden spike in young adults that translated into the deaths of more at-risk individuals.

But there were many local heroes that shone through the pangs of the pandemic, and continue to do so.

This includes our health care and frontline workers who have taken the virus head-on since the beginning. Like those at long-term care facilities who work hard to keep the most at-risk community members safe, many who have indicated they’ve been closer to patients than their own families.

“I’m not going to lie and say it’s all been roses and rainbows in long-term care,” Patrick Senzig of Eaglecrest Riverside told the Tribune in October. “This environment is emotionally challenging on all parties.”

“Our staff are witnessing the heart wrenching conversations residents have with their loved ones on why they haven’t visited in seven months or why they’re standing outside the window and won’t come inside,” he said.

COVID testing

Members of the Wisconsin National Guard administer COVID-19 tests at a drive through clinic at the Omni Center in Onalaska.

Other local heroes of the pandemic include small business owners who have adapted to still offer favorite products and services, and the leaders and community members who took the pledge to shop and support local.

Parents, teachers, child care providers, and kids themselves, have been heroes, too, all adapting to new challenges at the drop of a dime.

Other groups and officials have been tirelessly working to keep the housing-insecure safe during the pandemic, working to prevent families from being evicted and getting creative with shelter space.

Heroes also looked like every day people who stepped up to protect their community, even in the smallest ways.

Like a group of kids who built a roadside stand to hand out masks and feel-good homemade goodies to passersby, or a team who donated 500 plants to those in long-term care facilities.

Everyone who stayed home when they could, wore a mask, picked up groceries for a neighbor, donated at-home learning supplies to those in-need, and more — was a hero for the La Crosse community and beyond this year.

The year 2020 showed the community of La Crosse the power of coming together, even while apart.

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