Aurora Uber Alles
Downstate's flagging population growth
March 31, 1994
In which I took up, not for the last time, the issue of stagnant population in Illinois’s Downstate cities. By the way, the prediction repeated here that Aurora would be Illinois’s No. 2 city in 2010 with 148,000 proved only half correct. It made No. 2, all right, but with 197,000 people.
As a patriotic son of Springfield, I am troubled that Aurora has overtaken Mr. Lincoln's home town as Illinois' fourth most populous city. The news seemed to take Mayor Langfelder by surprise, perhaps because he mistook the recent population boom in city council chambers as representative of what was happening in the city as a whole.
Of course it is true that U.S. Census Bureau numbers do not tell the whole story about urban size. The population of the corporate central city is a dubious measure of the metropolitan area of which it is the heart, since it typically includes only a fraction of the residents of the larger conurbation. The Census Bureau’s Springfield Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area includes all of both Sangamon and Menard counties, for example.
Mayors would be better advised to argue municipal status in terms of SMSAs or, better yet, resident-equivalents. The resident-equivalent is a statistic of my own devise. It consists of the number of people who reside in a city, to which are added the number of people who do not live there but wish they did. Subtract from that total the numbers who do live there but wish they didn't, and you have its resident-equivalents. The result is a more honest count of city size, although in Springfield's case they usually ended up giving it a lower one. Past resident-equivalent censuses always reduced Springfield's population by at least one, that one being the incumbent governor.
However one counts it, Springfield's population is hardly booming. The crop of mortgage interest deductions sprouting in the cornfields west of Veterans Parkway suggest that Springfield is growing but in fact it is only spreading out. The City of Springfield's population grew 9.1 percent from 1970 to 1980 during a decade when paper-pushing became an industry. While vigorous by local standards, Springfield's growth in the 1970s failed to keep up with the rest of the country, which grew by an average of 11.4 percent over the decade.
In the 1980s, the market for bureaucrats turned bearish, and Springfield's decennial population increase was a mere 5.1 percent—a growth rate roughly half the national average, although better than Illinois as a whole, which showed no net population change over the 1980s. But while nominally expanding, Springfield has actually been shrinking in size relative to the rest of the U.S.
Why? We would need to make a census of the reasons. I will mention only two: A city does not make a good impression when visitors to its downtown must sometimes park three, four, even five yards from their destinations, nor has it helped that the Prairie Capital Convention Center has not booked a single entertaining act in 20 years.
Meanwhile upstate, Aurora was growing by 9.3 percent from 1970 to 1980, and from 1980 to 1990 increased its population by a further 22.4 percent. That is not fast enough to rank among the 45 fastest growing U.S. cities over 100,000 in the 1980s, which racked up rates of growth from 320 to 30 percent. (No Illinois city made that list.) But a 22.4 percent decennial growth rate in a stagnant Illinois stands out like a PhD on the Springfield city council.
What explains this remarkable vigor in a town previously known only as the place Genevans went to when they wanted to carry on where the neighbors couldn't see? Jobs. Chicago's suburbs collectively achieved an economic critical mass in the 1980s. Hundreds of new, clean assembly plants, shipping centers, and malls gave them a self-sustaining economic life independent of Chicago.
Illinoisans of every generation have moved to where the jobs are. For a while in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the jobs were in Springfield. The capital city was swollen by Illinoisans driven from the countryside by the mechanization and consolidation of farms; the children of people who once harvested Illinois' grain made their livings building the machines that replaced them. Europeans also came here, to mine coal, and a service economy—some of it legal—quickly evolved to mine the miners. Even sober Springfieldians in those days predicted that the capital soon would be eclipsed in size only by Chicago.
Recently, Downstate's blue-collar towns have suffered as that process has reversed. Metropolitan Decatur has shrunk by nearly 11 percent since 1980. Two other Illinois cities—Chicago and Peoria—were among the 20 U.S. cities that lost the highest percentage of their people in the 1980s. The only Downstate cities that grew even modestly were those such as Springfield and Champaign-Urbana whose economies are kept alive by infusions of government spending.
In 1990 the Illinois Department of Employment Security predicted that the Chicago area economy, in contrast, will add 400,000 new jobs by 2000, mostly in the suburbs; during those same ten years, the other 96 Illinois counties combined are expected to generate only 166,000 new jobs. Springfield probably will not be the only Downstate city forced to look at Aurora's backside; Aurora is projected to be Illinois' No. 2 city by 2010, with 148,000 people.
What to do? Alas, the world has passed Springfield by—literally. In terms of physical location Springfield is admirably situated for the 19th century flow of goods, being too close to St. Louis and too distant from greater Chicago. Lacking a blue-collar workforce willing to be exploited, it can attract no factories; having no factories, it attracts no exploitable workers.
Springfield could grow now as it did earlier in the century, by absorbing adjacent settlements through annexation. Unfortunately, rising literacy and the advent of mass communication after the 1920s meant that news of the way that Springfield is governed spread across its borders. Ever since, the spectacle of Springfield trying to entice annexees has reminded me of a toothless bore with bad breath and a dirty suit trying to pick up women in a bar: No matter how polished the come-on, the realities of the proposed union are too obviously repugnant to ignore.
If we can't get new Springfieldians from someplace else, we will have to make them ourselves. Getting a city of bureaucrats to up the birth rate will not be easy. Say "reproduction" to the average Springfieldian and he thinks of Xerox machines.
Until the bureaucrats stop multiplying programs and start multiplying each other, the rest of us will have to console ourselves with the knowledge that size is not everything in a city. Fifth place doesn't have to mean fifth-rate—although fifth-rate will almost always earn it fifth place. ●