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Aurora Uber Alles

Downstate's flagging population growth

Illinois Times

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.  ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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