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The nature of city living explored

Illinois Times

January 12, 1991

In which I tried to dig a little deeper into the ancient distaste of Downstaters and Chicagoans for each other. I even quote a sociologist, which shows how serious I was.


You knew it would come to this: According to the Trib, House Speaker Mike Madigan has taken to slandering Jim Edgar with this sneer: "The governor is now living in the largest city of his life." To be sure, the imputation of provincialism is accurate enough—Jim and Brenda have Glen Ellyn written all over them—but it seems not quite fair coming from Madigan. The only people who might regard this power nerd from Chicago's Southwest Side as a cosmopolite are the Irish from Chicago's Northwest Side.


Madigan's real beef with Edgar is that Edgar is not from Chicago. Of course, a lot of Illinois folks think that Edgar's not being from Chicago—indeed, his not liking Chicago—is the best thing about the governor. Even most "Chicagoans" hate Chicago. Denizens of the metropolitan area seldom venture into the city, and when they do they stick to well-worn paths leading to the ball parks, the Michigan Avenue shops, or the museums. Of Chicagoland's seven million or so residents, maybe five million live in places that are vastly more like Springfield than they are like Chicago's Lakeview or Albany Park neighborhoods.


Jim Thompson, a recent governor, grew up in Chicago and loves it there, where there are so many more people to like him. (Chicago has always liked its vulgarians outsized.) But Downstaters usually find Chicago daunting, even sinister. This is an understandable bias, if an unfounded one. (Of the four most hideous murders of strangers committed at random in Illinois in my adulthood, three were committed in and near Springfield, only one in Chicago.) People there drive faster and are quicker to talk to strangers and the homeless are out where you can see and smell them—the cops being more tolerant of every kind of misbehavior than Downstate. The city itself seems out of scale, and while that means only that it is out of scale in a less familiar way than Springfield is out of scale, it is disorienting nonetheless.


None of this quite explains the peculiar mix of anxiety and condescension with which so many Downstaters regard their state's largest city. It is a mistake to think that Downstaters, for example, are impressed by the big city; more often they come for the pleasures of feeling superior to it. They go home and talk about their brush with the weird in the same condescending tones that they use to describe the cab driver who spoke no English and the price of a beer at the Hyatt. Rather than shame their for their small-town ways, a trip to Chicago confirms their choice of lifestyle.


In search of clues, I turned to the sociologist Richard Sennett, who has written an interesting new book titled, The Conscience of the Eye about the design and social life of cities. Sennett writes that big cities have always been a reality check against complacency. The rules of identity and social interchange are not always clear in such places. Thus it is where the housing project meets the gold coast, the factory district abuts the playground, the Spanish-speakers mingle with the English-speakers—or in the case of visiting Springfieldians, where the tourist meets the cab driver—that possibilities for communication and self-discovery are richest.


Sennett recalls how in the 1920s urbanists from his alma mater, the University of Chicago, described the value of the city in terms of what Sennett calls the "provocations of otherness, surprise, and stimulation" that could be experienced there. (It is hard to read that without smiling, remembering how the University of Chicago has since turned itself into a enclave against the otherness of the black South Side with the help of the largest private police force in the world.) Such a city can be a daunting, often scary place, invigorating but wearing. But such stimuli make cities important from economic and cultural points of view, because they spur creativity and invention in all its forms.


One of Sennett's favorite terms is "exposure," and that is what a big city does to you. It exposures your prejudices, its exposes your ambitions, it exposes your fears. Many people find that an unpleasantly disturbing experience. When a relative or friend goes away he may not come back a better or more appealing person but usually he will be a truer one.


I am perhaps taking the romantic view. Mere exposure to difference, Sennett concedes, does not change people or even engage them, and often may leave them fearful. Sennett suggests that the solution is not to remake cities to some standard of suburban niceness but to cultivate a more profound acceptance of difference in other people by acknowledging the "unfinishedness" in ourselves.


People who regard themselves as finished, it needs not be said, do not find big cities attractive. The people who do are the young, the immigrant, the deviant, the unsettled. The big city does not, as often said, tolerate difference especially more than smaller places. One can be anything in Springfield that one can be in Chicago. A big city does however concentrate difference, which means that in a place like Chicago there will lots more people like you than in a place like Springfield—enough perhaps to make up a community, an organization, a market, a subculture.


Chicago certainly is a big city in scale—it has as many city cops as Taylorville has people—but experienced travelers like the writer Jan Morris report that it doesn't feel very big‑city compared to the world's New Yorks, Londons, and Tokyos. The only thing "big city" about Madigan's neighborhood for instance is that it is near one. (Madigan's neighborhood could be described as a Charleston with potholes.) The Edgars of our small towns know there is a wider world, and if they are brave enough will seek it out; the Madigans smugly conclude that they're living in that wider world, and so never go looking. ●




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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