A Stiller Quietude
When the statehouse sleeps, Springfield snores
April 9, 1981
Cullom Davis, the historian, once pointed out to me that while no Illinois governor has ever been born in Springfield, five have died there. He did not say that they died of boredom; he didn’t have to.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
—“Heaven” by David Byrne
The second best description of the city of Springfield I have ever read was written last December by John Vinocur of the New York Times, and it wasn’t even about Springfield. It was about Bonn, the capital of the German Federal Republic. Bonn, like Springfield, is a provincial political capital in which life ebbs and flows with the tides of public business. Says Vinocur, “Arguably comatose under normal circumstances,” Bonn slides into “deeper, stiller quietude” when the Bundestag adjourns. “With its politicians gone . . . Bonn feels rather like the campus of a small theological school between semesters.” That’s Springfield, all right. Vinocur says that Bonn hibernates during such absences; the commonest metaphor applied to Springfield is that of death and rebirth. Writing in his biography of Gov. Adlai Stevenson, for instance, John Bartlow Martin said of Springfield in the 1940s, “The town really only came to life every two years when the legislature was in session."
I’ve read that line, or lines very much like it, dozens of times. It’s accurate as far as it goes. The trouble is that it doesn’t go very far. Almost all the people who write about Springfield don’t live here but are part of that near-constant parade of journalists, lobbyists, lawmakers, and cranks who are drawn to the statehouse like flies to horse stalls. To them, it must indeed seem that Springfield, like Bonn, reaches “almost perfect stasis” when the General Assembly and the governor are absent. Phones don’t ring, and bored reporters begin filing features about small-town burgoo chefs. For those who wait on state government, there is no one to talk to, nothing to talk about, nothing to do except ponder the fact, which Cullom Davis, the Sangamon State professor, pointed out to me a couple of years ago, that while no Illinois governor has ever been born in Springfield, five have died here.
If one’s life is politics, then the absence of politics must be something of a strain. Life in Springfield between sessions is a particular agony for what our columnist Bob Reid has called the quick young men and women who serve the state. Bright, energetic, their pockets filled with what by local standards is quite a lot of spending cash, and eager to wash the dust of the agencies off their backs, they steam out of their hives at closing time, jump into their almost-always Japanese cars waiting in their free parking space and drive off to . . . where? Springfield is celebrated for being a town where there is nothing to do. They seldom mingle with locals, partly from mutual distaste, mainly because the locals always seem to be too busy, pursuing their mysterious private lives. They, like their German counterparts described by Vinocur ‘who think Munich or Paris could be remade around their dinner table with local Scotts and Zeldas,” become disappointed fast. “Bonn has bureaucrats, diplomats and journalists, but no admen, stewardesses, p.r. guys, industrialists, soccer players, demimondaines, literati or elegant layabouts.” he reports. “Flash, big money and wild talk is scarce.”
For all their similarities, clearly Bonn is not Springfield and Springfield is not Bonn. Wild talk may be scarce in Bonn, but during General Assembly sessions they have to sweep it out of the halls of the statehouse with brooms. And we may not have demimondaines, but we do have secretaries who (as Mike Royko reminds us) used to be known around the statehouse as “monkey girls” because they held on to their jobs by their tails.
Vinocur also notes that after a year or so, outsiders resign themselves to Bonn’s staid social life, “drink the white wine and go home early.” Your Illinois public servant is made of sterner stuff than that. No spineless acquiescence here. Back in December, the Alton Telegraph’s Dennis McMurray wrote of a speech made by a Chicago representative to a conference of new legislators. Springfield is a completely dry town, explained the Chicagoan, which is why legislators must resort to attending the opera to while away their spare time. “We try to get to the Opera House just about every night we’re down here.” read McMurray’s account.
The joke is, of course, that the Opera House is a popular saloon located two blocks from the statehouse which is, as McMurray notes, “frequented by numerous legislators.” The Opera House is less frequented by locals, however, partly because they do not have $35 a day expense accounts, partly because they have to be at work before 10:30 in the morning.
Outsiders from big cities sometimes find Springfield quaint, even exotic. There are a few outsiders who actually like Springfield; I know of one cabinet member who lives well away from the middle class ghettoes, on the north side, which is as Springfield as you can get. This kind of fraternization is frowned upon as a rule, however, rather as white settlers used to frown on trappers who took Indian women as brides.
Most outsiders find the city dull, although it’s been my experience that the people who think this are usually incapable of generating their own excitement, so that without an external source they are as dead as an unplugged television set. Recently graduated students—the kind of people which led Charles Dawe of The Real Paper to describe Boston as a “locked incubator”—find it unbearably dowdy; not only is there no Army surplus store, but it is impossible to get deep-dish pizza by the slice at 3 a.m.
It is fortunate that outsiders turn to each other for succor, for it leaves us townies to live out our drab terms in peace. We have been the capital for close to 150 years, and in that time we have grown inured to complaints. We regard the state government the way a farmer might regard a temperamental cow; he occasionally gets kicked in the head by it, but he can’t afford to give up the milk.
Besides, Springfield is a bit dull at times. It used to be livelier thirty years ago, what with punchboards in the drugstores and slot machines in the country clubs and after-hour drinking everywhere else; even a Chicagoan could feel right at home. But since then Springfield has been Chamber-of-Commerced and Jaycee-d and civil-serviced and League-of-Women-Votered to death, and now our principal recreation is watching businesses load up to move out of downtown.
Oh well. Vinocur reminds us of something Heinrich Boll wrote about Bonn that is equally true in Springfield. “A good old aunty can show you how to knit a sweater, crochet a cover and serve sherry—I wouldn’t expect her to offer me a spiritual and sensitive two-hour lecture on homosexuality.” ●
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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.
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A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
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