State government makes Springfield safe for cars
January 15, 1976
An elegy of a sort for one of my old Springfield neighborhoods, published on IT’s old Forum page under the name J. W. Pollock, a pen name I used now and again when an issue of the paper had in it too many pieces by me. (I described myself coyly as “a social critic and life-long resident o f Springfield.”)
As a teenager I lived with my family a block from the statehouse. I later realized that it was as foolhardy as living near the Thames docks during World War II’s Battle of Britain. A state government too eager to accommodate the cars of its workers devastated the place. We were poor renters who barely kept ahead of the bombs; the state bought and razed three of the Krohes' former homes. The area remains desolate to this day. When the State of Illinois builds a parking lot, it builds it to last.
It used to be a neighborhood, before the state took it over. From Monroe Street north to Washington and from First west to Pasfield, the streets were lined with dozens of commodious square-roofed frame houses standing shoulder to shoulder. They crowded the sidewalks with barely ten feet between them, like starched-collar church elders posing for a group portrait.
Most of them were 19th century houses built for a 19th century life; some were three stories or more in height, with wide front porches with swings and stone hitching posts near the curb, as solid and substantial as the men who built them.
The neighborhood was old, but it wasn't decrepit. Many of the people who lived there were old, too. They had more than money tied up in their houses, and they painted them and cleaned them and mended them with steady and often cantankerous devotion.
Not everyone who lived in the neighborhood was old, though. Few families could afford to keep up a house as large as these—not families who wanted to live in this part of town anyway—so a lot of them had been converted into apartments. As such they provided temporary lodging for the flocks of file clerks and clock-watchers that come to the capitol from towns like Hillsboro and Witt for their first real job. Living here was fairly cheap and, with the statehouse only two blocks away, convenient. Whenever a file clerk celebrated a move up the Civil Service ladder with a move to more spacious quarters, it never took longer than a few days to find another to take his place.
But what made the neighborhood attractive to the state's employees—its proximity to the statehouse complex—also made it attractive to state planners. The latest generations of file clerks were living in places like Monroe Gardens or Candletree Apartments, miles from downtown. They drove cars to work, thousands of them every day, and each of those cars had to be put someplace between 8 and 5.
So the state bought the houses to the north of the capitol (houses it did not want) and the lots on which they stood (which it did) and made parking lots out of them. The houses were bulldozed a half-block at a time, the yards graded and covered with crushed white rock. The closest things to houses now standing in the neighborhood are the one-man sentry boxes guarding the entrance to the lots, and the men who sit in them for 40 hours a week are the closest thing the neighborhood has to full-time residents. The rest of the neighborhood is now only flat ground and white rock. It makes for a peculiarly desolate landscape, those acres of gravel, like the ashy aftermath of a very bad fire. ●