Why I Live Downtown
A paean to the crowded life
October 5, 1979
Verging on the maudlin, this appreciation of life in our third-floor walkup proved unexpectedly popular—mainly, I think, because I evoked the bustling downtown Springfield of fond memory. In the equivalent spots in the more affluent suburbs of Chicago one sees new buildings housing dozens, even hundreds of apartments but in Illinois’s midsize cities like Springfield, once-residential downtown hinterlands are now parking lots; downtown employees whose predecessors walked to their jobs now make the same walk to and from their cars.
I ended this piece with a brave promise to never move away, but I did, only three years later. To a subdivision.
On most days I take my lunch at my table in the sun room. It, and I, live downtown. I have lived in downtown Springfield for a long time now, very nearly a third of my life in fact. It is a literary neighborhood; Vachel Lindsay's house stands just around the corner, and Robert Fitzgerald (who has long since forsaken Springfield for Majorca) spent part of his childhood up the street. That doesn't count the governors who've lived in the neighborhood, either. Herbert Mitgang wrote in the New York Times the other day that Adlai Stevenson, for instance, was a "remarkable writer, perhaps the best in office since another lawyer from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln." Some of my neighbors can remember seeing Adlai Stevenson on the street and I, who didn't move in until the Ogilvie administration, envy them that.
Between bites I watch the day's parade go by on the street below me. In a month's time I will see what I take to be bureaucrats; secretaries clumping carward in shoes that make their feet hurt: old women who live on the block essay forth on foot with plastic shopping bags on errands which fill their cupboards inefficiently but which fill their days very efficiently indeed; drunks and madmen (my favorite being the skin-headed man who, watching a car pull across the sidewalk in front of him, solemnly cocked his hand and shot the driver, take two complete turns on the spot and head off in the opposite direction): tourists hurrying back to the motel up the street and on whose behalf my neighbors and I must eat diesel fumes for breakfast on summer weekends; damp-headed business types limping back to their cars from the YMCA; occasional herds of preschoolers headed noisily in the other direction: old people staring out of anachronistic outrage at black kids riding their bikes the wrong way up the street. Once in a while I see the governor, and once several years ago I almost saw a criminal who'd escaped from the county jail and burrowed under a porch one street over. An average of two times a week I see a car accident, so many of them by now that I can tell where it happened just by hearing it without looking up from my paper; they're not even fun to see anymore. There are many things one misses from my table in the sun room, but the sheer extravagance of human life in the city is not among them.
If I could afford it. I would move into a bigger place in which the bathroom ceiling didn't leak, but I can't foresee myself ever moving away from downtown Springfield. City living is an acquired taste for a boy who grew up literally on the edge of town (my street simply ceased to exist in front of my house in the 1950s on the east side, and beyond it was empty landscape) but acquire it I did,. so thoroughly that friends look at me puzzled, as they do at friends who return from European trips with a taste for warm beer. They don't ask me why, probably for fear that I will actually try to explain it to them; when I get started I have a tendency to lecture about it.
Why then? For one thing, the city—and by this I mean downtown itself plus the territory around it within, say, ten minutes' walk—is not something else. It is not, for example, a suburb. I decided long ago that there are not enough things to see on the road between Springfield and Chatham to spend much of my life on it.
Neither is the city a subdivision. Mix money and intolerance and—poof!—you get places like Westchester, cloned people living in cloned houses on cloned streets. (You needn't take my word for it: look at the children, who by age thirteen are so bored they begin figuratively to chew their own tails off. like rats in a small box.) It is not quite true that no interesting person lives in a subdivision, but it's close; our happy exiles could read a book a week in the time they spend in their station wagons, and it shows.
For myself, I am within five minutes' walk of the library, banks, medical clinics, restaurants, shops, and the rest. And diversion? In a year I have encountered (mostly by accident) German oom-pah bands. Fourth of July parades, farmers' markets, and. on a distressingly regular basis, hotel demolitions. When I'm in the mood I stroll over to Lincoln's home to watch a visiting President, or drop by the Hall of Representatives of the Old State Capitol (as I did last week) to listen to a stirring address by this generation's best Lincoln biographer about Lincoln—a man who. I need not remind anyone in Springfield, lived downtown.
The city's entertainments work on more satisfying and corrective symbolic levels as well. A few Saturdays ago an aged drunk lay board-stiff on his back across the steps to the downtown post office, passed out like a yoga on a bed of nails: as they passed, suburban transients turned from the sight with a shudder and maybe walked a little faster to their cars and the suburbs where people have the good manners to pass out in private. In the city you can't get blasé about class, money, race, and all the other unanswered social questions. The city, in fact, is a question continually in the process of being answered, and in that fact lies its energy and its appeal.
Of course, there is the scale of the city, the old city anyway, that I find so congenial. Downtowns are a 19th century phenomenon. Built before the automobile exempted Americans from the rules of geography, it is—or was—close and crowded, built for people on horseback or afoot. When it expanded, it expanded up, not out. The subdivisions and shopping centers were built for the automobile—hardly a fresh perception, I know, but it is the reason why I feel at home downtown in ways I never feel in the attenuated expanses of the postwar fringes where even the things that are close at hand are not convenient. Places like Country Club Estates (to pick an example at random) were built for families, not people (a crucial distinction, I think) and were designed to put as much space between them as land economics would allow. When I visit a friend six families away in my apartment building I walk up two flights of steps: to do the same in Country Club Estates I would have to get out the car.
Then too there is simply the fact that downtown and its environs boast the handsomest, the most invigorating, the most pleasing vistas in this otherwise sorry experiment in city-making. Much downtown architecture, like the residential architecture of its fringe, dates from the 19th century. Certainly, most of the best of it does, having bloomed in a climate of money, taste, craftsmanship, and technology we would be foolish to expect will come again anytime soon. Much of that legacy is gone, of course, either replaced or simply removed. But where it survives it offers vistas so superior to the bleached-out banalities of the malls and subdivisions that one might think one is in another country. I mention only a few; the Maldaner's block of South Sixth. Broadwell's drugstore, a recut jewel recently mounted on Fifth: the city hall-library complex with its agreeable public spaces, greenery and fountains (which are at once a pleasure for passersby and a lesson for developers): the statehouse at night. There are others, of course: the charm of the city is that one has such a luxury of choices.
Ultimately what holds me to the city, however, is its realness as a place. Past and present mingle downtown like riders on a crowded bus. On my unappointed rounds I pass Lincoln's home: the new city hall: the survivors of Artistocracv Hill (these old mansions for some reason always remind me of reunions of World War I doughboys, I suppose because there are fewer and fewer of them every year and the ones who are left, though themselves old and frail, stand all the straighter because they carry the pride of all their missing fellows as well as their own): the alley on Sixth Street where the mine union ballots were stolen in '32: the old schoolyard where they hanged old William Donnegan in the race riots of '08: and, above the streets, carved into the cornices of their buildings like totems, the names of the families who built the town—the Reisches, the Booths and Pasfields, the Lawrences.
Every town has its own character, but no other town has this particular one. and my residence has enabled me to know it more intimately, as a neighbor rather than a tourist. It is an acquaintance I value highly.
Sadly, I like the city less well now than I did ten years ago. It has not suffered the last decade well. It is too often dirty and there are not enough people in it. There is too much asphalt and not enough green things, not enough cheap restaurants, no good grocery stores, and much of the time you have to buy your newspapers out of boxes. If you are careless late at night you can still get hurt, and there are too many damn cars, and developers are only now beginning to appreciate that when even one building is stupidly destroyed the entire fragile urban ecology is diminished. In fact, the biggest thing wrong with the city is the fact that the people who own it are not the people who run it, and the people who run it do not live in it. If cities tend to make people socialists, one reason may be that in cities you can see the interconnectedness of things.
People tell me that things arc changing and that Springfield's downtown is on its way back. I will be waiting. I do not intend to move, even though it means rooming with a ghost. We are too good friends by now. ●