Why I Live Downtown

A paean to the crowded life

Illinois Times

October 5, 1979

Verging on the maudlin, this appreciation of life in our third-floor walkup proved unexpectedly popular with local readers—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 mid-size 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. In the middle of town, yes, but still 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. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

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.

Chicagology

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.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

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.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated