“I’m Proud to Be a North Ender”

Springfield's most Springfield neighborhood

Illinois Times

September 5, 1980

For which I owe an apology to everyone who lives or has lived north of Carpenter Street in Springfield for incorrectly referring to that part of the city as the north side. “North End” is much the preferred usage, as I would have realized has I bothered to read my own piece.

 

The Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau should stop promoting tours of Lincoln sites to out-of-towners and consider introducing a few Springfieldians to the city’s own north side. They might even adapt for the campaign a slogan used a few years back by the Illinois Office of Tourism: "Just outside Carpenter Street," the signs might read, "there’s a place called the north side." [The state’s slogan went, “Just outside Chicago, there’s a place called Illinois.”]

 

Of the various systems of associations by which locals define themselves—culturally as well as geographically—the "north side" extends over the greatest territory. Yet it is also the vaguest. It is neither the "rich" part of town, like the west side, nor the "poor," as is the east. The differences between people who live there and the people who live elsewhere are as real as those between blacks and whites but more subtle. The incidence of pot belly among young males tends to be higher the closer one moves toward the Arctic Circle from the middle of town. There are still entire residential city blocks—I know of one on Keys Avenue—where the driveways are filled with nothing but American-made automobiles. Drivers tend to be less expert, and store managers tend to play country & western on their P.A.’s. Of the dozens of teams in the YMCA youth soccer program last year, only three were from the north side, and while an average Sunday will see the softball diamonds at Lincoln Park packed, the tennis courts are usually empty.

 

More scientifically, the north side tends to be older, more thoroughly white, less transient, more working class, until recently more Catholic. The inventory of north side land marks hints at its preoccupations and its sources of sustenance: the  Sangamo Electric plant, Lanphier ballpark, Concordia Seminary, Springfield College in Illinois, Lincoln Park, Pillsbury Mills, St. John’s and Memorial hospitals, the state fairgrounds, Oak Ridge Cemetery, as well as virtually all the mobile home parks in Springfield. And railroad tracks; north siders wait for trains the way west siders give parties.

 

For decades the north side has been something of an economic backwater. That has changed. For a period of years in the ‘70s after the state EPA had banned further residential sewer hookups on the booming west side, the north side had the fastest growing residential districts in town. Places such as Indian Hills and Northgate—the "new" north side—boast their own private athletic club, their own new churches that look like drive-in banks, their own grocery stores built in corn fields, even junk food strips.

 

Yet the north side’s conversion into another dreary suburban backwater is not so complete as the west side’s. (North siders, for example, tend to regard White Oaks Mall as an entertainment; they have not regressed to the extent of their more affluent neighbors who have come to depend on it as a necessity.) The north side retains much of the neighborhood feeling that nostalgic suburbanites  still associate mostly with small towns. There’s a lot of small town in the north side, good and bad. Until recently, one identified with a parish or a block or an ethnic group rather than the north side as a whole; community support coalesced around certain shared institutions, such as Lanphier High School, but one’s allegiances still were largely parochial.

 

Since then the old ethnic sub-cultures have been eroded by the subdivision ethic; as one lifelong Springfieldian (himself an Irish Catholic) put it to me the other day, in Spring- field, the Italians act like Protestants. There is growing, however, the notion of the "north end" as a separate, alternate entity. That sentiment has found literal expression in bumper stickers being given away by a neighborhood hardware store which read "I’m proud to be a north ender."

 

It’s not a bad thing to be proud of, most of the time. Those on the old north side remain more instinctual, less bureaucratic, and less self-conscious than those in many newly- planted neighborhoods in other parts of town. This is one of the qualities of life on the north side that are beginning—slowly——to attract disaffected sophisticates from other parts of Springfield. It’s something they usually find by accident; realtors steer newcomers away from the north side toward higher-priced houses on the west side where commissions are higher. The north side is still officially an unfashionable place to live among the capital’s medical, legal, academic, and professional elites, with the result that a fine late 19th-century frame house on North Fifth Street costs many thousands of dollars less than the same house on South Douglas Avenue. Among my small circle such bargains have been picked up by an editor (since moved to Chicago), a top state administrator, a social worker, and at least one professor—they all now have 62702 Zip Codes. I continue to marvel that the exodus is not bigger; the north side is filled with neighborhoods of the sort one sees profiled in the "Style" sections of major metropolitan newspapers.

 

If the north side does become fashionable again, it will merely be a case of history repeating itself. Though the north side is basically working class (including the ethnic working class, since the north side was the landing point for the European immigration into Springfield that ended in the 1930s) it also was home to lavishly scaled private residences. Edwards Place is the oldest and grandest of a list that includes the Cullom, Reisch, Brinkerhoff, Post, and Ferguson homes. (It is an indication of shifting economic tides that, unlike the west side, no north side mansion is still being used as a private home.)

 

History resides in those old houses even if their owners have long since left for Leland Grove. Indeed, to an extent untrue of any other part of Springfield, to know the north side well is to know the city. Most of the streams whose confluence at this spot made the city mingled there—rural whites, German, Irish, Italian, and Lithuanian immigrants. The moneyed families were there, as was the mill town of Ridgely and the black belt. Life gets pretty zippy up there from time to time; an oldtimer told me once that in Little Italy during Prohibition it was like the Fourth of July  all year long, what with all those home-made stills exploding all the time.

 

It is worth recalling how many of Springfield’s great citizens—baseball pitcher Robin Roberts, chilli chef Joe DeFrates, the book-selling Shadid family—are or were north siders. It is also worth recalling the mill hands, fruitmongerers, streetcar drivers, coal miners, and bakers whose labor made it possible for so many west side families to not live on the north side—a debt the north side draws on, by the way, every time the do-gooders try to pass a school tax hike to insure that their sons’ and daughters’ path to pre-med school is not barred by lack  of accreditation.

 

Even the street names on the old north side hint at forgotten tales. They bear the names of governors, local business barons, obscure Civil War generals, geographical points of   reference (such as Reservoir Street, Division Street, Peerless Mine Road) since made irrelevant by change. Mastering this arcana is a daunting task. But if one knows only that the site of the old Reisch brewery now is occupied by the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine is to have an insight into the evolution of the city’s economy and culture over the last 100 years worth six semester credits at any state university.

 

Alas, the north side is becoming less like the north side every day as affluence has enabled its various denizens to cloak their cultural diversity in the no-iron polyester garb of the suburban district manager. St. Vincent de Paul’s, the Lithuanian church on Enos, was torn down a few years ago. Sangamo Electric is closed, as is Concordia, and there’s a new Eisner’s going up where Memorial Pool used to be. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the north end of which our bumper-sticker-displayers are so proud is the new north side, the north side that is replacing the old one with a cut-rate imitation of the west side. I hope not. ■

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