“I’m Proud to Be a North Ender”
Springfield's most Springfield neighborhood
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. ■