Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Sis Boom Bah
A step toward a new downtown Springfield
August 12, 1977
As I write, it has been more than 40 years since this piece was published. In it, Mark Heyman, an astute observer of urban trends who taught at Springfield’s then-Sangamon State University, predicted, "It is unlikely that a downtown flourishing with shopping and housing can come about, certainly not within the next twenty or thirty years.'' He was correct. My optimism about the future was not foolhardy, but it did prove, well, optimistic. Oxtoby’s building still shines, but Springfield’s downtown still languishes.
It has been said, with some justification, that I never have a good word to say about downtown. This is partly a matter of principle—I've always thought cheer leading was best confined to the football field—and partly a matter of circumstance. For every bit of good news—the Old Capitol Mall, the new Roberts Brothers store, the farmers' market—there seem to be a half-dozen bad, ranging from demolitions and closings to ill-advised remodelings. I am happy to report, therefore, that this week there is an exception to that gloomy norm.
A week ago, Carolyn Oxtoby's newly-renovated Maldaner and Pasfield buildings were opened to public view for the first time. The event got a good deal of press attention—mostly, one assumes, because of its novelty. Novel it certainly is, if only for its intelligence, but the project is significant beyond its novelty.
For example: The 200 block of South Sixth is among the handsomest business blocks left in the city. It is admired by critics more astute than myself not because it is old (though most of the structures date from the last quarter of the 19th century) but because it is beautiful. In addition to its intrinsic architectural merit, the block is the gateway to the Old Capitol. Tourists who park their cars in the Lincoln home area—first stop on most tours—usually walk downtown from there to the Old Capitol and the restored Lincoln-Herndon law offices. Their route takes them up Sixth Street.
That the block has so far survived the depredations of wreckers and remodelers alike is a small miracle; only the calculated banality of the new Herndon's front spoils the integrity of the upper-floor facade. Oxtoby's project will help anchor this block against similar mishandling in the future. It will do so by helping guarantee the economic future of two of its buildings while preserving their 19th-century fronts.
But important as it is in itself, the Oxtoby project is perhaps even more important as an example. Many in Springfield want desperately for the project to succeed. I do, as do the State Journal-Register and the Springfield Central Area Development Association (which proves that preservation makes even stranger bedfellows than politics). They support it because it will provide an example to other downtown property owners of what imagination can accomplish in the redevelopment of older buildings. Too often, property owners allow buildings to deteriorate, thinking them not worth the money it takes to keep them up. Oxtoby hopes to prove that innovation can be more profitable than indifference.
The project is not universally admired, however. Ron Sakolsky, an SSU faculty member and coordinator of the Local Power Structure Research Group of the People's Institute of Springfield, is one critic. Sakolsky (who is the Jim Dunham of the Springfield Left) has argued in print that, because of Oxtoby's wealth, "Springfield is her toy and we are . . . her playthings." He calls her a "benevolent despot" (a charge which even a socialist, who will swallow almost anything, might have trouble digesting) of a kind that "we"—Springfieldians—should work to overthrow. (I doubt that either fine buildings or college professors would long survive Sakolsky's revolution, which saddens me, but it's possible I value both more highly than they deserve.)
More to the point are the views of Mark Hey man, also of SSU. In "How to strengthen downtown" [IT, July 8–14, 1977] he makes the point that Springfield's problem is not that it has a Carolyn Oxtoby but that it has too few of her, writing that "there just aren't enough Carolyn Oxtoby's to actually reverse the tide [of suburbanization]." Heyman's case is a good one, and it is true that Oxtoby has been almost alone among major downtown property owners in her willingness to gamble that downtown can again be made an attractive place to live as well as work. But if her project succeeds, downtown will need no more leaders like Oxtoby. It will need only followers.
In that same piece, Heyman predicts that "it is unlikely that a downtown flourishing with shopping and housing can come about, certainly not within the next twenty or thirty years.'' Heyman again has a good case. But there are the barest beginnings of a trend—the Oxtoby project, SCADA's housing project on Jefferson, New Frontiers Development's high-rise on North Fourth, among others—that may mean we won't have to wait quite that long. What is certain is that if planners and property owners assume today that such a revivification is unlikely or impossible, and so take no steps to accomplish it, the prophecy will become self-fulfilling and Oxtoby's seed will not come to fruit in twenty or thirty years or even a hundred years. We may be mindful of the difficulties attending such a rebirth and still hope for the best. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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."
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 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” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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