Nom de Plume
A digression on Illinois place names
If you’re looking for interesting reading about Illinois, trying poring over a detailed map of the countryside. The fact that so many of the state’s place names are borrowed from other places is, of course, one of the most Illinoisan things about it. See also this piece from nearly 20 years earlier.
No, wrote Eliza Steele, she hadn't been "travelling in a balloon," even though her tour had taken her to Marseilles, Florence, Naples, Liverpool, Brussels, and Rome. Those "worn-out European designations" identified the towns along the Illinois River that she visited by steamboat in 1840.
Placeness is at the heart of human community, but Illinois place names have never had much Illinois in them. A whopping percentage of the state's town names are what are known to toponymists, or students of place names, as transfer names, meaning names of old places given to new places. Newcomers to Illinois brought their memories of heroes, their stories of derring-do with them, much as they brought their Bibles and their beds, and honored them by attaching those names to their new homes.
Thus the slightly secondhand quality of so many Illinois place names. Pittsfield was named for settlers from Pittsfield, Mass., upon its founding. Aurora is the namesake of Aurora, N.Y. Driving to Beardstown from Springfield takes one through Philadelphia and Virginia. As a boy I joked that this was going the long way. This cemented my reputation as a wit among the 8-year-olds in the back seat, but the jest said more than I realized at the time.
Illinois has always been home to displaced persons (not excluding most Native Americans) who came here from other places, and who named much of what they found in memory of, or at least in the language of, home.
To Steele's worn-out European designations we can add Peru, Havana, Belgium Row, Detroit, Deny, Montezuma, York, Pekin, New Hanover, Baden, Berlin, Hebron, Harvard, Genoa, El Paso, Dundee, and dozens more.
If the pioneers remembered in names the places they used to know but left, we seek in names places we never knew but wished to. Home buyers in DuPage County indulge their fantasies as they line up to buy house models with names like the Edinborough or the Falkirk or to lodge in projects known as Tartans Glen, Donovan Glen, or Heather Glen, even though—maybe because—most of the real local glens have had shopping malls built on them.
Of course, in the '90s all places are real estate. Just as new places are endowed with ersatz but marketable history, so old places are stripped of their real history. The Chicago Daily News Building, the Corn Exchange, the Jewelers Building, the Peoples Gas Company Building, the Montgomery Ward and Co. Building—each evokes Chicago's rich commercial history. But while history may be a virtue in a name, it is not in a property. No self-respecting firm wishes to lease space in a building that bears the name of another. As companies move or go under or merge, their namesake buildings often are renamed. Or rather unnamed—each of the above landmarks is now known by its street address.
Easier to find, perhaps, but somehow smaller.
This restless revising of identity is the bloodless, political form of ethnic cleansing practiced by successive dominant, but insecure, cultures. Native Americans named Illinois first, of course. The names that survive—Piscasaw, Kishwaukee, Mascouta— have almost no equal in music. (The Indians' name for the Spoon River was Amequeon, or ladle.) But most Indian names were discarded in favor of European versions that were easier to spell or pronounce or (probably most significant) were less Indian.
What the first European Illinoisans did to Native Americans, their descendants are busy doing to each other. The politically correct, for example, seek to vanquish the remnants of our primitive forebears as ruthlessly as some of their ancestors did the Sauk or Illini. As then, the means is a willful amnesia. Nigger Lake in Mason County has long since disappeared from most maps, and only a rude foreigner—the Cambridge Gazetteer of the U.S. and Canada in this case—dares say in print that Bridgeport, the spiritual home of the Irish in Illinois, used to be known as Cabbagetown.
Modern landmarks are human in origin, named by the people who made them, not by those who found them. Bureaucrats, politicians, and developers are not known for poetry, or for daring to endorse the interesting over the inoffensive. Pore over the Rand McNally highway atlas, and you will find that Pulaski County is home to Karnak, Grand Chain, Wetaug, Ullin, Olmstead, Villa Ridge, Mounds. A finer scale map reveals towns that the Rand-McNally omits: Lost Prairie, Sixmile Prairie, Pipestone Creek, Jamestown, Conant, Winkle, Denny, Todds Mill. Compare that roster to the postwar suburbanized northeast, with its Woodridges and Wood Dales and Willowbrooks. Or its Oakbrook Terrace, which reversed the usual trend by being named for a shopping center.
Having rendered the real Illinois banal, our generation feels all the more keenly the need to connect to an exotic and inspiring past, even if, perhaps especially if, it is not the real past. White people, having rejected real Indian names, are now giving new Native American names to old Illinois places. The former Joliet arsenal is now known as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Midewin (pronounced mi-DAY-win) is not, as one might expect, the Algonquin for "surplus." It is Potawatomi for "healing society," a choice that smacks more of marketing than of medicine.
Local names are the cultural genes that transmit our fractious history, signifiers of a past that usually is recalled only by groups aggrieved by it. Anyone with a sensible desire to avoid controversy naturally shrinks from using them. Illinois' community college and regional library systems introduced a new level to the hierarchy of places in the state, and with it chances to inculcate consciousness of place on a new scale.
Unfortunately, the library systems may be regional but the names of the places within them are local. As it is impossible to name the whole after any one part without offending the other parts, the system's founders opted for names—Alliance, Heritage Trail, Lewis & Clark, Lincoln Trail, Rolling Prairie—that mean nothing to anyone, and thus offend no one.
We will here pause to wring our hands and lament the ways that namby-pamby naming reflects a more general failure of consensus about who and what is worthy. If we shrink from memorializing our local heroes, it is because our more inclusive polity can no longer agree about who the local heroes are. A case in point is recent attempts by locals to get streets on Chicago's ethnic southwest side renamed for civil rights martyrs like Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. The renaming was opposed by the neighborhood's alderman, who had worked hard to get a local street renamed for a Lithuanian nun. Athletes are this age's heroes—such as the ice skater whose Olympics performance will be recalled forever in Champaign's Bonnie Blair Drive—precisely because their victories are trivial, and thus safe for all to endorse.
'Twas always thus. Springfield became Springfield after having first been dubbed Calhoun by loyal Kentuckians who made up most of its early population. One difference is that more and more people who once had no say in naming things now do. The power to name is an expression of political power over the civil realm. As new ethnic or racial or gender or religious groups, as new generations come into power, they naturally wish to assert it to mark their presence, or to confirm their social legitimacy by putting the heroes of their own class and clan on the map, literally. This is why Chicago, the most politically self-conscious city in Illinois, also is the most antically named. So busy is the traffic in commemoration that some streets bear two names, to the delight of mapmakers and the consternation of tourists.
The urge to political accommodation, the yearning for fantasy, and political correctness empty the map of meaningful names. Ignorance empties the map's names of meaning. Virgil Vogel, one of Illinois' premier toponymists, wrote in 1963, "The Illinois map glows with picturesque names that are survivals of the romance and tragedy of the state's history."
Alas, names often are the only survivals of the state's history. Times change, memories fade. Progress stumbles forward. Chestnut Hill attests to Illinois' ecological decline, as do the state's many Panther Creeks. Developers persist in naming projects after what they destroyed to build them.
Many a name exists only in the scholarly record. (We might adapt the tourism slogan of a few years ago to read, "Just inside the library, there's a place called Illinois.") America, platted in 1818 on a spot on the Ohio River upriver from Cairo and briefly a county seat, had a brick jail and a courthouse, which in the Illinois of those days was as much worth bragging about as a Barnes & Noble is today. But a sandbar blocked the landing, malaria sickened the residents and, by 1843, the town site was so empty it was put to the plow.
Road and place names from the 19th century thus have become to our civilization what hieroglyphs were to the Egypt of the Middle Kingdom—clues to a dead world. Every Illinois burg of pretension south of U.S. 136 boasts a street named after Henry Clay, for example, but to the typical Illinoisan Clay is as mysterious a figure as the state comptroller.
The state's history may never have been common knowledge, but today it is little more than a coterie interest, a pastime of the over-educated and under- occupied, like collecting Wedgewood or running for the Senate. Most Americans not only do not miss the history they don't know, but resent being expected to know it. Who besides architecture buffs knows the Corn Exchange was ever called the Corn Exchange to begin with? Does it really matter to anyone living in a West Side housing project that Garfield Park was not named for the cat? (Or, we must ask, that it was named for a president?)
To what we knew as a people and have forgotten we must add what we never knew in the first place. Few of us stay in any one place long enough nowadays to learn a place's geography, much less its history. We learn about the world from TV, not by chatting across the back fence or even reading the local papers. We know more about national figures than we do about the people in our own towns. The trend is pushing naming away from the local and the particular toward the national and the generic. Virtually every Illinois town of any size has a Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, for example, but few immortalize (or even know) the names of their own racial pathbreakers.
Here is a more trivial example of a larger trend. The Circle Campus of the University of Illinois—so named because of its proximity to the circle interchange where the Ryan,the Eisenhower and Kennedy expressways merge west of the Loop—is now merely the University of Illinois at Chicago. CTA el routes used to be identified by the names of the places at the end of each line. They have been replaced by colors because (quoth the marketing consultants) understanding the old system required riders to have some knowledge of the city. Of course, the old route names imparted knowledge of the city, too. The risk in making subways intelligible for the rider is making the city unknown to the citizen.
Does some small part of the ambivalence so many Illinoisans feel toward the civil realm owe to the failure of Illinois place names to seize the imagination and sustain the memory? Illinois is a small and not very distinct place in the minds of many of its people, but it probably always was.
Present trends in naming will leave Illinois a little less Illinoisan, sure, but will it be less real? The manufactured, the contrived, the marketed is the real in an advanced consumer culture. Besides, the ability to make up your own history is quintessentially American, expressed in such quintessentially American projects as the Schaumburg Town Centre—a prefabricated downtown for a prefabricated town.
Being free to invent new places as well as to move to them—that's liberty! ●