A Fate Worse Than Death

Springfield’s provincialism in a connected age

Illinois Times

October 14, 1982

In which a native—me—spends a fair amount of time explaining Springfield both to visitors who’ve never encountered places like it before and to natives who have never encountered the need to think about it.

 

It was kind of spooky, really. I had retired to an upper-floor lounge at Springfield's thirty-story Hilton hotel for a quick beer after a day spent covering a conference being held in the building. I was gazing out over the city, thinking how very much smaller it looks from a height of 300 feet, when a planner from Michigan introduced himself. Why is it, he asked, that Springfield seemed so much larger than his home town of Ann Arbor even though both towns boast roughly 100,000 residents. I explained that Springfield's sprawl is deceptive, that Springfield is simply less dense than Ann Arbor, which is something that probably can't be said for its developers, who have fled Springfield's building codes and library taxes into the countryside like their ancestors once fled the plague.

 

The next morning, another conferee, this one a writer from Brooklyn, asked why it was that Springfield seemed so much smaller than other state capitals of his acquaintance. I tried to explain that the city is better understood not as a state capital but as a small town with a statehouse in it, and that any town which has passed up so many convenient opportunities to lynch lawmakers over the years clearly lacks ambition.

 

Those two encounters, it happened, mirrored my own preoccupations. It was almost as if these two visitors were opposing poles of my brain made manifest. For months I have been trying to decide whether Springfield has become smaller or larger in the last few years. As my visitors had reminded me, one's perceptions of a city are shaped by experience and expectation, with the result that it is possible for it to be both at the same time.

 

For example, to the extent that one's sense of place is physical, Springfield is much smaller today than the Springfield I grew up in. It covers more ground, I know. But the landmarks and neighborhoods of the city I remember are gradually being destroyed, and the associations which used to give such density to my daily experience of it have been diminished proportionately.

 

In a social sense, Springfield has always been a small town. Recent arrivals will recognize the accuracy of the complaint by a New York City club owner recorded in a recent interview by Whitney Balliett: "In a small town," the owner lamented, "if they don't like you they'll figure a way to keep you out." The problem is, in order to keep other people out one usually ends up locking oneself in. Old Springfield has been overwhelmed by the influx of out-landers since the 1960s, and although they retain a certain amount of local political power, they have largely surrendered their economic and cultural influence. The old Springfield survives but one must seek it out. Indeed, Springfield's old liners have been reduced to the status of ethnic curiosity, treasured by the newcomers for their quaintness and tolerated because of their irrelevance, rather like the Navajo in the Southwest. It is only a matter of time before the Illini Country Club and the Springfield Art Association sign up for booths at the Labor Day ethnic festival.

 

Perhaps the world view of old Springfield just seems more cramped because the view of the rest of the city has expanded so dramatically in the last five years or so. Like the rest of the country, central Illinois has been tied to the rest of the world by electronic umbilicals. My own experience is probably not unusual. In the last two weeks I have watched a German and a Swedish film at first-run movie houses. I did my winter clothes shopping at a store in Maine. I restocked my kitchen from a shop in San Francisco. I bought posters for my living room wall from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and shopped the remainder sales at Barnes and Nobel in the same city. I watched the evening TV news from Chicago, St. Louis, and Atlanta, and kept informed about the European badminton results and the condition of Presbyterianism in the Hebrides via the BBC. And I did all these things without leaving the city, often without leaving my house.

 

In fact, I sometimes feel as if I don't live in Springfield at all anymore, except in the most immediate physical sense. We now can use the new communications technologies to plug into the cities, to shop the world, to choose from the global bazaar everything from ideas to French spatulas, to partake of the diversity of the city while enjoying the congeniality of the small town. Much of this wondrous diversity is illusory, of course. If one gets trashy TV on twenty-five channels instead of three, one still has only twenty-five channels full of trash. And I am not yet insensitive to the irony that it is possible for me to enjoy in my living room, via video cassette, a "breakthrough fetish film" which promises to mesmerize me as I watch "insatiable raven-haired beauties from Mexico perform the unspeakable with Wangito the Wonder Donkey" while I have to buy underwear that is seven inches too big because no manufacturer seems willing to bother cutting clothes to fit anymore.

 

The new connectedness is not welcome everywhere. State Journal-Register columnist Steve Slack wrote recently of a "plot" to turn us all into New Yorkers. Noting that the New York Times—fed by satellite to a Chicago printer, whence to Springfield—is as thick on the streets of Springfield as tourists, Slack decried the feigned interest in news about "third-world nations holding a summit in Tuvalu to discuss a possible cartel of llama milk producers." He points out that the Times never gave him a clear understanding of why there is "a big, unnavigable hole in the middle of Edwards Street."

 

The SJR, of course, seldom gives us a clear understanding of anything beyond Edwards Street. But Springfield has its share of people who know the name of the mayor of Paris but not that of Springfield's head man. One can no more pretend to be a citizen of Springfield and not read the local paper than one can pretend to be a citizen of the nation and the world without reading a paper like the New York Times. It is a small world which doesn't have room for Springfield in it.

 

Speaking of the New York Times, I was reminded of just that fact the other day. Ed Koch, mayor of New York City, had just been unexpectedly defeated in his bid for the nomination as governor of New York. Some weeks before he'd decided to make the race, he'd said in an interview that having to live in Albany would be "a fate worse than death."

Well, Koch lost, in part because he was kicked royally in the Apple by upstate voters. The quality of life in Illinois' capital has not yet become an issue between Messrs. Thompson and Stevenson, although it has been one in the past. (Dakin Williams once campaigned on the pledge to move the capital to Chicago because there weren't any good restaurants in Springfield.) There are those who believe that four years in Springfield is the sternest test an Illinois public servant faces. But helicopters have done for the fun-loving Thompson what the Postal Service and cable TV does for the rest of us, namely take some of the tedium out of living in a town where the buses stop running at six o'clock. I suspect that the inward-turning Stevenson is insensitive to place; just as a lover looks everywhere and sees the face of his beloved, so the senator looks everywhere and sees his own navel.

 

His own father once described Springfield as a "hell hole" but that was in the days before the taxpayers developed their present tolerant attitude toward official travel.

 

Back to the subject: It remains true, I suppose, that there are no such things as small towns, only small people. Sophistication comes hard to us out here, but it is coming nonetheless. As I explained to my writer friend from Brooklyn, it was still possible a year or two ago for one of Springfield's leading businessmen to announce a soccer player at a college game as having come from "Ay-thens, Greece"—like the Sangamon County town with the same name—rather than Athens. The difference was that, unlike even ten years ago, most of the people in the stands recognized it as an error. □

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." 

[STILL A-BUILDING]

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 

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.

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Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

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