A Fate Worse Than Death
Springfield’s provincialism in a connected age
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. □