Don’t Look Now
Lost vistas in the capital city
February 4, 1988
Springfield is an ugly city made uglier by the indifference it has shown to preserving the few scenic vistas with which nature endowed the place. Urging sensitivity to landscape upon the Springfield city council is like urging decorum on fraternity partyers, alas, and the Illinois capital is even uglier today than it was more than thirty years ago.
Life, being indifferent to one’s convenience, took me down Monroe Street the other day. I was afoot as usual, heading west. I had just crested the shoulder of the presettlement creek valley on which the Third Street railroad track sits today, and was beginning the descent toward Second Street. Most of downtown Springfield sits on what was level prairie, but the terrain falls away at this spot toward the long-vanished course of the Town Branch of Spring Creek. Dump-trucks were trundling up and down the street carrying debris from the recent demolition of office buildings which recently occupied the block southeast of Second and Monroe. A new state library will be built on the site, but for the moment the vista looking west from Third toward the statehouse was unimpeded by overpriced real estate. The entire capitol complex—reading from the left, I saw the Supreme Court, Centennial, Archives, statehouse, and Armory buildings—was arrayed before me.
Distance and elevation gave me a new perspective. From the customary vantage point of Second Street at Capitol, for example, the statehouse (including its memorial statuary and fountains) always looked to me the way a room full of partying adults looks to a child of four. From my new and unexpected vantage point, however, I could see the complex as a grownup, and for the first time look the buildings in the eye.
Back when it sprouted trees instead of limestone, this place was known as Mather’s Grove. Later construction obscured the view which was then so pleasing; it was not until the day of my walk, when demolition temporarily restored the sightlines of a century ago, that I sensed the shape and sweep of the spot.
My pleasure was quickly soured by reflection. The view will not last long once construction begins in earnest on the new library. Less selfishly, I realized that I was one of the few people who would see it while it does exist; Monroe Street is one-way going east at this point, so that motorists driving through downtown Springfield have the view at their backs. I thought too about how that vista might have been preserved, with a little bit of thought. The block would have been the perfect spot for the visitors center now nearing completion on the other side of the capitol complex. The low-rise shelters being built for the center would not materially mar the vista from Third Street, which itself would have made an enticing focal point for a much long-dreamed-of pedestrian corridor linking the complex with downtown and Lincoln’s home; that corridor is usually sketched in by planners along Capitol Avenue, which has become a blight of parking lots.
Springfield’s terrain offers few opportunities for scenic vistas. No doubt the engineering rationale was persuasive, but building the city’s power plants in the 1930s smack at the "entrance" to Lake Springfield always seemed like putting a trash barrel on the main staircase in an opera house. Greed, however, has ruined more vistas than necessity. When you drive west from Springfield on Route 125—as every Springfieldian should at least once a year, to visit the Arenzville Burgoo—you will cross another creek valley. The road curves downward from the flat toward the Spring Creek bottom. As you emerge from that curve the valley wall is revealed on the other side, visible through a frame of trees which lines the creek itself.
Whenever I make that trip, I envision that little hillside in bloom. Sometimes I plant it mentally with trees, sometimes with flowering shrubs, some- times in prairie grasses and wild- flowers. I would not have planted what is, unfortunately, actually there. A sprawling traffic intersection occupies the middle distance. The hillside itself is littered with tract houses arranged with their backs to the road; a person who so arrogantly showed his bare backside in such a way would be arrested for public indecency. On the south side of the road, smack in the foreground of what drivers bound for the city would otherwise enjoy as a view of the creek bottom itself, is a commercial nursery selling ornamental landscape plants—as tidy a symbol as you could want of the culture’s priority which places private beauty over public.
The scenic gets short shrift, in fact, unless it is so spectacular as to support a tourist industry. Psychologists argue that visually pleasing vistas have a restorative effect, that much of the neurosis which we associate with city life may be traced to the fact that we are daily assaulted by scenes which are unbalanced, incoherent, and disordered.
I introduce such notions at some risk of misunderstanding. In the butch world of mortgage financing and big-deal development, concern for the wider aesthetic aspects of the landscape is considered effete. "Highway beautification" for example is almost a term of derogation among our hairy-chested money men, who do not appreciate that the miles of bluebonnets planted along Texas highways as a result of the badgering of Lady Bird Johnson is an act of civilization, while the grand schemes of her husband for a Great Society were merely acts of government. In Chicago, many a lip curls into a sneer at the name of Walter Netsch, who as chairman of that city’s park district proposed to humanize the brutal landscape along Lake Shore Drive with a plan derided repeatedly by the press as "planting posies."
I have a certain contempt for beautification programs too, not because they aren’t worth doing, but because they are almost never done well. The J. David Jones Memorial Parkway which connects Capital Airport with North Grand Avenue is the classic example: Landscaping a median strip (in one spot with Astroturf or its kin) and installing decorative light standards on a road which rolls past landfills and open storage yards is like an undertaker painting a smile on the face of a corpse.
What cannot now be done along that stretch of Route 29 could have been done along Springfield’s newest major trafficway. Along part of Veteran’s Parkway, an earthern berm screens motorists from the butt ends of the houses behind it. (That berm was built, of course, to shield the houses from the noise of the highway; even when designers do something right it is for the wrong reason.) Everywhere else, alas, is desolation—parking lots, billboards, garish lighted signs. The city’s westward expansion gave city and state builders a blank canvas, and they painted us up another Wabash Avenue. It would have been simple to acquire and dedicate a strip of the new right-of-way on each side of the road for plantings intended to screen offending views being built behind them, converting the road into a green corridor. That such plantings would also provide protection against both winds and bank erosion may make it easier for those among us who need to justify the good in terms of the narrowly practical.
In some states existing vistas are being protected by law. Such laws typically apply to quasi-rural suburban areas, because that is where rich people live, but even rich people come up with an idea worth emulating once in a while. Connecticut has a Scenic Roads Act which allows the protection of the visual character of roads against the effects of widening and straightening, and thus indirectly against the sort of land speculators who years ago began buying up parcels along Koke Mill Lane and similar bucolic byways hereabouts. New York state offers similar protection in the Hudson valley.
Laws don’t work very well even if they are passed, of course, and are in any event a remedy of last resort. Ideally, a cultivated sensitivity to landscapes would inform every local zoning, planning, and development decision. (Hahahaha—sorry, I like a little joke now and then.) It could be done by fiat or through property tax breaks, tax write-offs given in return for scenic easements on private property, and so on. The problem isn’t means; an hour in any public library will teach any zoning administrator, planner, or city commissioner ways it is being done in other places. What is lacking is political will of the sort which derives from the conviction that a public interest in views is not a frivolous addition to the established public rights to health, safety, and quiet, but one which follows inescapably from them. ■