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Civic ugliness as economic development issue

Illinois Times

May 5, 1983

Developers, city officials, property owners—Springfieldians of all classes have, as I note below, destroyed what they should have treasured and defaced the rest. Still, it is not true, as some allege, that the only way to beautify Springfield would be to burn it down. You could also demolish it. Or bury it.

By the way, the "no-trump bunch" referred to here are bridge players, not embarrassed Republicans.

This version has been changed from the original mainly by the deletion of a mystifying reference to a then-current event.


 They 're all so proud of their grotty old towns . . . .

—Mick Jagger, on the road


More than fifty years ago, H. L. Mencken, who traveled all over the country without really ever leaving his native Baltimore, concluded that Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, had what he called "the most loathesome towns ever seen by mortal eye." I have not been to Westmoreland County, and have no wish to go. If its towns beat those of my own central Illinois for ugliness, it has attained something closer to perfection than I am capable of appreciating.


Ugliness is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, of course. I know people who shudder at the mere mention of Decatur.  J. once averred that Wheeling, West Virginia, was Westmoreland's match any day, and that when he plans cross-country motor trips he plots his route so as not to come anywhere near Cleveland. And I have had friends attest that they rank Gary, Indiana, as more hideous than Newark only out of patriotism, since Gary is in the Midwest.


My home town of Springfield does not rank with these outposts. "Shabby" is an adjective more often applied to the state capital than "loathesome." To call Springfield handsome is to call it wrong, but neither has its ugliness attained that perfection found a few miles east on the interstate. A few years ago, I was escorting humorist Calvin Trillin to lunch along one of our pleasanter streets. "Not much of a downtown, is it?" he remarked, with the unblinking eye of a land appraiser.


The booster faction in Springfield has always been sensitive on the point of the city's physical appearance. The factor which fueled the lobbying by the No-Trump Bunch for a National Park Service takeover of Lincoln's house in the early 1970s was social embarrassment at having guests in to the tattered district the neighborhood had become. The Lincoln house debate was the first time I had heard "rooming house" used as an epithet.


This fastidiousness has its roots in the familiar sin of pride of appearance. The people who lobbied hardest for "improvement" of the area own most of Springfield, after all, and should be forgiven wishing to impress visitors to what they clearly regard as their private parlor.


A series of encounters recently has brought home to me for the first time how crucial the appearance of the physical city is to our economic hopes. I had the pleasure of chatting with an executive of one of Springfield's larger financial institutions not long ago. As part of his rationale for downtown redevelopment he argued the need to keep the central city looking "sharp" in order to impress newcomers, including newcomers with investible cash in their pockets. (The notion of downtown as the city's living room was new to me. I can see the headline now. "Developer backs clear plastic slipcovers for historic district. Tax increment financing debated.")


Apparently some state government managers share that view. R. is a state employee, a Chicagoan who recalled for me his first trip to Springfield some years ago.  R. was being recruited by a major state agency, whose representative met him at the airport and suggested an automobile tour of the town.  R.'s host drove him past what seemed to him an endless succession of flowered glades and mansioned byways, past picturesque lagoons and  streets where children quietly played at croquet until such time as they could become bond brokers.


R. was impressed. "This is fabulous," he thought, and took the job. After moving, he learned that such scenes are hardly typical, that he had in fact been shown the only twenty residential blocks in the whole city which have escaped the depredations of the gravel-gluers, shake-shinglers, and parking-pavers. What had happened was that his host had driven him back and forth through the Washington Park neighborhood—centered on 150 acres of beauty as unexpected in Springfield as tits on a bull and even more out of character—from "about fifteen different directions."


N. had similar experiences. "Tacky" is the word he used to characterize for me how Springfield looked to him on his first arrival. Entering the city by any of the major routes is a painful reminder that humans still banish their most noisome activities—junkyards, mobile home parks, motels—to the outskirts of their camps. Pathetic attempts to dress up the city's "front door" such as the J. David Jones Memorial Parkway, which runs between landfills and implement dealerships between the town and the airport, strike me as akin to a sinner going to church. The act demonstrates one's penitence, but it does nothing to alter his essential character.


Things improve only a little when one arrives downtown. There is scarcely a major building put up in Springfield in the last twenty years which pleases the eye. E. looks forward with dismay to the day many years hence when the Hilton Hotel will be honored as an example of period design; a world-traveling friend of G.'s confidently pronounced the Prairie Capital Convention Center as the ugliest thing he's ever seen. The "pull toward the ugly" which Mencken noted in the 1920s still exerts its power. The city was so abashed by Near North Village—if you can imagine adobe Lego blocks you can imagine Near North—that it has decided to require an architect's review of future downtown redevelopment projects.


In fact, one can count on one hand the instances in which changes made in the physical city in the last twenty years have been improving ones. We have destroyed what we should have treasured and defaced the rest. One is compelled to ask why. The failures are not usually financial; as the failures of the recurring "beautification" campaigns prove, the problem is that no one seems to know what beautiful is. (Mencken posited what he called a "positive libido for the ugly" among Americans.)


The circumstances of settlement made central Illinois a receiver of styles, not an originator. We never had an indigenous architecture, but always borrowed from someplace else, styles which usually suffered in the passage—less vernacular than vulgar, less conservative than merely cautious, less respectful of tradition than disdaining tradition altogether.


Springfield's ugliness is greater than the sum of its parts, however. Here zoning (which is one of the very chapters of the city code which addresses aesthetic issues directly) plays a part. S. recalled to me her first visit to Springfield. She entered the city by car from the east via Clear Lake Avenue. Once it was the road out of town to the suburbs (the golf course at Dirksen Parkway is a former farm) but it later led to the new highway by-pass, and so attracted along its length the usual paraphernalia of the auto age.


New and old now share Cleark Lake in acute disharmony. In quick succession S. passed a K-Mart, a roadhouse, a junkyard/race track, a golf course, oil depots, trailer parks, a dense woods, a boiler shop, and dozens of bungalows distinguished from the neighboring taverns and liquor stores and Elvis boutiques only by the absence of gravel in their front yards.


For most people, the question of how to explain this disharmony is less pressing than how to endure it. After a while, we cease to see the ugliness around us, in self-defense. We recalibrate the eye, and fasten automatically on some pleasing corner or a tree or a facade, the way we might seek out the face of a friend in a crowded room full of strangers. Some people (S. is among them) alter their routes so as to avoid streets whose hideousness especially palls.


The risk is that the more successful are our collective defenses against ugliness, the uglier our cities will become. Our public thoroughfares are devoted to commerce—the streets of Springfield may be described as commercial free-fire zones—and there is not a single plea for reform which hasn't been dismissed on the grounds that it might cost some business money.


What it is costing the rest of us is just as dear. Most people don't see it, of course. Of those who do, the well-to-do can flee it. The rest of us will just have to keep on ignoring it. ●




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.


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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




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.

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Journal of the Illinois

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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.

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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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