Civic ugliness as economic development issue
May 5, 1983
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. Developers, city officials, property owners—Springfieldians of all classes have, as I note below, destroyed what they should have treasured and defaced the rest.
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 Springfield, after all, and should be forgiven wishing to impress visitors to what they clearly regard as their private parlor.
Like most of the rest of Springfield, I am not as impressed as I might be with touring swamis and unconvicted Presidents. But 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 investable 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 told me of 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 down 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 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 penitance, 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 '20s 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." 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. In quick succession she 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.
Clear Lake was zoned commercial years ago, but the city has lacked the economic zest to populate it. Once it was the road out of town to the suburbs (the golf course 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. Like much of the city this street has seen successive waves of use, none of them strong enough to obliterate its predecessors, with the result that today they all share its length in acute disharmony.
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, a tree, 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. □