White Oaks East

Springfield un-malls the town square

Illinois Times

September 26, 1991

Municipal governments across Illinois, prodded by local business interests, tried several experiments in an attempt to defend the traditional town centers against malls and other shopping districts on the edge of town. One of them was to remodel tradition blocks into car-less malls, projhects that managed to misunderstand the nature of the shopping mall and of the traditional downtown. Here I remark on Springfield’s version of this innovation. By the way, my facetious suggestion in the final sentence is pretty much what has happened downtown since the piece was published.

 

It does not surprise me that a mayor and city council that can't decide how to recycle leaves and newspapers should be confused about how to recycle a block-long city street. The street in question is the 400 block of East Washington Street, which abuts the Old State Capitol on the north and which has been closed to vehicular traffic since it was plaza-ed in the 1960s. Pressure to "restreet" the plaza has come mainly from nearby merchants; the plaza blocks traffic moving east from Fifth Street, which of course is why so many people buy their jeans at White Oaks Mall instead of the Hub.

 

A sympathetic city council voted in January to open that block of Washington to traffic. This policy is opposed by Mayor Ossie "I Remember the Hapsbourgs" Langfelder. Indeed, when City Hall staffers in August asked for consultants' bids on the fix-up of the north plaza they asked for budgets and plans for the plaza's rehabilitation as well as its replacement. One gets the uneasy feeling that Langfelder wants to save the plaza as a parade ground where he can drill aldermen at marching in unison to his orders.

 

At the most immediate level, the problem with the plaza is that there is no retail on the north side of the square. Retail attracts customers throughout the day and on weekends, and keeps a street—or a mall—lively. In more advanced municipalities administrators do not allow any but retail uses of street-level property downtown, being aware of the deadening effect on street
life that offices have. But the market demand for space is for offices, so towns increasingly are left to choose between dead offices and even deader vacant storefronts.

 

As the city council has learned, it does little good to express an opinion on this topic that differs from the mayor's, but the ethics of my profession oblige me to ask whether it makes sense to build a "people place" where there are no people. The north plaza has become derelict because no one goes there; officials misconstrue the nature of public spaces work when they insist that people don't go there because it is derelict. There is no retail along Washington not because shoppers can't drive there but because that block of Washington is downtown. And people don't like to shop downtown because downtown is no longer the center of the city in a social, even a geographical sense. In fact, downtown is today on the wrong side of town as far as the city's middle class is concerned.

 

Carless malls are being ripped out by disillusioned municipalities across the nation and replaced with old-fashioned streets. But there seems to be no evidence that opening once-closed downtown shopping areas to auto traffic boosts sales of anything except asphalt paving. The economic evidence in favor of restreeting is mostly anecdotal, usually taking the form of "How's business?" interviews with merchants done soon after traffic has resumed.

 

For example, sales did rise very modestly in Oak Park in the first months after its main drag, Lake Street, was reopened to cars in 1990 as a part of a $2.7 million "restreeting" of that Chicago suburb's 1974 downtown mall. But retail vacancy rates there have improved only slightly since, a major retailer has closed, and the increase in sales may be explained by the recent conversion of vacant retail space to office use, which increased Lake Street's population of daytime shoppers.

 

Analysis of restreeting's effect is seldom correlated with larger regional retail trends, indeed with any external factors. Dick Hocking, vice-president of Evanston's nationally regarded consulting firm, Barton-Aschman (which has done work on Springfield's Old Capitol plazas) is a traffic consultant to the merchants of Chicago's State Street, who are contemplating a $60 million restreeting to remedy the fiasco that occurred when State was closed to auto traffic in 1979. Hocking admits that when it comes to the relationship between restreeting and sales, "I've not seen any cause-effect data that would pin that down."

 

Springfield's north Old Capitol plaza has become a social as well as an economic blemish. Restreeting's sponsor, Ward 2 alderman Frank McNeill, has expressed the hope that digging up the plaza will disperse the winos and other undesirables that congregate there. That it will do, but they would simply move someplace else—to Union Square probably, or to the plaza in front of the Municipal Building. (The latter is aggressively policed, however, ever since bums learned that passersby, mistaking them for aldermen, would sometimes approach them with a wink and thrust sums of cash into their pockets.)

 

There are other ways to clean up the north plaza. For half of what it would cost to restreet that block the city could give every wino in residence there a tent and a first-class plane ticket to Hawaii. For only a few hundreds bucks the men could be dressed in period outfits and added to the Old Capitol's roster of volunteer interpreters; they could be pointed out to tourists as 1850s legislators, who also spent at lot of time in drunken argument on the streets around the then-statehouse.

 

Downtown Springfield in its heyday was indeed a fine place to be, for citizen and businessman alike, and no one in Springfield has more nostalgic affection for it than I do. For more than a decade I shopped downtown in a vain hope of helping it stay alive—a noble but futile gesture, like voting for the best person for President, since no more than a handful of my townspeople shared my respect for the values that made it work—its pedestrian scale, its democratic ambiance, its local economics.

 

But that downtown is gone, malled to death, victim of race fear and automobilism and competition from national store chains. If the aldermen want to bring general retailing back to downtown they will have to build a roof over the place and call it the Old Capitol Mall or White Oaks East and appoint Melvin Simon mayor. Otherwise, they should just plant a border of poplars around the whole thing and market it as an office park. ●

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." 

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.)

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 

Click  here 

to buy 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.

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.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated