Illinois: Country-fied city or city-fied country?
Most day-tripping city folks who ever missed a turn on the road in the middle of dead-flat countryside and ended up at the intersection of four corn fields know that sense of disorientation that comes upon us when everything around us is indistinguishable. It's been said of Downstate that there was no there there, but in recent decades there is less and less where there too.
Note: In this piece, which probably dates from the early '80s, I state, “There are hardly ever any farmers at farmer’s markets.” True enough then but no longer, thanks to the rise in boutique farming catering to urbanites' appetites for food that is local, healthful, and fresh, or at least more local, more healthful, and more fresh than the supermarkets.'
The subject was furniture stores, as I recall it. Referring to a shop specializing in Early American designs, A. said, “It’s all country.” Early American is not a style I automatically associate with country, but the more I thought about, it the less certain I became that any of us have any idea what “country” is anymore.
When 1 was a boy, “city” was ' where I lived, while “country” was where my grandparents lived, on a small farm outside Beardstown. They had hogs and we didn’t, while our backyard had grass in it and theirs had alfalfa. Such simple distinctions helped me keep my bearings well enough during the years when my attention was diverted by the exotic pleasures which haystacks and defecating cows held for a lad living in a GI Bill tract house on a street grandiloquently dubbed “Manor Avenue.”
Yet even I gradually became aware of a fuzzing of boundaries in the ’60s. There was that new movie drive-in up the road from the farm, for one thing. And my first-ever summer job was hopping cars at a root beer stand on the state highway on the outskirts of Beardstown, an establishment whose existence was predicated on the possession of an automobile by a significant share of Beardstown’s pork tenderloin fans.
The car made more than drive-ins possible, of course. It made it possible for people to live in places other than where they made their living. Theretofore, “country” and “city” were economic as well as geographical categories. Leo Marx, reviewing a book recently, notes that in the past a sharp-edged dot on a map was the perfect symbol for a city, which was “inhabited by a small, specialized segment of the region’s population” such as bankers and undertakers.
Most people continued to live in the country, because that’s where their livings were. No more. Hardy was able to describe his Casterbridge as being “compact as a box of dominoes,” a place where “country and town met in a mathematical line.” Today we have instead a squalid urban litter lining the highways leading out of even small towns. It’s as if commuters had tossed half-acre subdivision lots and minor-denomination chapels out their car windows along with their gum wrappers. The city never ends anymore. It just gets thinner.
Urban sprawl of this kind is new only in its magnitude, and it’s driving those doughty demographers down to the U.S. Census nuts. The census defines an “urban” area as cities of more than 50,000 people with those of their environs having population densities of at least 1,000 person per square mile, along with incorporated places having at least 2,500 people. Everything else is “rural.”
Inevitably, large tracts of “urban” incorporated areas have population densities which are more nearly rural, while many a “rural” district boasts city-style subdivisions whose residents shop in malls and send their kids to schools which offer courses in “Global Studies” and employ career counselors. One federal official calls this curious new form of civilization the “countryfied city.” 1 would have called it “citified country,” but the point is that there’s not much difference either way.
Whatever country is, or wherever it is, there’s less and less of it. The rural population (except for isolated suburban developments) has largely evaporated in the last fifty years; even farmers are commuting from town these days. Worse, the countryside has become merely a trashier version of the cities we used to visit the countryside to escape. Hedges have been systematically ripped out as out as owners scramble for a few extra bushels. Trees have been cleared, and with them have gone the birds. The roadsides are scalped of predator weeds, and the streams are brown with mud. Even country architecture is being abandoned (as Allison Engel reported here in November) in favor of prefab metal sheds and mobile homes which give a personality that owes more to the parking lot than to the pastoral. V. S Pritchett once tried to identify the source of outrage in Evelyn Waugh, whose life seemed at first to offer no cause for it. He credited it to what he called “the ruin of rural England” since World War I, what Waugh himself called “the grim cyclorama of spoliation.” Central Illinois has never been mistaken for Somerset, but it's easy to see what he meant.
To a considerable extent, country has ceased to be a matter of geography and become solely one of lifestyle. As Marx—that’s Leo Marx—explains, rural life has lost much of its distinctiveness, for “while the physical city was becoming a sprawl, urban ways were becoming increasingly the ways of people everywhere.” And vice versa. In days past, country people were recognizable by more than their address. They wore boots and drove pickup trucks and listened to country music. Today that description fits half the bureaucrats under forty in Springfield. There are still clues, of course, but they’re subtle. Vandals it the country tend to use shotguns to shoot at road signs while their city cousins use hand guns. At Massey-Ferguson Night at the ball park last summer, you could tell the farmers and small-town equipment dealers in the crowd because they were the only ones who actually sang along with the national anthem. And you know you’re in the country if you have to drive more than ten miles to get to a Pizza Hut.
Farmers used to be country. But even here, familiar distinctions have blurred. Take “farmer’s markets,” which are to modern downtown promotions what funny hats are to New Year’s Eve parties. There are hardly ever any farmers at farmer’s markets; farmers don’t grow food anymore, they produce commodities. In their place are ersatz farmers—hobby gardeners, retirees, bake sale fund raisers, and merchandisers who pick their produce fresh—fresh off the loading docks of St. Louis wholesalers. Indeed, “farmer’s market’’ has become a generic term for quasi-rustic street fairs intended to appeal to a certain sort of suburban sensibility which is also responsible for the trade in carriage lamp porch lights.
Illinois is something of an anomaly, being both an industrialized state and an agricultural one at the same time. Its two halves share space uneasily; Illinois has a lot of the West Bank about it. Here and there, in the interstices among the economic orbits of the larger cities, there survive real country towns of the sort Hardy called “the pole, focus-, or nerve-knot of the surrounding country life” whose people understand “every fluctuation in the rustic’s condition, for it affects their receipts as much as the laborer's." But most Illinoisans remain as ignorant of the country as they re of Siberia. A while back DeKalb County planners surveyed farmers, who complained that the new “subdivision people” acted as if farm fields were public open space and grow irritated because a combine can’t do 45 mph on a country road. Hell, so many exurbanites have threatened to sue farmers whose hogs offend them or whose grain dryers keep them awake at night that the legislature last year had to pass a “right to farm” law to keep all of Illinois’ remaining country from turning into something like [the Springfield suburb of] Chatham.
It should be a rule of government that country is country and city is city, and the twain probably should never meet, except maybe in basketball tournaments. This would be a dramatic change from past policies of the state’s road planners, sewer builders, and developers. Planners and other radicals got some help in their fight to restrain the citifying of the country last month from Ronnie Reagan, bless his heart. He signed amendments to the federal Clean Water Act which will reduce or eliminate federal funding for water projects whose principal function is to build reserve capacity to promote urban growth rather than clean up dirty water.
it’s probably too late anyway. Of course, the problem with every place becoming like every other place is that every place becomes no place special. Same thing happens to people. No longer able to define ourselves, we resort to designer jeans labels and religions to set us apart from our neighbors. “Country” is no longer a place, yes, but neither will it long survive even as a state of mind. It’s merely an attitude.
What’s the Zip Code for Nowhere? ●