Delightful, De-lovely, Decatur
A Springfieldian looks down his nose at Decatur
November 3, 1978
Decatur and Springfield for decades contended for the title of Illinois's No. 4 city, as each grew to around 90,000 people by 1970 or so. The rivalry was mostly manufactured, but the two towns had real differences. Springfield is a white-collar town and Decatur proudly blue-collar.
Decatur thus was devastated by the collapse of the Illinois manufacturing economy. I note without pleasure that since 1980, Springfield's population has increased (barely) to 115,000 people while that of Decatur shriveled from 94,000 to 71,000. That's a lot of livings lost, and a lot of lives undone.
"I don't know. I've just never been able to see the attraction." The speaker was a woman who's lived in Springfield for more than thirty years, the occasion a Saturday trip to attend a youth soccer tournament, and the subject the city of Decatur, Illinois. Hers is a common judgment among the central Illinoisans who do not live in Decatur and, from what I've heard, several who do.
Decatur has been playing Chicago to Springfield's New York for decades. Outwardly the two cities have much in common. Both were built on the rolling central Illinois prairie, both share(unequally to be sure) in the Lincoln legacy, both were founded at about the same time and both have roughly the same population. But between cities as between people, charm lies in the differences. Decatur makes its living making things—processed foods, automobile tires, road graders, electronic gadgets and so on—while Springfield (to hear the rest of the state tell it) makes its living making trouble for everybody who doesn't live in Springfield.
Decatur, in short, is as blue-collar as Springfield is white-collar, and in that simple demographic datum lies the key to a myriad of differences. Like most factory towns, Decatur is ugly (though Springfield is fast reducing its advantages in this regard), narrow-minded, suspicious, insular. Decatur is the only city its size still exercised over porn shops. The main attraction on Decatur's symphony program this season is "Peter and the Wolf." WAND-TV's weatherman has been known to wear white shoes. Indeed, its only claim to the attention of the world is the fact that it has had the highest unemployment rate in Illinois for several years running.
That and its smell. In an April, 1978, article I made an admittedly unflattering reference to the way Decatur smells. It is "a peculiar odor that has no exact counterpart in nature," 1 wrote, one which "reminds some people of boiling tennis shoes, others of composting-birds' nests." I'blamed it on the soybean processing plants which are one of Decatur's staple industries. Shortly after the piece was published I met some proud Decaturites at a party. They work for one of the soybean processors, and they informed me with some feeling that the stink is not caused by soybeans but by corn, which is also very big in Decatur. I stand corrected. I want to add only that, whether he does it in a bathtub or a swimming pool, a drowned man is still dead.
The Decatur Chamber of Commerce, a never-say-die outfit if ever there was one, publishes a color brochure whose purpose is to entice travelers to bide a while in their Toledo-on-the-Sangamon. It lists the parks and the hotels and Lincoln sites, of course. But next to them, where the list of buried Civil War heroes and azalea walks would be on other cities' brochures, they have a list of factories. Tourism, as you might expect, is not a big business in Decatur.
Why should someone want to live in Decatur who isn't driven to it by the hard lash of economic need? (I'm often asked that question about Springfield, and the best answer I've come up with is, "Because it isn't Decatur.") And the answer is, of course, that the town has its good points. Milliken University is a fine school, and Decatur, according to recent reports, has a much lower crime rate than Springfield; there are especially fewer burglaries, which may be the result of a glut on the hot bowling ball market. Finally, as my homesick metropolite friends point out, it is thirty-nine miles closer than Springfield to New York City.
A few years ago an enterprising group of Decaturites mounted a revue titled, "Is Decatur Really Necessary:" I don't know if they found an answer, but I give them high marks for asking the question. □