Mozart in the Cornfields
Traveling without leaving home
June 16, 1981
How embarrassing. The Springfield I described here was not the Springfield that was but the Springfield I liked to pretend it was becoming. Yes, I might have been stretching the evidence to sustain my thesis, but mainly I was trying to talk myself into something, which was that Springfield was a fine place for me to be, when I knew perfectly well that it wasn't. Apart from being wrong, it's a perfectly sound piece.
I always make it a point to spent time with local boys who’ve made good, in an off chance that I might pick up some handy hints. Which is one of the reasons I accepted Bill Howarth’s invitation to breakfast a couple of weeks ago. Bill is a Springfield native who was in town to deliver a lecture or two and visit family. He’s a professor at Princeton and an acknowledged expert on the life and works of Thoreau.
Unlike me, who has hewed barnacle-like to Springfield’s hull, Howarth has been away from the city for more than twenty years. He found it (he said) a strange new place, and his homecoming was rather like encountering an old schoolmate whose pot belly and thinning hair disguise the younger, remembered version. The fields he used to play in now are planted in waterbed boutiques. He missed the old Carnegie Library, but was impressed by its replacement. He was especially struck at being able to tune in to a local radio station and hear Mozart while driving through the cornfields. To someone who grew up in Springfield in the 1950s, that is as vivid a contradiction of municipal character as a clean street is in New York.
I wanted to tell Howarth that we have not only Mozart but dual TV news anchors (I’m not above impressing a tourist; what’s good enough for Fred Puglia is good enough for me) but I forgot to. The conversation reminded me of a similar encounter I’d had a few weeks previous. My lunch partner that time was the wife of a poet-professor. She works as a magazine editor, such jobs being for the educated women of this generation the equivalent of taking in laundry. The subject was the extraordinary peregrinations of the American middle class, who shuttle between campuses and state capitals and corporation headquarters like electrons on a wire. Springfield sees its share of these wanderers, who always put me in mind of the Texan oil drillers who spend years working in such perfect isolation aboard self-contained rigs off Nigerian shores that they never learn even the name of that country’s president.
This flitting about is presumed to confer sophistication on the flitters, although it would seem more likely to confer merely exhaustion. As I have already said, I move hardly at all. Had I been able to speak when my parents moved to Springfield from Beardstown when I was six weeks old, I would have argued against it as a rash undertaking, since we had no reason not to think that the edge of the world did not stand somewhere on the other side of Ashland.
My acquaintances are too polite to snort in derision when informed that, except for these formative weeks in Beardstown, I have spent all my life in this one city. Instead they smile and ask (in a tone that reveals that they’ve already answered the question for themselves) whether I don’t find life in one place just a little, well, boring? I try to point out that while it is true that I have lived in the same place for thirty years, it is not strictly accurate to say that I’ve lived in the same city for that time. As Howarth discovered, Springfield is not the same city it was twenty, or even ten years ago. As a result, it is possible to live in a succession of different cities without moving so much as a block from home. This saves moving expenses, and the time I save not filling out change-of-address forms I can spend re-reading Wodehouse.
I have lived in three distinct Springfields. I remember only a little about the first one, alas. That was the unreconstructed Springfield of the late 1940s and early 1950s—the lazy, casually racist town where a black state senator couldn’t get a room in a downtown hotel. It literally was the “archetypal rural state capital’’ that Look later described it to be, if only because in pre-sprawl Springfield the cornfields still intruded into the city proper. One could still park diagonally on downtown streets and play the punch boards in the drug stores and, in summer, follow a Cardinals game pitch by pitch as one strolled about listening to the radio through the open doors of bars, barbershops, and pool halls.
The second Springfield I knew better. This was the go-get-’em Springfield that shed the soiled cloak of corruption and marched under the Chamber of Commerce banner into a bright new future of shopping centers and plate glass. All was uplift and improvement in the ’60s. City hall, which used to sell zoning variances, began simply to give them away as a public service. The better elements were ashamed of the old city, and sought to make it into someplace else. One could scarcely sleep at nights for the crash and bang of old buildings being razed.
Springfield nearly modernized itself to death in those years. It gave way in the fullness of time to the third Springfield, the present one. I date its arrival at 1977, when two contradictory trends converged to revolutionize the city and the way its people thought about it. White Oaks Mall opened that year, which paradoxically was also when there matured in the city an awareness that the lifestyle of which White Oaks is the penultimate expression—cities driven into the countryside in automobiles, with the consequent costs in land, energy, and neighborhood integrity—was doomed.
I confess I occasionally feel like a newcomer to this Springfield myself. With its isolation pierced by cable TV and public radio, it’s now a place where (miracles!) one can buy bean sprouts on a sandwich for lunch, where the smelly ethnic cafes of the sort that used to be run by immigrant Italians are now run by scrubbed WASPS who dropped out of promising law careers because they don’t like the feel of vested suits, where city officials talk about carpooling and redirecting development back to the city and building solar houses. Sometimes I feel like a tornado picked me up and dropped me, a dazed Dorothy, in Portland.
To old city hands, the local papers have become travelogues in time. The accustomed distinctions between time and geography blur; both miles and years, after all, are categories of distance. Three examples may make the point. One: The city closed down a small welding plant recently because it was not zoned for industrial use. The city commissioner in charge of zoning was quoted as saying, “Zoning is the one thing that there is no flexibility on.’’ For someone who knew Springfield in the ’60s, the assertion is staggering strange. Five years ago I would have bet that the Twelfth Imam would materialize in a booth at D. H. Brown’s before a city council member would say something like that.
Two: I turned on the TV and learned that the city is proceeding with its plans to remodel Bridgeview beachhouse at Lake Springfield into a solar heating demonstration project. To those who don’t know it, Bridgeview is conspicuous for two things. It was for years a private playground for city pols and their pals, and it was Springfield’s unofficial “black beach.’’ From Birmingham to Davis, in two decades; Mayflower makes the trip faster, but it’s just as far.
And three: The State Journal- Register, in its “Do You Remember” feature ran a photo showing the intersection of Chatham Road and Wabash Avenue taken years ago. The shot shows a narrow country road curving past a distant farmhouse. Today the intersection shows every symptom of urban trauma—fried chicken parlors, two major supermarkets, three gas stations, a bank, an office building, left-turn lanes. Visiting the scene today, it is unrecognizable. It might as well have been in another city.
These changes are not always positive; most have been painful. But I do not envy people who move from city to city, people who shop in the same kinds of shops they used to shop in, who see the same kind of peoi- ple and do the same kind of things no matter where they are. They don’t really move at all. I intend to stay right where lam. In thirty years I’ve grown fond of traveling. ●