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A Great Concrete Dagger

Building highways out of habit

Illinois Times

November 30, 1979

The elevation of faster traffic flow to the level of social good by City of Springfield officials was a chronic complaint of mine. My prediction in the opening graf, that energy costs would soon render roads superfluous, was more hopeful than wise, and I would regard it as a kindness if you never mention it again.


It is one of the ironies of our recent political life that roads should have become so volatile an issue just when the changing economics of energy bid to render them increasingly superfluous. Oh, well. We’ve built roads from habit rather than need for years; indeed, late 20th century American society may be described as ever more elaborate expressways linking ever more elaborate traffic jams. Road planners have long sought to smooth things out by making everything into one gigantic expressway. People, however, are beginning to complain.


They have complained most recently in Springfield. For a decade, state and local planners have been working toward the conversion of an old railroad track along Madison Street in downtown Springfield into one half of a major new east-west traffic corridor. The project’s once-grand dimensions have been progressively pared by rising costs—(to this day some locals refer to it as the “Madison expressway" ) until it now is planned as a rather ordinary multi-lane “signalized” street with grade-level intersections (is such a street thus intersectionalized?) with speed limits closer to 35 than 55 mph. First-phase construction is expected to be finished by 1983.


That first phase would mean building the new corridor right next to the John Hay Homes, Springfield's postwar monument to public housing hopes. Residents there, speaking individually and through the Hay Homes Residents Council and the neighborhood organization known as the Streetside Boosters, oppose the project bitterly. They say the corridor will bring noise and fumes into the neighborhood, endanger children who live nearby, and make it difficult to reach the nearby Neighborhood Facilities Building.


The project is being backed by the usual crew—downtown business interests represented by the Chamber of Commerce and the downtown development association, the state Department of Transportation, and a succession of Springfield city councils. The state, for example, wants the corridor so it can more efficiently deliver its battalions of tax processors to its new Department of Revenue building going up near the western end of the corridor. The state, speaking through the voice of its District 6 engineer, William Burns, seems to be saying that the use of traffic signals and landscaping and intersections and pedestrian overpasses would result in a street that would have the same invigorating effect on the East side that the London Bridge had on Lake Havasu City. A resident asked Burns at a November 20 meeting if he’d want such a street next to his house. Burns reminded her that he lives near the West Belt expressway. It figures. Highway engineers are like those old women who keep dozens of cats and are oblivious to the stink they make. I guess if you love something enough you don’t notice the mess they make.


Predictably, silly things have been said on both sides of this particular stink. Burns said it would be a “gateway” to downtown for the residents of the east side, which is the part of town where state highway engineers do not live. Neither is it where editorial writers for the State Journal-Register live; they noted last Sunday that the new street would not only be "more practical” for the present unused railway corridor “but it should be considerably more sightly.”


We’ve received scarcely better from some opponents. In the spring issue of its newspaper, “The People's Press, "the Streetside Boosters offered a call that was provocative and accurate in roughly inverse proportion. Planners, the piece said, “look for a soft spot to attack and they always find it. ‘Let’s run it through Niggertown . . . They can’t stop us even if they want to.’”


As usual, we got a steadier look from the solid middle ground from which the League of Women Voters observes local affairs. At a public hearing on November 27 the league complained that planners did not take social and environmental consequences into account. The league’s objections were numerous.


How will Hay Home residents get to nearby Comer Cox Park? (Engineers promise a pedestrian overpass.) Why is the state spending great amounts of money to build a new road to bring cars into downtown at the same time it is considering spending more money on a centralized mass transit center to do the same thing? Wouldn’t it be better to convert the unused Madison right-of-way to downtown parking? Or green space? Or bikeways? Won’t such a street make it just as easy to bypass downtown as to get out of it? How can one arm of government justify razing twenty-four units of low-income housing (townhouses built by the Springfield Housing Authority along Jefferson) while another struggles to build enough to meet its waiting list?


The state’s answers to these questions are unpersuasive. Of course, those answers may be irrelevant to the broader aims of the project. The state has never demonstrated any conscience about the effects its expansion has on the social, economic, or environmental fabric of its host city, except that imposed on it by the federal government.


The state may fairly be said to resemble the generals who are busy preparing for the last war. In its broadest sense the Madison corridor is not distinguished from a half-dozen other equally ill-considered projects—the Iles Avenue extension, the Chatham Road "improvement,” the West Belt, the MacArthur widening—in which highway builders have sought to elevate faster traffic flow to the level of social good.


I have a friend, an experienced transportation planner, who dismissed the Madison corridor over a year ago as an anachronism. Being English, he affects a rather more colorful mode of speech than his American colleagues. The project, he told me, would be like "driving a great concrete dagger right through the heart of the city.” As one league officer put it to me, it is simply too late in the century to be building another highway. ●       




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.


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

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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.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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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

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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:
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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.

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