Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Downtown Springfield tries respectability
May 15, 1981
Whatever Near North Village did or didn’t do to improve the tone of downtown Springfield, it proved a success in its own terms, and remains a desirable place to live. Its much-criticized appearance, I later learned, was not intended. By the time it was built, costs had ballooned (due mainly to unexpectedly high land acquisition costs) and the exterior, which had been designed to be clad in brick, had to be done in cheaper concrete blocks.
Buildings evoke the oddest feelings. Take Near North Village, the 288-unit apartment-townhouse complex being built between Fourth and Fifth streets in downtown Springfield. Four basic units, occupying a city block, grouped around a landscaped central courtyard and ranging in size from nine to three stories, built of rough-finished concrete block that looks like cotton candy congealed into stone, the complex is designed principally to house subsidizable elderly and handicapped tenants.
I poll my tiny circle for opinions, and find that beauty resides not so much in the eye as in the mind of the beholder. It strikes one person as vaguely Middle Eastern. To another it evokes childhood, or at least that part of childhood occupied by toy plastic Leggo building blocks. It puts another in mind of Indian pueblos, and indeed connecting each of the various levels with ladders would not seem out of place architecturally, however much it might contradict the project's broader social goals. To a fourth it smacks of barracks, and wants only painted stones lining the sidewalk to complete the effect. A fifth sees in it a less graceful clone of one of its predecessors on the block—a warehouse. Yet another keen-eyed local writes me about the complex, and says of the entrance, "It was last seen on a Rexall Drug store in Covington, Kentucky, in 1937." Me? It puts me irresistibly, inexplicably, in mind of that forlorn Siberian power plant to which Solzhenitsyn's Ivan Denisovitch was lashed. I think it is the security lights and wire fence that do it.
Near North is something about which much could be said, being at once an idea, an artifact, and the embodiment of a certain social ideal, and I intend someday to say most of it. The most striking thing about it—maybe the only striking thing—is that it is so much not what was there before it. As is true of any large development, there have been many ambitions invested in Near North, both public and private. One of them may be summarized in the quaint phrase from the '60s, urban renewal. The block occupied by Near North was (and to the extent that it survives on adjacent streets, still is) the city's "levee" district. It would go too far to describe it as a "vice district”—it is too small to be a district and the vice that went on there was almost demure by big-city standards. Even so, it did harbor what one local reporter called "massage parlors, fleabag hotels and some of the city's tougher bars." Before the bulldozers moved in, for instance, the corner of Fourth and Jefferson was the one place in town where the prostitutes offered curb service.
The district had been something of an embarrassment to the city in recent years. Worse, it was a bar to investment in the whole northern half of the central business district. The Levee had to go. Hawks on the city council and SCADA, the Springfield Central Area Development Association, made it clear in 1977 that they were prepared to destroy that block in order to save it.
Alas, the city proved no better at these search-and-destroy missions than the U.S. Army. Both faced an enemy that was cunning, traveled light, and had the support of the indigenous population. What's more, the Vietcong didn't enjoy the luxury of relocation payments. When the wreckers showed up to level the Palmer Hotel and the Town Lounge and the Cloud Nine massage parlor, the Levee simply upped and moved, setting up camp in a languishing retail district a few blocks to the west.
George Santayana clearly never worked for HUD. The city had tried once before to urban renewal the vice district out of existence. The original Levee stretched for blocks along East Washington Street, a scant four blocks from where Near North now stands a-building. It had survived for decades into the 1960s. In its heyday it was notorious enough to have had a book written about it titled Hell at Midnight in Springfield, an honor not yet accorded any city council. City Hall tolerated it for as long as it could extract votes and payoffs from its denizens. When honesty briefly went into vogue, the city sought first to clean it up (this in the late 1940s) and, failing that, to tear it down. Eventually the Levee's clubs and dice joints and upstairs assignation rooms were replaced by the Horace Mann building and, later, the Prairie Capital Convention Center and its yet-to-be-built companion hotel.
Thus uprooted, the Levee resettled along North Fifth. It was much diminished and changed by the move; the new Levee was white, for example, whereas the original was heavily black. Nor was its new home given over wholly to evil-doing. To the day the wreckers showed up, there remained as many respectable (if marginal) businesses on the block as in most shopping centers. In fact, some of the people who owned the cafes and laundries there complained that the constant characterization of the district as a slum by City Hall and SCADA wasn't doing property values any good.
Anyway, progress has descended a second time, and now what was left of the old Levee is further scattered. Given the dynamics of these things, one would expect there to evolve in time a new Levee; vice is subject to the same marketing factors as shopping malls, which is why both tend to be compact and contiguous. The question is whether the city will ever let them settle in one spot long enough.
By now, some of the veteran bar owners from the old Levee are probably beginning to feel a little like Chief White Halfoat, the Creek Indian in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. He complained that his family had an affinity for petroleum deposits, so that every time his people pitched their tents, a white man would follow and sink an oil well, forcing them to move on to another site—where another white man would sink another well. "I don't think I ever spent more than a week in one place," he moaned.
These bar owners must feel the same way about guys from city hall. Every time they open their doors, the city shows up and wants to tear their place down for a civic improvement. It must be nerve-wracking. I'll bet some of these people spend most of their relocation money on doctor bills, just from worrying about it. See, the city needs these guys. In fact, I've suspected more than once that they are secretly on the city payroll. Without evidence of blight, the city would have a hard time getting the money it needs, and an even harder time justifying spending it. Buster Dinora has reopened his Towne Lounge at Second and Adams, and I'd bet a bundle that within five years there'll be a HUD-financed roller rink or something on that very spot. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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.
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.
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
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.
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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