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. ●