Downstate cities are neighbors, not friends
March 21, 1980
In 1980 I did not yet understand enough about how geography and settlement patterns explained the distinct personalities of those midsized cities that compose the unusual urban constellation in middle Illinois. Neither did most people who lived there. Note: This version differs slightly from the original but in no important way.
“It’s a shame we have to drive all the way to Champaign to hear a concert in a decent hall,’’ I mumbled absent-mindedly to myself as I watched a fellow music-lover stamp out a cigarette on Herman Krannert’s teak floor. “Sorry. To Urbana,’’ I corrected myself, then corrected myself again, since the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts stands not in Urbana but on the sovereign soil of the University of Illinois, which is to Urbana what the Vatican is to Rome.
I’m hardly the first to make that slip. People in central Illinois have been using “Champaign,’’ “Urbana ” and “U of I” as if they were synonyms for a long time. I used to think this imprecision was just laziness; people have been excoriating Springfield for years when what they really hate is the General Assembly, or the governor, or the state government generally, and slings and arrows are much easier to hurl if one doesn’t take time to aim. (In my town’s defense I have taken to quoting the desk clerk of a downtown Springfield motel who, when I complained one summer’s eve about some Shriners bellowing drunkenly from the balconies, told me that it was unreasonable to hold an inn responsible for the conduct of its guests.)
However, the more I see of this habit the more it begins to look as if ignorance, not slovenliness, is the cause. I fear that people fail to distinguish between Champaign and Urbana, or Bloomington and Normal, or even between Decatur and Peoria because they don’t know which is which. Most of us in the state’s midsection have had a laugh at the expense of slumming Chicagoans who alight in these latitudes thinking themselves to be in “southern” Illinois. But what, besides the nicknames of their college athletic teams, does the typical central Illinoisian know of what one sociologist has dubbed these “cities of the prairie”? Not much. We have reduced their personalities to a series of neat, if often inaccurate, sociological equations in which Peoria = Caterpillar, Decatur = soybeans, Bloomington = Illinois State University and Normal, which ought to equal ISU, equals nothing at all.
Indeed, I know a great many people in Springfield who know more about New York or even London than they do about Peoria or Bloomington or Urbana. A few cosmopolitans among us might be able to tell you the names of the TV news anchorpeople in some of those towns, but even the well-informed among us cannot name their mayors.
I must count myself among that undistinguished company, as I realized while I stood in the lobby at the Krannert, waiting in line during intermission for a glass of punch. I’ve lived in Springfield for thirty years, during which time I’ve made trips to Champaign-Urbana (or, as the U of I styles it lately, Urbana-Champaign). I even lived there for a time as a student, although living on campus in C-U is like living in Leland Grove in Springfield: It confers the right to use the city’s name on one’s mail but it does not necessarily confer familiarity. Even so, I know little about the carelessly named “twin” cities beyond how to get to the Assembly Hall and the first name of Mr. Roberts, C-U’s estimable local TV weatherman.
There are those who would argue that if one knows one central Illinois city one knows them all, that not only are they places that only a mother could love but places that only a mother could tell apart. After all, the Pizza Huts are the same, the Holiday Inns are the same, the shopping malls are the same, the ailing downtowns are the same the vacant schools are the same, the voter apathy is the same, the urban sprawl is the same—all the same. Each took root in roughly equivalent geographical niches.
If one wishes to look for them, one can find even more intriguing—and misleading—parallels. Decatur and Peoria, for example, are both factory towns situated on dirty rivers whose only difference is that Peoria’s reputation as a cultural backwater is national while Decatur’s is only statewide. Bloomington and Normal, like Champaign and Urbana, are “twin” cities of which one harbors a large state university with which its twin is commonly identified. And so on.
Between Springfield and Champaign-Urbana the resemblances are even more striking, and run deeper. (I must here do these cities the insult of treating them as if they were a single entity.) Both Springfield and C-U are dominated by state government whose presence is alternately damned by locals for its influence and courted for the money and status it brings; just as one would never have heard of Springfield were it not for the state capital, one would never have heard of C-U were it not for the U of I. In each case the state enclave forms a city within a city, creating jealousies between what in C-U is called the “town and gown” (and what in Springfield might be called the “town and clown”) elements of the citizenry. Because their economies are heavy with professionals and other white-collar types, more of their citizens work at jobs at which they get their hands dirty only in the metaphorical sense, and also are better educated (and thus richer) than most of their neighbors.
That differences exist is indisputable; we live as if on islands and, like Darwin’s Galapagos finches, have evolved in isolation to create subtle but real differences in the ways we have adapted to our environment. Again using Springfield and C-U as examples, we may note that Champaign has elected a woman mayor—a notable oddity, but it should be remembered that Springfieldians elected a Jaycee to the same post, which to my mind displayed the greater liberality. C-U seems a cleaner place, its neighborhoods less ravaged by commercial blight, while Springfield looks as if its city council uses a Monopoly Board as a zoning manual, with hotels next to railroads and avenues next to jails. For entertainment, C-U has the Illini football team. But Springfield has the Prairie Capital Convention Center, which has more in common with the gridiron IIlini than one might think: both are expensive public works projects designed to boost their local economies which have failed to live up to expectations, both are plagued by management problems and both are taking longer to build than their backers originally predicted.
It is the differences one can’t see by standing in punch lines at concerts that fascinate me. What curious permutations of character, I wondered, as I stood there, are hidden behind the faces of this predominantly C-U crowd? I know that elements of Springfield society possess a preternatural political sense, presumably because of their long association with state government. What peculiarities, then, lay secreted in the genes of Urbana-ites nurtured by the university? And how do they differ from people in Champaign, a town that traces its paternity to the Illinois Central Railroad? Does the world look
any different to a Decaturite, whose town is relatively more vulnerable to the inconstant tides of the national economy, than it does to people living on higher economic ground like Springfield? Is it possible to tell a Bloomingtonian from a Normalite except by their zip codes?
In the absence of more-compelling evidence, however, we are left to infer municipal character from gross economic structure, a handful of history, and the differences in hairstyles among the cities’ TV news teams. We are all neighbors in central Illinois, but we are still far from friends. □