Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
On putting your money where your mouth is
June 12, 1986
In which I mount the stump to preach. I built a little house on the east side of Springfield, nearly all of whose residents were African Americans. I made the decision as a real estate deal; several governments, in effect, paid me to invest there, which allowed me to own a house I could not otherwise afford. But there was a social dimension to the choice too. I got tired of people assuming it was a liberal striking a pose, so I tried here to explain that things were more complicated than that.
As a business deal, by the way, the house was a bust. I lost money and eventually the house.
Life on my block on Springfield's near east side is a textbook lesson in tolerance. I hadn't really expected my new neighbors to care much that I am white; all of us tend to worry about essential things, such as who doesn’t keep his grass mowed. No, I refer to the fact that in four years I have yet to hear a belittling or angry remark made in my hearing about writers. That is open-minded.
Indeed, life in general on my block is so pleasant—new houses, quiet streets, nice kids, parks and tennis courts nearby, all located ten minutes from downtown and only five minutes from a doughnut shop—that I often wonder why more people haven’t joined us. Money was tight for a while, I know, but with the drop in interest rates even honest people can afford to build houses again.
The city is willing to make deals on lots, and I would happily donate a couple of clumps of day lilies toward the landscaping. What more incentive does a person need?
I am joking, of course. Sadly, I know too well some of the reasons why Springfield’s Pioneer Park redevelopment has grown at a modest pace. Racism is one obvious reason. There are still people in Springfield who would rather live next door to a white writer than a black architect or attorney, and they’re welcome to stay where they can do just that—we don’t want them in our neighborhood anyway.
Other reasons for the reluctance of the middle class to venture into the near east side are less obvious. Less accurate too. There undeniably are lots of black people in my neighborhood, for example. But crime? “I read Police Beat,” a longtime Springfieldian said to me recently. Most locals do. The problem is that they don’t read it very carefully. The crime that usually appears in the press is concentrated in two specific points on the east side (the Hay Homes and near Thirteenth and Jackson) and tends to be intramural. The crimes that people fear most—house break-ins and random street violence—happen more often in the near west and near north sides. I have yet to have a murder on my block, which is something many of the good burghers of Westchester can’t say, and the only vandals I worry about work for the city’s streets and utility departments.
I concede that the cultural preference for curvy streets mitigates against older city neighborhoods organized on the grid system. So does pretension; a culture whose members are not embarrassed to receive mail at a place called Volare Lane is not one which will prize an address on Fourteenth Street. And of course there is the tribal instinct. People want to live near people who are like they are, or who at least think and act like they do. (Anne Quindlen in the New York Times imagined the idyllic life she and her husband and child might enjoy in the suburbs, where the streets were safe and the kids grow up playing with kids just like they are. “That’s the problem,” she said.) Americans are actually fearful of diversity. That fear is often social, not physical; many whites have trouble understanding informal black speech and are embarrassed by it. Whatever the cause, they take refuge from it behind the bulwark of bourgeois conformity.
If imitation is indeed the sheerest form of flattery, then many of the praises sung by my many guests over the years have been hollow indeed. Of the thousands of my demographic equals—white but not wealthy, childless, relatively educated, unfettered, beginning to nest— not one has built or bought in my neighborhood.
Among the likeliest prospects for that are white social liberals. They are open-minded about race and enlightened about crime. They extol a life which exposes themselves and their children to other cultures, support integrated public schools on principle, and tend to be culturally more oriented to cities than to suburbs. Yet of all the people investing in my east side neighborhood, white liberals are conspicuous by their absence. It is a rude question but inescapable: How can one endorse a way of life in which races and classes mix but do nothing to bring it about except talk?
Part of the answer is ordinary human failing: It is cheaper to overpay the black cleaning woman than to risk $60,000 in a changing neighborhood (even if the act of buying it changes it for the better). Part of it is political, and less forgivable. Liberals tend to expect the millennium to be achieved by state compulsion, a sort of brotherhood by force of statute.
I think sometimes of my age-mates, the children of Cherry Hills and Sherwood and Leland Grove who grew up and who now appraise the real estate and make the money and run the banks and own the construction firms and draw up the deeds for Springfield and do it all in such a way as to perpetuate its racist (more accurately, classist) housing patterns. Like me, they grew up listening to black popular music and aping black speech and worshipping black sports heroes and reading black writers; a few even marched for civil rights. I see now that the sons and daughters of the white bourgeoisie were committed to pluralism to the extent their parents were not. It was just another way for them to assert their independence of parental mores, like wearing short skirts or reading books.
I do not mean to suggest life in my neighborhood as an alternative to the purchase of a sustaining membership in the NAACP. I repeat that it is a nice place, an interesting place to live. I did not build where I did to confirm my open-mindedness or as a gesture of brotherhood (unless it was to the brotherhood of mutual self-interest). Because of the way I make my living, I have more in common economically with many of my neighbors than I do with many of my friends. Any pride I take in my house comes from a sense of having accomplished something in spite of the rules. I wanted what my neighbors wanted, which was a chance to build a house which they might not otherwise ever get.
At the same time, my choice was partly a gesture of defiance intended to show that not every man in this miserable town measures his life by his bank account. Better to suffer the anxieties of the poor, I averred, than the smugness of the comfortable.
Vanity, I know. I have winced when people praise me for my “courage” as an urban pioneer because I know how little courage had to do with it. But vanity is as poor a reason to refrain from action as it is to undertake it. I was struck by the relevance of a passage from Burger’s Daughter, the novel by the South African, Nadine Gordimer. A liberal Afrikaaner is talking, and while Gordimer clearly meant to mock him for his hypocrisy, her mockery had weight to the extent his professed convictions were worth honoring. Policy, he had said, must be supported on a human scale. If one believes in an idea, then one “must take on the job of personal, practical, daily responsibility for its interpretation and furtherance.”
Profession without responsibility is a fair description of our domestic politics, I thought, putting down the book. Montaigne does not often appear on the agendas of real estate seminars, so I will pass on a few words from his “On Vanity.” “The corruption of the age,” the Frenchman wrote, “is produced by the individual contribution of each of us; some contribute treachery, others injustice, irreligion, tyranny, avarice, cruelty, in accordance with their greater power; the weaker ones bring stupidity, vanity, idleness.”
Something John Garvey wrote in Commonweal a few months ago spoke to these same points. “I have such wonderful resolves, lots of good intentions,” he admitted. “My mistake is that they form so large a part of my conscious life that I could wind up thinking they offer a serious clue to my being, rather than a clue to what I want to be.” It is a deception which self-conscious baby-boomers are especially prey to.
We must not mistake the intention for the deed, in ourselves or others, because it is deeds that make the world. “In a time when it is so common to do evil,” friend Montaigne wrote, “it is practically praiseworthy to do what is merely useless.” ●
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture