Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
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Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Pots and Kettles
Downstate-Chicago enmity explained
June 5, 1981
One of the skills one has to demonstrate to qualify for a license as an Illinois Journalist is the ability to write 500 words without notes on why Downstate hates Chicago or vice versa. A lot of writers seem to recycle their answers to those test questions as published commentaries. I tried to do better with this one.
Sensitive readers should note that the piece contains common terms of racial and ethnic denigration that are appropriate to the context, which is racial and ethnic denigration.
Chicagoan Mike Royko declared war on Downstate and suburbia a few weeks ago, and just about everybody lost. Royko is the Sun-Times columnist who is popular among Chicagoans because he writes in short sentences of very simple words. Succumbing to a fad, he sought a military solution to the apparently intractable political problem of funding of mass transit in Chicago and its surburbs.
The call to arms sparked a hundred rhetorical skirmishes. Each side in the fracas proceeded obligingly to prove that the insults fired at them by their antagonists were well-deserved. For example, a former Waukegan legislator named Ronald Griesheimer appeared on the House floor (and later on the front page of the Tribune) dressed in a parade helmet and looking every bit the bumpkin that Royko said non-Chicagoans are. Griesheimer's antics embarrassed even some legislators, and as their diddling on the RTA confirmed, it takes a lot to embarrass a legislator.
The "war" began as an opportunity for some good-natured kidding. As the week progressed, however, the humor became more labored, and the air stank with ancient hatreds being vented in public. The jokes quickly degenerated to insult and worse. The bottom of this very deep barrel was scraped by a Republican legislator from Will County who drafted a resolution urging Downstaters and suburbanites to "protect their lives, property, and most importantly, their ewes and cows and female donkeys from the invading forces of Chicago.”
Of course, the war between Chicago and the rest of the state has been waged for years. In the past, the forces of each have been in delicate balance. Stalemate was a chronic condition, and all sides had to resort to a rough sort of diplomacy to govern their relations. But the U.S. Census will accomplish what warfare never could. A reapportioned Chicago will find itself outmanned, a spent political force. Royko's bluster thus has an almost pathetic ring to it, like an ayatollah huffing and puffing against the Great Satan. After a meeting of lawmakers on RTA, Illinois Senate president Phil Rock—a suburbanite—was quoted as saying "I was appalled. There are some Republicans who . . . want to bring the city to its knees." There have always been some Republicans who have wanted to do that. Only soon there will be a lot more of them.
This describes the antipathy to Chicago, but it doesn't explain it. The squabble between Chicago and its suburbs is a family affair, and I won't comment on it. As for Chicago and Downstate, well, there is no reason why they should get along. They are part of the same state only by a mapmaker's whim, a cartographic prank. Illinois was drawn in 1818, when Chicago was still a swamp and the only mass transit system in Illinois was the riverboat. Like the borders drawn to delineate imperial Europe's African colonies, the state lines are no respecters of tribal boundaries, although in Illinois' case tribal politics came after conquest rather than before.
Illinois thus remains two states, one urban and the other rural, one industrial and the other agricultural, one largely Catholic and the other Protestant, one lacustrine and the other riparian, one Democrat and the other Republican, one unassimilated and ethnically conscious and the other assimilated and "American." If the General Assembly were to act on Royko's suggestion that Chicago secede from Illinois, they would merely be ratifying an existing reality. In a hundred ways, there is Illinois and there is Chicago; one need only consult the large body of law written (with a wink) to apply only to cities with populations of 500,000 or more for confirmation.
Officially, this latest argument has been cast as an urban-rural conflict between Royko's hayseeds and his detractors' city slickers. This is an antagonism with many roots. John Shover, writing in First Majority-Last Minority (Northern Ilinois University Press, 1976), observed that the WASP culture was forged in the countryside. "Even now the prototype of the WASP is a small-town Protestant churchgoer," he points out. "Accordingly much of the rural-urban conflict that has periodically surfaced in our history may mask sharp ethnic and religious differences."
To a Downstater, meanings are packed into words such as "Chicago" like powder in a bomb. Cities—big cities anyway—are un-American. Americans seldom trust them, even as they moved to them by the millions in search of jobs. As soon as they could afford to, most of them set about recreating the small towns they left behind in the form of suburbs filled with tidy houses set on tidy lawns like cheese on a plate. Cities were European inventions, peopled by alien philosophies and tongues, and they remain so today, even though the tongues have changed. I know families from places like Champaign or Beardstown who've moved to the suburbs where they've lived in Chicago's doorstep for a decade, and who, like fever-scarred English coastal traders in West Africa in the 1820s, never venture into the city's dark interior except at Christmas, to shop.
Of all the sharp differences that Shover warns us are masked by our urban-rural conflict, none is sharper than that between black and white. The role of race in the RTA debate was broached hesitantly at first. But it quickly became apparent that when many Downstaters said "Chicago" they meant "black." (For the moment I will define "Downstate" as any place outside the Chicago city line.) Republican state senator Roger Keats of suburban Wilmette, for instance, offered to give Royko East St. Louis as a going away gift—East St. Louis being another Illinois city that is mostly black.
Royko himself was deluged with mail in which some Downstaters indulged in race-baiting of the most scurrilous sort—though not so scurrilous that Royko shrank from reprinting them in defense of his position. In a column of May 24, he quoted a woman who demanded to know, "Why can't all your niggers pay their own bus fares?" On such evidence, Royko concluded that, to the rest of Ilinois, "Chicago is nothing but a collection of Blacks, Latinos and oddball White ethnics." The fact is that Chicago is just such a collection, and it isn't just Downstaters who think that but the U.S. Census Bureau too. But I think I understand what he was trying to say.
Royko wasn't alone in his analysis. An RTA board member noted, "Obviously, there are...racial overtones" to the funding dispute. He also said, "We can live with our prejudices," which seemed less and less obvious as the days went by. Naturally, not all Downstaters were so crude as to stoop to the word "nigger." Some writers resorted to code. Rep. Bob Winchester blasted "welfare queens," and there was no mistaking the meaning of the State Journal-Register's Steve Slack when he wrote in a rejoinder, "Blackstone Rangers? There are whole regiments of Ku Klux Klansmen in Herrin alone."
A Royko admirer of my acquaintance stoutly maintains that Royko generalled the whole affair in order to first expose, then destroy Downstate race prejudice. Perhaps he did. But even verbal wars ought to have their civilizing conventions. The day after Royko excoriated Downstaters as racists, the New York Times published an excellent profile of the Milwaukee Avenue section of Chicago's Polish Northwest side. In it we learn that euphemism is not an especially yahoo trait; among older Poles, Spanish and black newcomers are still referred to as "the element." And the curator of the Polish Museum, speaking of the flight of Poles, was quoted as saying, "We're practically an island here. These other organizations, like the Polish National Alliance, they ran away."
I cite that report not to defame Chicago's Poles but to make a point that Royko has so far forgotten to make, which is that racism is not a function of geography. And I bow to the Peoria Journal-Star for reminding him in an editorial of something else, which is that one does not have to be a racist to be against the RTA. The imputation of race hatred on the basis of residence is nearly as scurrilous as the imputation of criminality or sloth on the basis of skin color; the word 'hick," spoken in a certain way, is just as much of an epithet as "nigger," and just as indiscriminate in its effect.
All of this made it harder and harder to pick sides as the war dragged on. More than once I was reminded of the words of Stephen Stills, who used to sing, "Nobody's right, when everybody's wrong." Like many a real war, this one was at first exhilarating, then frightening, finally merely boring. At month's end I found myself wishing I could secede from Illinois. □
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
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