Springfield's not so bad. Honest.
March 31, 1978
Springfield’s collective insecurities in the face of sneers from cosmpolitans was a recurring topic in my IT columns. Patriot that I was, I defended the city against those sneers in print in several pieces, including this one.
But . . . I gradually realized that those pieces were unconscious attempts to reconcile myself to life in a town in which I not longer felt quite at home. Ten years later, I left the capital city myself—not altogether willingly at first, true, but I got over Springfield very quickly.
I changed my opinion after 1978 because Springfield changed. March of 1978 was only a few months after the opening of White Oak Malls, the shopping center that ate downtown. That events marked te beginning of the demise of Street Car Springfield, which I loved, and its replacement by Parking Lot Springfield.
I was not alone in mourning the old town. The John Garvey quoted herein left Springfield for New York City to study and never came back. I left in 1988 for a town that was not that unlike the Springfield city center I lived in.
It was, as I recall, a dour and drizzly autumn day. I was standing in front of the library close by the crumpled Lincoln that guards the Capitol Avenue entrance, talking with John Garvey. John is a professional writer and a discerning observer of the Springfield scene of which he's been a part for some twenty-eight years. We were talking about a piece John wrote some sixteen months ago and published in these pages titled, "The problem with provincials.”
John kicked a sleeping dog in the essay and one could hear the howling for miles. He decried the big-city exiles to Springfield—the state politicos, musical-chair bureaucrats, academics, and corporate managers he classed as "urban provincials”—who react to life in Springfield as if they'd been stranded in some sub-Saharan mudhole where the natives speak a tortured tongue, eat dirt, and believe that pregnancies are caused by unripened figs.
The piece elicited much comment. John and I agreed that friction between natives and newcomers—a phrase variously defined but usually taken to mean persons of five years' residence or less—is so common an aspect of local society that it has become one of the things, like Lincoln or horseshoes, by which the town is known. Springfield, according to many newcomers, is smug, backward, parochial, dull. The attitude found voice récently in, all of places, the State Journal-Register, where reporter Lizanne Poppens began a piece by saying, "A customer said it best about the new Dairy Rose at White Oaks Mall. 'It makes you forget you 're in Springfield . . . . ‘“ She meant it as a compliment.
John and I were not arguing the merits of the argument, however, but its causes. John hit it, I think, when he ascribed it to urban provincials being "forced out of professional ghettoes into contact with all those others, those . . . shoe clerks and ministers and hardware store owners whose values they despise.”
For example, the Springfieldians in 1970 who'd lived in the county for five years or less represented only 16 percent of the population; several mid-size Illinois cities, led by the college towns of Champaign (35 percent), Urbana (38.6 percent) and Normal (45.6 percent), had higher rates of in-migration. Springfield, in short, where transience is taken for a fact of life, has a population as stable as Decatur's and only slightly less stable than Rockford's or Rock Island's.
Newcomers in the volatile college towns do not spark the resentments that so often sour life in Springfield. College towns have separate, largely self-sufficient campus communities which sustain the newcomers, who might be said to move to such towns without having to move into them. As John noted, Springfield offers no such haven. There is no permanent state government society (nor, a point of more recent relevance, is there an academic one) separate from the larger host community. The only functioning society is the indigenous one. A certain amount of fraternization is inevitable.
The problem is not new. Like so many others, its roots extend back to 1839, when the state capital was moved here from Vandalia. The social season in Springfield in those days began when the legislature came to town. Its arrival kicked off a round of balls and dinner parties that combined socializing and high public purpose. It was at such events that local elites—themselves only recent immigrants from Kentucky and the East—matched manners with the bumpkins and boozers who sometimes drifted into the capital from exotic outposts like Peoria or Edwardsville. Such men of learning and experience as the state possessed frequently gave themselves to politics or the law, politics' stepchild; Springfield, as the host city for their congregations, was perforce a center of prairie culture. But the growth in the rest of the state. especially at Chicago, soon reduced Springfield to a provincial outpost. Jokes that used to be made at legislative sessions about the visitors were (and are) now being made by them,
One of the people who wrote to the "IT" in reply to John's piece stated, "the town is little more than a large cowtown which happens to be the capital." So it is, and natives would do well to stop pretending otherwise. Natives must still respect the newcomer's opinions even as he disagrees with them; it isn't his love of other places that is offensive, only his insistence that Springfield is a failure because it fails to match them. More objectionable by far is the native, who taking the criticisms of the urban provincials too much to heart, is driven in a sweat of envy and emulation to hate his own hometown. One suspects that they would be happier (and some newcomers too) if they realized that, as towns go these days, large cowtowns have much to be said for them. □
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.
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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.
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."
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.
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
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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
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.