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. □