Improvements

The state moves in. There goes the neighborhood

Illinois Times

February 22, 1980

Here I anticipated the likely effects of the State of Illinois's decision to build its large revenue department building near but not adjacent to the statehouse downtown. (The actual results I described in this piece, published three and a half years later.) By 1980 that neighborhood was valuable less for what it was than what it might become again with intelligent land use controls and imaginative developers.

 

I lived in that part of town in my youth. (The restaurant mentioned below, the Rainbow Connection, was built on the lot where once stood the house I lived in during high school.) But while my dismay at what was to happen there was compounded by nostalgia for the place, it was not caused by it.

 

There are only a relative handful of predator species among the native North American mammals. They tend to be neither numerous nor especially efficient, not because nature finds them repugnant but because if they were they would quickly exhaust their food supply and so eat themselves to their own doom.

 

The exceptions are the various subspecies of civilized human predator, who manage unfortunately to be both numerous and efficient. Of these, the real estate developer has perhaps the fewest checks on his appetites. This was made plain in the February 15 edition of Springfield’s State Journal-Register by Dan Cronin, the SJR’s business editor, who sought to describe some of the changes Springfieldians can look forward to on the city’s near west side following construction there of the state’s new Department of Revenue building. The DOR building will be a mammoth addition to the Springfield cityscape—a giant anthill that will house 3,000 workers in some half-million square feet spread over a ten-acre site. It is both the largest and the latest of a series of office buildings expanding from the Capitol complex westward into a largely residential neighborhood between downtown and Springfield High School along Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Monroe streets.

 

So large is the DOR project that, as Cronin notes, it “is bound to switch the thrust of the downtown business area to the west and will cause definite changes in the core area of the city.” But what kinds of changes exactly? Cronin offers a few hints about what those changes might be, though he is less helpful in analyzing what they may mean; business editors everywhere usually examine the social issues raised by development with all the acuity one might expect in a Pravda editor faced with the task of explaining the failure of the latest five-year plan.

 

For example, Cronin reports, “Some developers already have acquired land in the area, but they probably will refrain from any improvements until the new state building has been completed.” Were I asked to write my own style guide for newspaper editors, one of my new rules would be to always wrap the word “improvements” in quotation marks when using it to describe real estate development, on grounds that “improvements” of this sort are to municipal progress what the U.S. Army’s “pacification” programs were to the cause of peace in Vietnam.

 

A walk along West Jefferson, Washington, or Adams, will reveal that a number of “improvements” have been made already. As Cronin notes, there are a number of new restaurants in the neighborhood—restaurants and office buildings having much the same relationship as fleas and dogs. Most are fast food joints, though not all. The classy Rainbow Connection just opened on a previously residential block of North Lewis, completely equipped with a fancy name and S-2 zoning; owners of the lot just north of it, which opens onto another now-residential block of Washington Street, want it spot-zoned commercial too, to allow a second restaurant to open.(What is true of children is true of cities: when they break out in spots, it’s a sure sign that they’re ill.)

 

But new franchise fooderies aren’t the only change in the area, and they certainly aren’t the most grievous. As Cronin reports, “A main concern is to provide sufficient parking space in the area so problems now confronting downtown businesses are not duplicated.” The Washington Bicentennial Building at Washington and Pasfield (a horrid pile that looks like a parking ramp with windows) provides a good example. When it was built, its owners put a two-level parking ramp on the ground floors. Because of this innovation, they did not expect to need to provide the usual accessory off-street parking, and so did not ask for a zoning classification that would allow it. They later repented, returned to the city to ask for zoning approval to convert seven or eight lots scattered within a two- block area of the building into parking lots. According to city officials, most if not all of these lots (maybe a half-dozen of which had houses on them) had been or were in the process of being cleared when the request was made; when the city turned them down, the owners built the lots anyway.

 

What is true of apples and barrels is also true of neighborhoods. Many property owners have opened illegal backyard parking lots, so many that the city won’t know exactly how many until they complete a survey of the district. It is, of course, one way to “provide sufficient parking space in the area,” but though their initiative is praiseworthy the results are not.

 

Such misdemeanors aside, the “problems” the near west side developers are so anxious to avoid do not include any lack of parking spaces, of which there are some 17,000 in the central business and Statehouse districts. The real problems downtown, such as visual blight and an eroding tax base, are caused ultimately by developers who stupidly tear down usable buildings to make room for cars at a time when the private auto is daily becoming less and less tenable as a means of transportation to and from work. Downtown Springfield’s biggest problem is developers who are building for 1970 instead of 1990.

 

Most of the neighborhood between the capitol complex and Springfield High School remains zoned R-4 residential, a fact which adds irony to the insanity now being practiced there. Cronin notes that unnamed real estate interests predict “a good amount of multi-family construction in the area” someday. But most of the district is covered with multifamily housing now, mostly in the form of older two-story frame houses divided into flats. What we face, then, is the prospect of developers tearing down multi-family housing in order to build multi-family housing—which (and this is the rationale of the otherwise irrational escapade) is likely to be less well-built, possibly less energy efficient and certainly more expensive than what is there now.

 

With the costs of commuting going up, with the economics of rehabilitation having been proven feasible, with the acknowledged coming demand for in-town housing, the casual destruction of this stock of housing so close to downtown and the Statehouse is nuts. In fact, it’s for that very reason that I suffer the same ambivalence about real estate developers that I feel toward any sociopath: One minute I think we ought to throw them all into the slammer, and the next minute I think that what they really need is professional help.

 

Cronin observes that there is no plan to control this explosion of commercial development in this part of the central city. That news brought to mind the advice of the American Institute of Architects’ PR-UDAT (Preservation—Reuse Urban Design Assistance Team) that visited Springfield last year. The PR-UDAT investigators complained that “there is an undue amount of important . . . land area devoted to surface parking.” They also said that state expansion plans “do not appear to be sensitive to the needs of an active, twenty-four hour downtown.” “Levered by strong business sector pressure,” they went on, “the State for many years . . . concentrated more and more major agencies contiguous to the core area . . . to counteract the exodus of people as a result of Downtown deterioration.” The long-range implications of that policy, the team concluded, “are disturbing.” Indeed they are. Once greeted as a cure for the deterioration of Springfield’s downtown, state expansion has become its cause. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

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 Illinois State Museum

 

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

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

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. 

Illinois Center for the Book

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.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated