Getting There in a Hurry
Why Springfield street improvements seldom were
August 13, 1992
I railed for decades that cities ought to be built for people, not cars, until I realized that most Americans live in their cars, not in their cities, which they only visit from time to time to work and shop, so a city built for cars is regarded as right and proper. I haven’t changed my mind, I just don’t rail about it anymore.
Is there anything more exciting that the announcement of a major street widening? People in other cities calibrate local history by the construction of fine civic buildings or by the momentous events that took place there. Neither has happened in Springfield since Abe left, so lifers calibrate time in terms of road improvements. I for example remember when Chatham Road looked like Koke Mill does today, and when Stevenson Drive was plain old Linn Avenue.
Barton-Aschman Associates, the Evanston traffic consultant, has just presented to the city its recommendations for street improvements that will make it possible for hungry bureaucrats to get home in time for supper through 2010. Several of them were familiar to me, having been first proposed when I was a young man in the days when big men dreamed big dreams in Springfield. It was 1972, I believe, when people realized that if 11th Street was extended south from Stevenson to the new SSU campus (a $12.3 million project, according to the new B-A estimates) it would cut two minutes off that trip, with the result that their kids would stay home to go to college and they'd be a family again.
I did not then appreciate what street improvements mean to a city. I foolishly opposed in print a series of street widenings and extensions that threatened the expensive isolation of Springfield's newer subdivisions. I depicted as heroes the homeowners who opposed the extension of Iles Avenue ($1.3 million) by demanding that no one do to them what they just done to neighbors to their east.
I eventually learned that in the time it took me to research, write, and edit each such article, another three or four of these defenders of the hearth had moved up, cashed in, and got out. I did not then know that neighborhoods in this country are built for houses, not people. (This is why people know the resale value of houses belonging to neighbors whose names they do not know.) This insight made the politics of road improvements a lot simpler to understand.
I also argued in print against the still-unbuilt extension of South Grand Avenue across Illini Country Club land to Chatham Road ($1 million). (I felt more kindly toward the rich in those days; they were struggling to get by on only 70 percent of the nation's wealth rather than the 90 percent they hold today, and I felt a kind of solidarity with them.) A State Journal-Register reporter noted of the B-A plan that the South Grand proposal had "been around at least since the early 1980s." My own recollection is that the controversy goes back much farther than that. I believe Lincoln spoke against the extension as early as 1838, when he said in a speech, "Towering genius disdains a beaten path."
In that connection, I was dismayed to read the mayor's opinion that in some cases getting to one's destination one minute faster is less important than retaining the beauty of the community. This sort of thinking dangerously confuses the issues. Retaining the beauty of the community has never before been considered in Springfield traffic planning. That's one big reason why that little stretch of unpaved park at South Grand and Illini Road is precious even to people who don't live there, and thus why westbound drivers must still detour all the way to Laurel to get to—well, South Grand doesn't lead to anyplace in particular, but that's the whole point. People don't mind detouring on their way to someplace they want to get to, but to suffer a detour that has no destination at the end of it is the kind of thing that turns a person into a Perot supporter.
The nice thing about uglying up a city with roads is that drivers can't really see it at 35 miles per hour; the only people who do are the people who live amidst it. Which is why people are fleeing west in search of comeliness; interrupt that process and development will screech to a halt. Ugly is economic.
South Grand will be extended eventually, if not in Langfelder's administration then during that of someone less sentimental. In another ten years, the unofficial border that the banks and real estate agents use to demark the "nice" part of town will have shifted further west to Chatham Road. The new city government shrunk the South Granders political influence to one ward, dooming them to being outvoted by aldermen who represent homeowners along Madison and Washington and Lawrence who were too dumb or too poor to realize that the way to retain the beauty of your neighborhood in Springfield is to sell out early, take the profits, and recreate it farther west.
The firm detailed eight major projects as part of a package whose total cost might hit $100 million. Local officials don't have nearly that much money to spend, which is good; if government had lots of money there would be new roads all over town and people wouldn't be able to get anywhere. This is because new roads don't cure congestion, they cause it. Politicians won't approve spending for a road project unless traffic projects confirm that it will be close to capacity when it opens. And new roads make more land conveniently accessible, so it is developed more intensely, and development means cars.
In short, roads do more than move traffic. Because people live and shop and work by car, roads determine the direction and intensity of development. B-A did no computer calculations to rank the desirability of these larger changes, and just as well; a city council that can't cope with dead leaves is better off leaving land use policy to the experts like [developer] Leonard Sapp.
The secret of good traffic engineering is to limit your analysis to those alternatives that won't solve the problem, since solving traffic problems puts a lot of engineers out of work. Everybody knows that the solution to traffic jams is not more roads but stricter land use controls. (The really cost-effective solution to the car-clogged southwest side is to burn White Oaks Mall to the ground.)
Today you can drive farther and faster in Springfield than ever before, and if the old-timers believe that there are fewer places worth going to in the first place than there used to be, well, that's because they miss the point of driving, and thus of traffic engineering, and thus of urban planning, and thus of government development policy: Where you're going doesn't matter, as long as you get there in a hurry. ●
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.
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
to buy the book
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.