The Bulldozers Are Coming!
The frontier impulse unsettles Springfield
June 29, 1979
This essay was occasioned by the public hearings held during the preparation of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission's new land use plan. It sounds the chords of the anti-sprawl laments I would sing in print for the next 40 years. I must have sung off-key, because no one in authority listened.
You can substitute the names of any of dozens of Illinois towns for Springfield's, of course, and it would read just as true.
On Monday June 18, some thirty central Illinois citizens skipped the Cubs game on television and drove to the New Berlin high school for a meeting. The occasion was the second of four meetings scheduled around Sangamon County by the county board's land use committee to hear what the public has to say about the proposed land use policy plan developed by the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission.
Sangamon County, including Springfield, suffers from most of the usual ills that result from unplanned, uncoordinated growth, plus one or two more of its own devise. It's a pretty dismal catalog. We have shopping centers in suburban backyards, a grade school in the middle of a shopping center, shopping centers in the middle of nowhere, parts of the city sitting in cornfields and cornfields inside the city. Partly because things are so spread out, people drive their cars too much, and ozone pollution gets so bad some days that sick people don't dare go outside. Streets are a special pain. Springfield may be the only city in the country where it I possible to say, literally, “You can’t get there from here.” Increasingly in Springfield, you can’t get anywhere from here.
The land use policy plan was put together in the hope of providing some direction to this undirected growth and so make it possible to allow expansion of the population and economic base of what the Chamber of Commerce calls, with unintended irony, "greater Springfield," without at the same time destroying surrounding farmland, clean air, and open space. The plan, in short, is intended to settle the ends of progress in Sangamon County.
The job is not going as well as it might. Planning is a bone over which even well-fed dogs are willing to fight. Developers especially have been bitter in their denunciation of the commission's land use proposals.
Developers resent planners because they make it harder for developers to make a lot of money. This is natural; bank robbers resent police too, for the same reason. Dorothea Sager, a Springfield subdivision developer, showed up at the New Berlin hearing to castigate the plan, for instance, and according to reports by those who were there disputed the need to provide park space for new residential areas—one of the plan's proposals—because, she said, "if you go in a park you just get mugged."
The John Birch Society was there, too, in the person of one Rocky Schoenrock, who complained that any kind of planning violates property rights. But of course the proposed land use policy plan doesn't establish control of the government over land. The government has that control already. The plan does, however, seek to coordinate government's miscellaneous land use controls—subdivision regulations, zoning and building codes, antipollution laws, dedication ordinances and the like— toward a set of more or less coherent economic, administrative and environmental ends.
This complaint about property rights came up before, at the first hearing at Springfield's city hall, and it probably will come up again. There have been nearly as many crimes committed in the name of property rights as there have been in the name of religion. The comparison is apt, I think. Developers like Sager are among the last unself-conscious spokespeople for the old American theology of the frontier.
Our profligacy with the land is an historical attribute, the result of our having so much of it that it was believed for two centuries that we could never use it all. The presence of this apparently perpetual frontier shaped our ideas about the country, about ourselves as a people, even about the nature of progress. New land variously meant an escape, a chance for new beginnings, inexhaustible riches. This impulse to move on and build again still beats in the breasts of developers. They are the descendants—diminished but recognizable—of the muscular heroes who killed the buffalo and felled the forests as they marched west before ending up, appropriately, in California.
That impulse helped build America. But more recently, it is helping to destroy it. The America defended by Sager and Schoenrock with such spirit at New Berlin, the America of untrammeled property rights and the freedom to exploit land for private profit over the public good, has been gone for a long time. What the committee members heard was the past fuming futilely against the future.
So far, citizens haven't been heard from much during the hearings. This is typical. Most people don't get angry about a lack of planning until the bulldozers show up at their front doors. These hearings may determine in large part Sangamon County's land use posture for years to come, and though it's possible to speak confidently about the eventual success of planning over unrestrained development, the victory can be delayed a year, ten years, maybe twenty years by inaction, with nothing but unhappy results for the county.
For these reasons,, what the members of the county's land use committee hear at the hearings— and more importantly, what they conclude about the planning constituency in Sangamon County as a result—is crucial. Those bulldozers are getting closer all the time. ●
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.