The lost art of colloquial place-naming
July 29, 1977
Illinois's local poets of place have been replaced by dull-witted bureaucrats and real estate promoters. Every Illinois town has some industrious historian who has cataloged the much more evocative names coined by newspapers and residents, so they are not exactly lost, but Illinois would be better, I think, if more of them were to be found not in libraries but on schools and parks.
For more on this general topic, see "Place-naming" on the Illinois history page.
Not one Springfieldian in a thousand knows where Goosetown used to be. Or Rabbit Row. Or Idlewild. Buildings aren't the only things lost to progress. Names, too, disappear as the years pass. Especially vulnerable are the colloquial names which residents attached to their own—and their neighbors'—neighborhoods. Such nicknames are easily lost because, being unofficial, they are rarely recorded. Often they survive only in the memories of the people who used them.
Take Goosetown, for example. That evocative label was stuck on a district that extended from the mash heaps back of the Reisch brewery on Rutledge north to North Grand, west to Walnut, and east to Fifth. That much is known. How it got its name is less certain. One account gives the credit to one Mary O'Hara, who drove her flock of geese every day up to Miller's pond near the McCarthy brickyard off North Grand. Another account more plausibly asserts that the neighborhood was thickly populated by German and Irish families who kept flocks of geese, ranging in size from twelve to twenty birds. "From these neighborhood flocks," it is said, "the area is said to have taken its name."
East of Goosetown was Rabbit Row, a four block-long warren that stretched along Reservoir from Ninth to Fourteenth. The name became popular because the residents performed prodigies of procreation—in short, they bred like rabbits. The coal miners and mill hands who lived there had few peers as baby-makers. The Fernandes family were champs, numbering twenty-two in all. They were followed by the DeCastros (seventeen) and others with as many as twelve little ones. In Rabbit Row, family feuds took on the nature of wars.
Perhaps the most celebrated district in Springfield was the Levee, the old downtown vice district. The Levee is no more. It was not cleaned up—three generations of Springfield cops tried and couldn't do that—but torn down. The antiseptic Horace Mann Plaza stands there now, infinitely more respectable, infinitely less interesting.
More ghosts: Idlewild, an old mining settlement on the West Side, fenced in by Governor, Monroe, Stange, and Feldkamp streets, home to Germans, Lithuanians, and Poles who worked underground at Citizen Coal's A and B shafts nearby. Mill Row, along the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Fourteenth, a string of workman's cottages housing the hands employed at Ridgely's rolling mill. Aristocracy Hill along Sixth Street south of Capitol, in the late 19th century the home of many of Springfield's undeserving rich. Vinegar Hill, generally thought to have described the territory around Spring and Cook. It was named after a Civil War-era vinegar works whose location is still argued about, though one imaginative researcher in the 1940s claimed that the place was named after the Battle of Vinegar Hill, fought between Irish and British Royalists near Kildare in 1798. Hollywood, a name of more recent vintage, applied with nice irony to the collection of shanties scattered around the gullies north of Jefferson and west of MacArthur like litter tossed from passing cars.
There were others already forgotten. A 1944 article in the late Citizens Tribune notes that “there have been numerous settlements in each section of town known as this 'Patch' or that 'Patch,' or such and such a 'Hill.'” The Cabbage Patch east of the old Fiat-Allis plant is an example of this patch-work. But the biggest "patch" of all is "Springpatch" itself. I have no idea how long the nickname's been around. It is widely used pejoratively to signify the town's alleged backwardly rural nature. (I am here being perhaps too delicate.) The name has its roots in Dogpatch, U.S.A., Al Capp's cartoon hillbilly haven.
Lately, however, "Springpatch" has come to be used almost affectionately—among others, by WICS-TV weathercaster Flip Spiceland, whose own handle is a happy match of name and spirit. So popular has "Springpatch" become that some entrepreneur, recognizing a trend when he spotted one, tried selling Springpatch T-shirts adorned with the Old Capitol dome peeking above a field of corn.
Neighborhoods still have names, of course, but nowadays they're named more often by the people who build them than the people who live in them. The names—Brentwood, Knox Knolls, Timberlane, Georgetown Colony—have no resonance, no echoes of place about them, only the dull thunk of Formica; they are as stripped of personality as the places they denote.
I am pleased to report, therefore, that place-naming is not an entirely forgotten art in the Capital City. Citizens who regularly take the evening air at Washington Park know that the parking area across from the rose garden at the foot of Carillon Hill is routinely taken over by packs of youths of the sort they would not want their children to marry. They are loud and frequently higher than the bass bell on the carillon, and they've driven a lot of people, especially older folks, out of the park.
I learned the other day, quite inadvertently, that the spot has been christened by local high schoolers. They refer to it by a name that's both metaphorically and sociologically apt—the Rats' Nest.
I hope somebody writes that down. ●