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The Unstate of Illinois

Population tectonics threaten political upheaval

Illinois Times

September 27, 1990

As I write, predictions are being made that the 2020 census will result in Illinois losing yet another seat in Congress, probably from Downstate. That will leave the state, which had 27 representatives in the U.S. House after World War II, with only 17.


Population change has been the big Illinois story over the whole of my journalism career—the shrinking of the state population compared to the rest of the country and the shift in population within the state. This column offers a Downstate perspective on an issue I would address again on the Politics & Policy page of Chicago Enterprise magazine.


Most of its citizens would agree that an Illinois with at least one fewer congressman in it would be a better Illinois. But editorialists—who regard politicians the way a personal injury lawyer regards car wrecks—have reacted to the preliminary census counts with dismay. The data confirm that Illinois' population remained essentially static in the 1980s while other parts of the nation grew; their gain was our loss, representatively speaking.


The way the census gets played as a news story reflects the market orientation of the media, which in turn has shaped our collective political consciousness. Significance is understood either in statewide terms or in purely local terms. (The latter shows itself in the grubby head-hunting by mayors eager to rack up maximum points in the game of population-based federal grants.) However, it is the intrastate or regional shifts in population that are most interesting, and potentially more significant.


The most profound story the numbers. tell is of the continuing diaspora from the Illinois countryside. Only 20 of the state's 102 counties showed population increases since 1980; virtually all of the 82 losers were rural counties. The causes ought to be familiar by now since some of them have been at work for a century. Changes in the ways farms are owned and run are tops, followed by cars, better roads, regional shopping malls, and cheap gas.


The effects are familiar too. People leaving the farms and small towns generally headed for cities in search of jobs. Such migrants swelled Springfield's population just after the turn of the century, lured by jobs in manufacturing, mining, and railroading. Giddy boosters in the years before World War I predicted that Springfield would some day be the Number Two city in the state, but other downstate cities boomed as well, and for the same reasons; East St. Louis, for example, nearly tripled its population in the twenty years after 1890.


That tide ebbed after the second great war. The jobs have moved on, and the people have moved on after them. Metropolitan Decatur has shrunk by nearly 11 percent since 1980, according to the preliminary census count, and Peoria by ten. The only downstate cities that grew—and they did so only modestly—were those such as Springfield or Champaign-Urbana whose economies are based on government spending. To speak of government as an industry is no longer to speak metaphorically.


The bright lights of the big city may attract some, but the average Illinoisan has an ambivalent attitude toward cities. He covets the wages that can be earned in them, but disdains them as places to live. He will settle in a smallish city sooner than a big one (or on the sparse fringes of a big one), assuming the former is prosperous. Those kinds of cities once were found downstate; today they stand in suburban Chicago. Virtually all the significant population growth in Illinois in the 1980s occurred in suburban Cook, DuPage, Lake, Will, and the rest of the collar counties.


Jobs were the draw. In early September the state's Department of Employment Security predicted that the Chicago-area economy will add 400,000 new jobs by 2000; during that time the other ninety-six Illinois counties combined are expected to generate only 166,000 new jobs. State economic predictions often ought to be dismissed as too rosy. (How can the world not look rosy to analysts who have state pensions and free parking s spaces?) It should be noted, however, that the jobs growth forecast for 1995 in the department's previous projection was reached six years early, in 1989. A recession could slow jobs growth in the collar counties, obviously, but the underlying economic forces at work on the state virtually guarantee that most new jobs that do open up will open up in northeast Illinois. The question is not if, in short, only when.


The result is a population boom of the kind that turned downstate towns into cities eighty years ago. Naperville has nearly doubled in population since 1980, according to the census bureau. Planners' projections show even more remarkable growth into the next century. By 2010, they calculate, Aurora's 148,000 people will likely rank it as Illinois' second largest city, as Peoria and Rockford continue to bleed people. Naperville, which lies immediately east of Aurora, will count 127,000 residents by then. Springfield, by comparison, will have at most 115,000 people, assuming it grows at the rate it did in the 1980s.


Suburban growth is not exactly an unexpected phenomenon. Twenty years ago it became clear that there were more people living in Chicago's suburbs than in the city itself. But while the boom transformed the state's demographics, it is only slowly transforming its politics. The population shifts of the last two decades are only imperfectly reflected in the General Assembly, (thanks to some creative work by Democrat-controlled legislative mapmakers) and any change that is not reflected in the General Assembly is not likely to be perceived by our media seers.


Eventually, the Chicago v. downstate construct by which we understand the clashes of politics, economics, and culture will have to be abandoned as outdated. The suburbs will become the dominant presence in the state as political districts are redrawn to reflect population shifts. The process can be delayed, and probably will be, but it won't be stopped.


So massive a shift in population is bound to cause the state to tilt, but in which direction? Downstaters typically lump Chicago and its suburbs together, but while towns like Hoffman Estates are universally referred to as Chicago suburbs, the identification is convenient rather than accurate. Bedroom communities that once were wholly dependent on the larger city have evolved their own diverse economies and political agendas. Most recent population growth is occurring in the newer postwar suburbs like Naperville or in independent towns that until recently stood well beyond the reach of Chicago's gravity. (Aurora is farther from Chicago than Springfield is from Decatur or Peoria is from Bloomington.) These towns are separate realms, beholden to the big city for nothing. Richard M. Daley traveled to Schaumburg last winter to address suburban mayors, the first Chicago mayor ever to pay court to his suburban colleagues; it was like Sadat going to Jerusalem.


Our traditional bipolar model for politics will have to be replaced with a tripartite one. How the new Chicago, downstate, and the suburbs will align themselves is impossible to predict, although that won't keep pundits from trying. On revenue issues it is not implausible to see Chicago lining up with downstaters against the suburbs; the last is where the taxable wealth of the state is being concentrated, and will be jealous of attempts by the other two, increasingly tax-dependent parts of the state to siphon it.


In the meantime we will need to expand our lexicon. To "Chicago" and "downstate" we will need to add a new term. The collar? The burbs? The ring? Or—given the fact that most of these places are no places in particular—Unstate? ●




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.


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.)




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.

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