Springfield & Beyond
I lived in Springfield, Illinois for ten years, longer than anywhere else since college.
I never did get used to it.
It's not so much moving from the Northeast to the Midwest that was the problem. I liked graduate student life in East Lansing, Michigan and even have some fond memories of my two years in Lincoln, Nebraska.
So much for going where the job takes you.
My university used to be interesting, and occasionally still is. But located five miles south of downtown, it has no impact on the city's daily life. Springfield is definitely not a college town.
There's a small alternative community of sorts--a struggling food co-op, New Agers, vegetarians and bicycle riders, liberal lobbyists from Chicago and radical professors from back east, a couple of gay bars, occasional world music dances dj'd by a friend, an alternative weekly (Illinois Times), and even an illegal radio station coming out of the black community.
But people seeking alternatives tend to leave for more hospitable places, if they can.
The restaurant selection is pretty standard and pretty limited. Lots of Italian and Chinese and steak, a few generic "better restaurants" without much choice for vegetarians. Still, it could be worse.
There's decent Brooklyn-style pizza baked by real Italians at Joe Gallina's, delivered to your door by people with authentic Brooklyn accents.
The Kerasotes movie chain, which owns every screen in the city, shows alternative movies at one of its theaters, often to almost empty auditoriums.
Washington Park is a pleasant place to walk, except on nice days when it's filled with cars.
St. Louis is only 90 long, boring, flat miles away.
The city expands to the southwest, constantly turning corn and bean fields into discount chain stores, the same restaurants you can eat in anywhere, and expensive upper-middle class suburbs. Some locally owned restaurants and stores hang on, but others can't compete with the likes of Barnes & Noble, the Olive Garden, and Best Buy.
When zoning regulations stand in the way, variances are easy to get.
Downtown, little remains open after the state workers go home in the afternoon. The last downtown movie theater was urban renewed more than a decade ago. Most downtown restaurants only serve lunch.
Never-ending efforts to revitalize downtown are yawned at by people who find whatever they need at the mall.
Jobs are scarce and public transportation a joke where the working class and people of color actually live in this de facto segregated city.
Many unemployed workers can't take jobs at the new shopping centers because the bus stops at 6:00.The bus doesn't go out to the university in the evening either.
If you like shopping, you'll like Springfield. Though if you like shopping you probably wouldn't be reading this website.
Springfield's number one tourist attraction has been dead for over 130 years.
Lots of things here are named after the local hero--the community college, the library, the legal aid office. Lincoln Land Firefighters Association. Lincoln Square Apartments. Land of Lincoln Drywall.
There's an effort to build a Lincoln museum, not so much because the country's forgotten the guy but to get tourists to spend the night. After dropping by Lincoln's tomb and Lincoln's house and Lincoln's office, too many travelers look around and decide to take their dollars to St. Louis.
Makes you wonder why the city hassles the prostitutes congregating in the Lincoln Home District after dark.
The civic pride in "the president who ended slavery" has inspired few efforts to end racial inequality.
True, it's not the fifties. Springfield no longer has segregated movie theaters and beaches. African American legislators from Chicago and elsewhere can now stay in hotels right in town, unlike the case just four decades ago. And after a nationally publicized lawsuit in the 1980s forced the city to switch from citywide voting to voting by ward, the east side has been able to elect a black alderman to the City Council.
But many landlords on the west side still refuse to rent to blacks or to hire them. The city's African American population remains disproportionately unemployed. Racist language is often used in casual conversation. Blacks who shop on the white southwest side are often followed by store security guards. Efforts to move blacks out of public housing into the community have been resisted.
Rumor has it that the university decided to build more on-campus apartments to help black students from Chicago and East St. Louis avoid the racist housing market.
Civic leaders talk about the importance of ending prejudice, of "teaching your children not to hate others."
But there's little support for changing institutions.
Subjectively, Illinois feels like the most selfish of the seven states I've lived in. Many people see no shame in admitting they couldn't care less about other people. Sink-or-swim politics combined with token "volunteerism" are supposed to cure society's ills. The churches are full.
All in all, people are comfortable. At least those people who matter.
If you've got a pool in your backyard and belong to a health club, why worry about people who can't get to Lake Springfield's only public beach or can't pay to swim in the city's only public pool?
My favorite line was the city alderman who was quoted as saying (about the no-leaf-burning ordinance) "It's not my problem if someone else's kid can't breathe."
Then there was the school board member in Chatham who insisted during a teacher's strike that "the teachers get paid enough for women."
Although Springfield ranks near the bottom of most lists of interesting places to live (except for that all-important "Most Polite City" category ), locals claim it's "a great place to raise kids," assuming you don't mind your kids adopting smug middle-class Republican superiority.
Raising a daughter with Elizabeth, I shudder.
Teenagers complain there's nothing to do, but most people who count around here don't pay much attention to people who can't vote.
Most people who count around here would probably think this website is impolite.
The legislature and the governor, the State Supreme Court, Democrats and Republicans all...
I don't have the heart to go into this right now.
Since Springfield's the state capital, the State Journal-Register, the city's only daily newspaper, pays a lot of attention to political gamesmanship.
Of course, if the paper chooses not to cover something, it might as well not happen. "Political" here means partisan politics.
As an example of issues not covered, there's the paper's past refusal to print criticism of the takeover of Sangamon State University by the University of Illinois a couple of years ago. With the newspaper's publisher serving on a committee pushing the takeover, why bother reporting any controversial details? (Since then, the new publisher and editor promise greater even-handedness. They did run a letter of mine criticizing their reporter's failure to cover criticism of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. And in other ways they've tried to open up a bit. They still miss a lot,but perhaps things are improving.)
Then of course there's former Mayor Karen Hasara, Springfield's finest. Embarrassingly, she's a two-time graduate of my own university, first with a BA in psychology, then an MA in legal studies (ironically and annoyingly, the two programs I'm affiliated with, though she was gone before I got here).
Before she was mayor, Hasara was a state senator, learning to do her best for business. She co-sponsored the bill to "merge" SSU into the U of I system, brushing off criticism that the legislation also killed off our faculty union by saying she would fix that little problem later (a promise still unkept). She didn't much like the "union-buster" label during her 1995 mayoral campaign, though the media ignored any details that might hurt their candidate.
They emphasized instead her ability to "bring people together" (an ability I have yet to see in action)--and her unfailing politeness.
Hasara's husband complained once after I insisted on asking the would-be mayor about her union-busting when a mayoral debate was declared over. He told me I wasn't "polite."
In Springfield it's worse to be impolite than it is to kill a union.
When a friend and I leafleted Hasara during another campaign event we got arrested. Not her fault, but then again it was the agreement of the two candidates to ban "campaign material" that led to the confrontation.
More recently, Hasara's been quoted as saying she'll ignore widespread complaints about Springfield's fire chief because "as a profession, firefighters are always unhappy with their bosses" and the many complaints are just the work of a union that's causing departmental strife. "The firefighters obviously have a big problem." As she explains,
"Firefighters work mostly 24-hour shifts. There aren't as many fires as there used to be.... It's the same here as everywhere else."
Nasty people, these union complainers.
The newspaper's now passing around rumors (or perhaps inventing them) that Hasara has her sights on higher office. Getting her out of City Hall would be refreshing, though her replacement would likely be no better. In the meantime, though, she was recently reelected.
some political, most not
Page updated September 30, 2007