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Thursday, April 25, 2013 04:25 am

Keeping Springfield weird


Houses converted to offices and shops along South MacArthur Blvd.

No parent ever has an ugly baby. Even if the little darling has a head that looks like a cantaloupe from the bottom of the pile, parents don’t like strangers stating the obvious. People are the same way about their hometowns.

Back in March, the SJ-R’s Dave Bakke gallantly strode forward to defend Springfield against sneers about her looks from cheeky strangers. One of these was a traveler who recently passed through and wrote, “The streets were fairly empty and the town pretty dead. It was pretty to look at, but it seemed like they were waiting for tourists or something. It was a weird city, but pretty beautiful.” Some weeks previous to that, a Cook County Republican official damned Springfield as a “dreary and sad town.”

So what’s new? In 2007, journalist Andrew Ferguson found Springfield to be a “clapped out old burg.” In 2005, Bill Bryson – on the road looking for the perfect American town – concluded in The Lost Continent that Springfield wasn’t it, finding it “neither offensive or charming,” which means pretty much nothing much at all. And in 2002, the visiting Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team observed that the Statehouse complex – the only part of town that many visitors see – was “dominated by appallingly ugly parking lots and desultory, boring, low-bidder office buildings.”

The vocabulary that most Americans apply to places seldom extends much beyond new and old, pretty and ugly. The words used in most of these recent libels, however, are much more interesting. Weird. Dreary. Sad. Clapped out. Desultory.

What, exactly, inspires this poetic disdain? In my first 40 years, during which time I scarcely ever left Springfield even overnight, I wouldn’t have been able to say; I grew up in Springfield, and familiar faults soon become invisible faults. But returning to Springfield after years spent living in other places, I finally was able to see what I had learned to ignore before I left.

MacArthur Boulevard south of South Grand is a good example. Driving into an American city for the first time by car, you expect to see houses and small apartment buildings on quiet side streets, and commercial districts along busy, wider thoroughfares. Land use zoning is near-universal in this country and that is how zoning arrays such buildings on the land. This street however is lined with a random scattering of houses, office buildings and shops. (See “A little bit of a challenge” Nov. 4, 2010.) Springfield long ago zoned every property on every street that’s too wide to spit across as appropriate for commercial uses, giving it vastly more commercial land than there will ever be commercial establishments to occupy it. Having ceased long ago to be residential because of commercial intrusions, MacArthur will never become fully office or commercial, but remains something less than either.

If the block is half-commercial and half-residential, so are a lot of the buildings, because of the promiscuous conversion of many of those houses into shops. The identity of every aspect of these blocks, in fact, seems to be mutable, and almost shifts before your eyes. Overpaving has blurred the familiar distinctions between street and curb, curb and parkway, parkway and sidewalk, sidewalk and parking lot. For visitors accustomed to the more ordered environments of other cities, such a streetscape is incoherent, and they react to it with confusion and unease. No wonder people find it weird.

Planners and citizens have complained for years about the excessive number of surface parking lots in both downtown Springfield and along its neighborhood commercial strips. These half-empty lots are unpleasant to look at, certainly, especially in their unadorned state, but it is not its looks that so often strikes a visitor driving along a street like Wabash east of Chatham Road. Nor is she thinking, “Oh, how convenient!” She’s thinking, “This town has nothing better to do with its land.”

In addition to storing cars in the city’s front yard, as it were, there is the local aesthetic. City officials demand very little of local developers, too many of whom usually strive to give them even less. The result is prefabs in the heart of the city that one usually sees on farmsteads, and new apartment buildings that look like the cages I used to keep captive critters in when I was a boy – shoeboxes with holes punched in the sides. On too many projects does the signage, landscaping and site design look like the work of people who find any way but the quickest, simplest and cheapest to be beyond them. No wonder people think the place looks tired, dreary, clapped out, desultory.

So the next time you get steamed when some bum blows through town tossing insults from the car window, remember Henry Mencken. His stock reply to readers who were critical of him was, “Dear Sir (or Madame), You may be right.”

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net.

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