Best of Springfield People & Places
Downtown Springfield has come a long way, baby.
Just a decade ago, folks had little incentive to venture downtown. Hardly anyone
lived there, let alone came to shop or simply stroll along the streets. Today,
it is a different story. Old buildings have been restored to their former glory,
many with tenants residing on the top floors and retailers selling their wares
at street level. A variety of inviting cafés, eclectic restaurants, and hip
bars teem with energy and life. Throughout the day and into the night, the area
that once seemed downright deserted has become one of the city's most popular
and cherished destinations. And with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
and Museum about to open, the future looks bright indeed for downtown Springfield.
How to account for this?
A renewal effort so swift and effectual, of course, takes the labor of many. But it was the ingenuity, devotion, and leadership of Carolyn Oxtoby that single-handedly reversed downtown's fortunes.
This year's winner for Best Springfieldian, Oxtoby has established a legacy for historic preservation and downtown revitalization that will last for generations. She has led the rehabilitation of roughly a dozen buildings in the downtown area, including several that predate the Civil War.
Oxtoby's crowning achievements are the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office and Fisher-Latham buildings, which make up virtually the entire 100 block of North Sixth Street. She also played a pivotal role in restoration of what was known as the downtown Kmart complex and the Elijah Iles House, Springfield's oldest remaining structure.
At 73, Oxtoby is far from being finished. In 2001 she led the opposition to the creation of a downtown vista that would have come at the expense of a row of historically significant buildings along the northern border of Old State Capitol Plaza. Earlier this year, Oxtoby stepped in to save the 1938 Egyptian Renaissance apartment building at 725 S. Seventh St. just as the church that owns it filed for demolition permits.
This project, as well as several others she has undertaken, promises scant financial rewards. Perhaps this selflessness reflects her deep roots in the area, which date back to George Pasfield, one of Springfield's pioneers.
Oxtoby's actions are those of a philanthropist crusading for preservation in a city that has been slow to realize the economic and cultural value of its own history.
Last fall, Mayor Tim Davlin cited Oxtoby as "the primary architect of the downtown area and its preservation and restoration."
Readers of Illinois Times took note, naming Carolyn Oxtoby Best Springfieldian.
Runner-up: Mayor Tim Davlin
BEST HAIR ON NEWSCHANNEL 20
Weather-dude Gus Gordon is perpetually popular in this category, but really, how much talent does it take to coif a healthy mane into something decent for the evening news? It's nothing compared with what Jessica English and crew must go through to sparkle across the airwaves at 5 o'clock in the morning. Besides English, the classiest lass at the station, the morning crew includes perky blond meteorologist Kevilee Douglas and used to include pretty-boy anchor Glenn McEntyre, so perfectly styled that he recently left WICS to work full-time as a wedding-cake-topper groom. (Not really -- he's at KJRH-TV in Tulsa, Okla.)
Runner-up: Gus Gordon (pictured)
BEST CITY OR COUNTY POLITICIAN
Timothy J. Davlin
Mayor Tim Davlin came in first in this category, garnering 24 percent of our readers' votes. That's not bad for a guy who has made some less-than-popular proposals (remember Letitia Dewith-Anderson? King Todd? Sunday-morning liquor sales?). But in the almost year and a half Davlin has been in office (he could tell you exactly how many days -- he has a knack for that), he has also scored major accomplishments without losing a tad of his charm. What would those accomplishments be? In an effort to be scrupulously fair, we punted that question to Ernie Slottag, Springfield's director of communications: "I would submit the following three items which Mayor Davlin has accomplished that have benefited the city greatly: 1. Settled the longstanding Renatta Frazier discrimination case. 2. Reorganized city government to make it more responsive to the needs of our residents. 3. Created the position of education liaison and identified downtown TIF [tax-increment financing] funds that can be earmarked for School District 186." Thanks, Ernie!
Runner-up: County Board member Sam Cahnman
BEST STATE POLITICIAN
State Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, became an instant household name after delivering an electrifying keynote address at this year's Democratic National Convention. And though he may be a shoo-in to win the U.S. Senate seat in November, there's at least one honor he failed to garner this year: our readers' pick for Best State Politician. That distinction goes to his esteemed colleague on the other side of the aisle, 54-year-old Republican state Sen. Larry Bomke. Bomke beat Obama by six votes out of 428 cast in this category. One of three lawmakers whose districts include Springfield, Bomke joined the Legislature in 1995 after serving for 19 years on the Sangamon County Board. But don't think Bomke won just because he's the hometown favorite. He also handily beat out U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka -- both Springfield residents. And for those keeping score: Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who shuns the Executive Mansion for his home in Chicago, failed to finish in the top five.
Runner-up: Barack Obama
3000 S. Dirksen Parkway, 217-529-7777
For those who enjoy traveling in comfort and style, the luxurious 14-story Crowne Plaza Hotel Springfield on South Dirksen Parkway can't be beat. The Crowne Plaza houses two upscale restaurants, including an elegant island bar decked out in rich mahogany and surrounded by plush chairs and stools. A popular destination for professionals visiting Springfield on business, the hotel devotes three floors to banquets, conferences, and meetings. Don't forget to visit the building's top floor. Sure, the views of Hooters to the north and the City Water, Light & Power smokestacks to the south are unfortunate. But the large sundeck -- as well as the indoor pool, Jacuzzi, and sauna -- is sublime.
Runner-up: Hilton Springfield
BEST BROADCAST JOURNALIST
WUIS (91.9 FM)
She doesn't have the bully pulpit that WMAY's Jim Leach does, and she doesn't show up at quite as many meetings as WMAY's former morning-show host Abdul Hakim-Shabazz ("There was a council meeting last night? I was out with friends!" Cardoza says). But the thing about Cardoza is, despite the breadth of turf she covers -- everything from the university to City Hall to state politics and the state fair -- she always brings along her incredibly agile brain. Nothing flies over her head or under her radar. And unlike most broadcasters in this -- let's face it -- rather small and stagnant pond, Cardoza keeps the mic pointed at her interview subjects instead of at herself.
Runner-up: Jim Leach
BEST PRINT JOURNALIST
After almost 20 years of covering Illinois politics -- the last 14 as columnist for the State Journal-Register -- "Bernie" is pretty good at his gig. But last year, when we named him Best Reason to Pick Up the SJ-R, he consented to a telephone interview only reluctantly and was even more suspicious of our photographer. It's OK; a healthy sense of skepticism is a necessary tool for a reporter. This year, we turned to one of his colleagues for the scoop on what makes Bernie the best. "Bernie knows his stuff and is trusted," says the colleague. "He works hard and keeps the politicians on their toes by not backing off. He's also really good at pingpong."
Runner-up: Dusty Rhodes, Illinois Times
Anne Weller teaches two subjects at Southeast High School -- freshman biology and flag team. Melissa Ritter is a sophomore and not a member of the flag team, which means flattering Ms. Weller will get her absolutely nowhere. So we have to believe Melissa when she says Ms. Weller rocks. "She talks to the students more like your friend, but she still teaches you," Melissa says. It probably doesn't hurt that Ms. Weller is young and beautiful. "Yeah, all the boys have crushes on her," Melissa says.
Runner-up: Lester Hampton, Lanphier High School
From the North End to Southern View, Illinois Times readers are bursting with neighborhood pride. Almost every community in Sangamon County -- and a few outside it -- received votes in this category, but by far the most were cast for the Washington Park neighborhood, which, of course, is anchored by city's most popular public park. Actually, the Washington Park Neighborhood Association offers a more specific definition: from Cherry Road North to South Grand Avenue, east to MacArthur Boulevard and West to Illinois Road, with a small area north of Washington Park. Neighborhood resident Mark Smith explained, "Building on Dial Court, originally a subdivision just west of the city's border at West Grand, began in the '20s. The oldest home on my block of Dial Court was built about 1915." Proximity to the park is one of the biggest draws for new residents. And once they move in, they're inclined to stay. "A resident moved to a bigger home, six houses down the street, to stay in this neighborhood," Smith says. "To get closer to the park after I moved here, I bought and moved to another house with a lot that shares a corner with my first home!"
Runner-up: Enos Park
BEST NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION
Enos Park Neighborhood Association
Organized in April 1989, the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association represents residents of one of the city's most historic neighborhoods, an area bounded by North Grand Avenue and Carpenter, Third, and Ninth streets. With 80 dues-paying members, Enos Park even has its own executive director, Marilyn Piland. "A lot of renovation is going on here," she says. Much of the activity continues to involve supporting the rehabilitation of single-family homes and duplexes. Restoring the luster of one of the city's crown jewels isn't the only challenge for the Enos Park group: Instead of serving as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization, the creation of the nearby Illinois Medical District at Springfield seems to have caused a flurry of property acquisitions and demolitions. More than 60 properties have been acquired and all their structure demolished in the past two years, Piland says. She urges Enos Park owners to maintain their homes "and if they have to sell, sell them to buyers who want to live in them and not tear them down for the medical district." Association dues are $20 per year. For more information, call 217-522-9381.
Runner-up: Historic West Side Neighborhood Association
Known for working just as hard to get the right shot for a small story as for a feature spread, Salsman has a way of putting people at ease. The star of the State Journal-Register, Salsman has, according to the paper's Web site, little or no formal education in photography. He graduated from college with a degree in business management and had only one job as a photographer -- for the Napa Valley Register -- before being hired at the SJ-R in 1995. It just goes to show there is such a thing as natural talent.
Runner-up: Chris Young, State Journal-Register
BEST PLACE TO MEET SINGLES
2660 S. Fifth St., 217-522-7447
For the person who wrote in "wish I knew" where to meet singles, here's a look at some of Springfield's top vote recipients. Some hook-up haunts stood out for their mundaneness: the grocery, the gym, the bookstore. West Side Christian Church led all local houses of worship as the best place to make a match. Less sacred spots included Déjà Vu and Hooters. Of course, there's nothing like a little liquor to erode a person's inhibitions, and bars overwhelmed the list of favorite spots in which to find romance. Downtown watering holes such as 11 West, Floyd's Thirst Parlor, Marly's Pub, Sammy's Sports Bar, and the Station House all scored well. But readers of Illinois Times say the best place to meet singles is Chantilly Lace, a 3 a.m. club with two full bars and a huge dance floor to boot. Kevin Davlin, one of the mayor's brothers, is the proprietor.
Runner-up: Sammy's Sports Bar & Grill
BEST PLACE TO TAKE VISITORS
Lincoln Home and Tomb
Springfield has Abraham Lincoln to thank for its enviable status as an international tourist destination, and there are no better places in which to relive the history that Lincoln has come to embody than inside the home where he reared his family and at the tomb that is his final resting place. Free tours are offered daily through the two-story Greek Revival home at the corner of Eighth and Jackson streets where the Lincolns lived for 17 years beginning in 1844. Many of the 19th-century homes surrounding Lincoln's have also been restored, making the entire several-block area downtown one of the most satisfying historic re-creations this side of Gettysburg. Visitors can also make the pilgrimage to Oak Ridge Cemetery, where a 117-foot tall granite tomb contains the remains of Lincoln, wife Mary, and three of their four sons.
Runner-up: Dana-Thomas House
BEST REASON TO PICK UP THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
Popular answers in this category included all manner of pyrotechnic and pet potty-training suggestions. But the person who garnered the most votes was the State Journal-Register'sleft-leaning cartoonist, Chris Britt. A favorite target of the daily's most parochial letter writers, Britt is so talented that he makes us wonder what he's doing at the SJ-R. We figure he's in the federal witness-protection program. One other secret about Kartoon Boy: He's actually a genuinely sweet guy. A good reason to pick up the Saturday paper is George Little, whose column appears in the "Outdoors" section. All that huntin' and fishin' stuff he writes about may not be appealing, but still we enjoy his premium prose.
Runner-up: "Police Beat" column
BEST NEW STATUES
The Lincoln family
Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin may have overreached when he called downtown's new Lincoln-family statues "the closest thing yet to bringing our 16th president back to life." After all, not even a constitutional amendment could do that. But sculptor Larry Douglas has made the Lincolns so accessible that passersby find themselves in their midst unawares. Because the Great Emancipator is put on a pedestal everywhere else, many visitors' first reaction is that he looks a bit short. But he's life-size. Putting one's arm around him downtown may soon become a more popular photo op than rubbing his nose out at Oak Ridge. The new quartet -- Abe, Mary, and sons Willie and Robert -- is part of the Looking for Lincoln heritage project. Most of the funding came from the state.
BEST PUBLIC-SPIRITED LANDLORD
It took him a decade after college, but Steve Myers finally returned to Springfield, where his family's done business for more than a century. Today he owns or manages 250,000 square feet of commercial space downtown. His clients include the usual mix of government agencies and professional groups. They get reasonable rates and prompt service. But Myers has specialized in finding affordable downtown quarters for not-for-profit organizations. He's been landlord to the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, the Springfield Area Arts Council, the Springfield Community Foundation, Downtown Springfield, and the Illinois Assistive Technology Project. He's also on the board of seven other not-for-profits. "If everybody donated an hour or two a month, the world would be a better place," Myers says. He probably reaches that quota before lunch on the first day of the month.
BEST PLACE TO PEOPLE-WATCH
Old State Capitol Plaza
People of all stripes visit Springfield for one reason or another, and there's no better place to watch them parade by than at Old State Capitol Plaza. Rest a while along the wide brick courtyard on the east side of the plaza, where musicians strum and sing on hot summer afternoons, and you'll see a mix of big city slickers and old country bumpkins, big-hearted activists and even the occasional Hollywood heartthrob. The bigwig politicians, decked out in dark suits and sunglasses, are easy to spot. After being wined and dined by gift-giving lobbyists, they take time to glad-hand the camera-ready tourists. Of course, the most pleasing sight of all is that of Springfield residents, coming to the square downtown for the simple, mundane reasons of shopping, eating, running errands. All this with the vaunted history of the Old State Capital as its centerpiece.
Runner-up: White Oaks Mall
BEST TREE (NOT ON PUBLIC PROPERTY OR IN A CEMETERY)
The elm on South State Street
When Dutch elm disease swept the country soon after World War II, city crews removed more than 5,000 of Springfield's elm trees in a week. Only a handful survived. The grandest one by far dominates the back yard of a home in the 1400 block of South State Street. City arborist Mike Dirksen estimates the 90-year-old landmark at 100 feet high with a spread of 125 feet across three city lots. The best place to admire it from is the parking lot of the former Esquire Theater. This brings to mind another close call for the tree: In the late 1980s, the Esquire's owners tried to buy the 1400 block of South State to expand the theater's parking lot. We miss the theater, but not that idea.