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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016 12:24 am

Getting it right this time

Ideas for an Illinois bicentennial

Note: The text departs slightly from the original published version, having been slightly improved for readability.

Yes, I know – who feels like celebrating the state of Illinois? The commonwealth will be 200 years old in 2018, and no one in state government seems prepared to party. As our Erika Holst recently reminded us [see “Tardy party, Aug. 11], commemoration plans have been perfunctory. The man who was governor in 1918, social reformer Edward Dunne, oversaw official events devoted largely to teaching and remembrance; his current successor seems to envision the anniversary mainly as a marketing opportunity. “Residents and visitors will be inspired, educated, entertained and amazed as they experience our celebration personally and virtually,” promises the governor’s office. “Bicentennial events will promote Illinois as a destination for tourism.”

Past celebrations are not much of a guide. The tone of most of the works occasioned by the centennial (and to a lesser extent by the sesquicentennial in 1968) was triumphalist. Illinoisans had wrought a modern industrial state from a wilderness, and had made themselves rich. Scant acknowledgement was made that building that Illinois required expelling its Indian inhabitants, turning the countryside into a factory and its rivers into sewers, suppressing labor unions and denying to African-Americans and women the freedom to fully participate in the life of the commonwealth.

How might we today properly celebrate such a history? The first step is to make more clear what we are celebrating. Illinois the state government will be 200 years old in 2018; Illinois the place has a history that is vastly older and richer. If the human history of the place is imagined to have occupied one hour on the clock, Illinois the government did not appear until about one minute ago. Past observances focused on this grander story, and probably wisely, the state of Illinois’ history being what it is, and isn’t.

At 200, we are a little old for pageants and parades, for flag-waving and chest-thumping, fireworks and other frivolity. Nor (much as I admire the Andrew O’Connor Lincoln that was put up at the Capitol in 1918) we don’t need more statues. Better a bicentennial commemoration devoted not to celebration but remediation, a communal attempt to fix what we did wrong in the 100 years since 1918.

What do I have in mind? Restore more of the backwater lakes and wetlands on our namesake river. Reforest our rural hardwood forests. (Marginal, never-should-have-been-farmed lands are already reverting to woods, but absent the ecological factors, chiefly fire, that created presettlement woods, they are a different and lesser sort of forest.) Festoon the roadsides with prairie grasses and forbs. Invest in a systematic archaeological investigation to rescue the yet-unrevealed history all around us. 

As I suggested in “Clio in the cornfields,” every Illinois town of any size ought to set up a local history district, like a sewer or school district, that levies a small tax to be used solely to pay for the research, writing and publication of serious works of local history and to jump-start historical preservation projects. Or we could take the steps needed to preserve the stately oaks in the city’s two big parks; park users will squawk, but you can grow a park user in a few years while those 200-year-old trees can’t be replaced in two lifetimes. 

We also need a new series of public monuments, by which I mean not something built to recall something else, but something built that is worthy in its own right, and whose very existence recalls the generosity, the civic will, the wisdom that went into its doing. We have local models for such undertakings. The dams and bridges at Lake Springfield are festooned with commemorative plaques, but the greatest monument to Springfield’s early 20th century experiment in municipal socialism is the lake itself. In the same way, Washington and Lincoln parks are monuments to the parks movement which sought to rescue the filthy city of the latter 1800s with oases of beauty and quiet.

Speaking of trees: I argued in several columns about the need to reforest Springfield by turning it back into a prairie grove, with trees planted in rows lining the street and in bunches off the street, ringing every small parking lot and growing in islands within the larger ones. (Here’s a rallying cry I would march to: “Springfield: Where You Can’t See The City For The Trees!”) Undo a century’s worth of heedless engineering by converting some of the low stretches of the old Town Branch to sloughs or swales. Convert to parks and preserves land that should have been saved for parks but wasn’t, such as the spot where Jefferson and Veterans cross Spring Creek; by acquiring and clearing the tawdry commercial structures there now and restoring the area as wetland, the city gains a proper gateway in to the capital from the northwest.

Other people will have other ideas that are just as good or better. The larger point is to undertake projects that will redeem the state in the eyes of its citizens, and to that extent help redeem us as citizens.  
 
Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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