What if, after you build it, they come?
Oh, are we going to have us some fun. Public party space being planned in the form of a new Bicentennial Plaza between Fifth and Sixth Streets at Jackson and a park on the Y block across the street. Mayor Langfelder noted, presumably approvingly, “With that block tied into the plaza, you could have thousands of people right there.”
The mayor might want to think again about the wisdom of inviting all the neighbors over for a lawn party. Having thousands of people right there was tried in the 1980s, when the city staged the summer street party called Lincolnfest.
It wasn’t pretty, as I reported in this column from July, 1981. Edited for length.
I really wish that the next time Fred Puglia decides to throw a party for 50,000 people he does it in his neighborhood and not in mine. Fred runs the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, and is the man behind the first-ever Lincolnfest, held in downtown Springfield on July 4 and 5. I live downtown, you see, so every time someone asked me if I were going to Lincolnfest I replied, trepidaciously, “No, Lincolnfest is coming to me.”
The police said that at least 50,000 people came downtown on Sunday. That probably wasn’t any more exaggerated than are most such estimates, although it should be noted for the record that the police, like Puglia, work for the mayor. . . .
I know that Fred and the mayor said that Lincolnfest would put Springfield on the map. But, see, we’re already on the map, being the state capital and having Lincoln buried here and all, not to mention our being the temporary home of Satchel Paige. Besides, I remember from high school that anybody can be popular by throwing a lot of parties. That doesn’t mean people really like you, though. I know that much.
I ended up going anyway. I ran into J. on the street Friday, and he predicted that the whole thing would be a veritable carnival of Midwestern camp, what with skydiving clowns, and yo-yo champs and push-up contests. I reminded him that you don’t get ahead in the convention biz nowadays without knowing how to pander to Americans’ lust for the meretricious. But while chatting we realized that Lincolnfest’s attraction lay in the promise of its awfulness. As was proved by “At Long Last Love” and the Nixon administration, Bad – really Bad – can be fun. . . .
[Unfortunately,] there were only a few moments when Lincolnfest transcended the kitsch-y idiom of the Midwestern Chamber of Commerce promotion. One such moment occurred when a man tried to hold up an Indian teepee at knifepoint. Another occurred for me when I discovered half an airplane parked on Sixth Street in front of Shadid’s. Wingless and nearly skinless as well, the relic did not explain itself or its presence, which is what made it so much more interesting than the other attractions, whose presence was all too clear. Half a plane was something you don’t see very often, and that’s a good enough reason to park it on Sixth Street. . . .
A derelict car was parked in front of the Marine Bank, and people paid a buck each to bash it with a sledge hammer. It was almost as interesting as the half plane. At the most obvious level, the scene resembled what one sees every day at rush hour, except that then people use Oldsmobiles instead of sledge hammers. At a deeper level, the act symbolized for me a Luddite impulse to destroy the hated machine and drive it from the streets. (One of the delights of Lincolnfest was the blissful experience of having the streets to ourselves.) But what if they had sold chances to bang up a bank, instead? Give people a chance to tear up a car and you have a carnival act. Give them a chance to tear up a bank and you’ve got revolutionary street theater.
As it was, the celebration struck me as hollow, an occasion with only a pretext, not a reason. Officially, Lincolnfest was held to celebrate the arrival 150 years ago in Sangamon County of Abraham Lincoln. Reason enough to celebrate, to be sure. But Springfieldians care little for Lincoln, and know less. Except for his name, and a Lincoln look-alike contest, Lincoln was an invisible presence at Lincolnfest. Springfieldians did not gather to celebrate his arrival.
So why Lincolnfest? The festival slogan urged people to go “for that old-time feeling.” Unfortunately the organizers never explained what that old-time feeling is; watching hundreds of people on Sunday lapping beer from buckets like dogs at a bowl, I decided that that old-time feeling is numbness. Cynics have suggested that the whole thing was staged to make a name for Fred so he can someday get a good job and get out of Springfield. But that’s OK. A lot of people have used Springfield to further themselves. Look at Jim Thompson. Or Abraham Lincoln . . . .
Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.