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Thursday, June 9, 2005 04:46 pm

Building Springfield

“Let every street be made a reverent aisle
Where Music grows and Beauty is unchained.”
— Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, “On the Building of Springfield”


Vachel Lindsay would be pleased with the town Springfield is becoming. If Lincoln is our first son, who placed us on the map with words and deeds of universal wisdom, then Lindsay, the visionary poet of the Springfield that could be, is surely our second son. He spoke to the “the soul of the city.”

In our tribute to Lincoln’s Springfield, we’re finally beginning to build Lindsay’s Springfield. If, as Lindsay’s poem suggests, “Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight,” then Vachel Lindsay has cast his spell over the heart of our town.

Block by block, from the Hoogland Center for the Arts to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the city is coming to life with “old market” shops, sidewalk eateries, and potted plants and trees. Fifth Street offers restaurants and bars for added night attractions. And the Old State Capitol Plaza folks — Prairie Archives, Robbie’s, the Feed Store, and Carolyn Oxtoby — have been keeping the faith for years, waiting for the rest of us to join them.

Now, Second and Capitol beckons. Buildings that convey our city’s dignity and importance wait for the R/UDAT (Regional Urban Design Assistance Team) plans to be implemented, creating a vista to complement the view.

Then there’s the rest of Springfield — that’s us, individual homeowners and landholders. Here’s where Springfield’s “Yard to Yard Challenge” comes into play.

Like most of us, I’ve put my gardening efforts into building an oasis in my own back yard because that’s where I while away the summer days. But it’s a secret garden, hidden from view except for invited guests. As we invite guests into our town, we should also extend our hospitality to our front yards, creating welcoming views of cared-for homes and gardens and, in doing so, creating a quality of life to be admired and enjoyed by visitors and residents alike. So though I won’t be an official contestant, I’m taking up the “Yard to Yard Challenge.”

My street on Springfield’s near west side offers examples of all types of 1920s bungalows — small homes on small lots lined with old trees, ripe for enhancement with natural beauty. I actually began revamping my front yard a few years ago when I ripped out some old yews that seemed to act as a barrier to my home. I’ve been working on a concept — a semicontrolled Zen-woodland-Craftsman-style thing — something similar to the feeling of a William Morris fabric. I generally like plants that spread and self-sow; I like to see where they want to go, then edit them out, here and there, as it suits me. This year, it’s starting to happen: In the relatively small area I’ve planted so far, the houttuynia are starting to grow through the woodland vinca. I’ve added ferns for more lushness and red impatiens for color, and I keep hoping that the maiden grass will grow in the deep shade (though I know I’m fighting nature on this one).

All gardens take patience, and, as with interior decorating, sometimes it’s best to live with a garden for a while until it tells you what it wants to be. My front yard has finally spoken: It dreams of the woods but is quite happy living in Lindsay’s Springfield. Now that I know, I’ll keep working toward the street, extending a welcome to all passersby.

Over the past few years, my neighbors have begun gardening their front yards, too — yards abundant with hostas and pretty little cottages with gardens reminiscent of fairy tales. I think of streets nearby — Walnut with its stately homes and MacArthur, which many residents and visitors must travel each day. Imagine each street lined with gardens in which “beauty is unchained.” (Granted, in the case of South MacArthur, this requires a real stretch of the imagination, but with a tasteful new development at the site of the old Esquire Theatre, hope remains alive.)

Gardens, like towns, should always be works in progress. As we begin to take pride in our homes, large and small, as we begin to plant so “every street be made a reverent aisle,” something much larger begins to happen. We, individually and collectively, begin to build Springfield anew. Each of us — like Lincoln and Lindsay, participants in our town and in nature — creating, choosing the world we live in, block by block, yard to yard.

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