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Wednesday, June 27, 2007 07:30 pm

A Springfield tutorial

Explaining the capital city isn’t easy

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Untitled Document Here at Illinois Times, we have a new full-time staff writer, which qualifies as a truly blessed event at our lean, mean little journalism machine. Her name is Amanda Robert, and she is just a kid, albeit an extra smart specimen of young adulthood. She asks a lot of questions and remembers the answers. Of course, that’s precisely what she’s supposed to do: she’s a reporter. But Amanda comes from Georgetown, Ind. — so far southeast it’s practically a suburb of Louisville, Ky. Consequently, her questions tend to be about Springfield — who’s who, how things work, and why things are the way they are. I try to give her honest answers, but I don’t want to blow her mind. I want to arm her with basic info without scaring her away. Some of the stuff she needs to know is simply quirky. For example, many newcomers assume that if you drive far enough on South Grand it will eventually become North Grand. It’s a logical notion; after all, South Second becomes North Second as it crosses Springfield’s equator, Washington Street. But the Grands run east and west, as parallel as railroad tracks. Every time she asks directions, she learns about ghost landmarks. No native Springfieldian can describe how to get from point A to the nearest gas station without guiding passing the “old Kmart,” the Pillsbury Mill, or the Wabash Curve, none of which exists anymore. Maybe it’s as harmless as nostalgia, but this habit is a virus that infects even new residents. Ask me where my office is located, and I’ll say, “Behind the old Esquire Theatre.”
Some stuff Amanda may have to learn the hard way. I can see it now: She’s motoring down Chatham Road, or Wabash Avenue, or North Grand or South Second, singing backup for a Dixie Chicks CD, when she suddenly notices flashing red and blue lights in her rearview mirror. That’s how she’ll discover the little towns tucked inside Springfield, each with its own attractive sales-tax rate and oddball zoning regulations, idiosyncratically liberal laws that accommodate cigarette smoking and leaf burning, hardball conservative laws that make it a crime to drive over the speed of 25 mph, and a band of law-enforcement officers to enforce these provisos.
Amanda has agreed to cover the Springfield City Council for us, so I’ve taken her to a few meetings recently just to show her the ropes. She keeps asking me why this alderman said that, or that alderman said this, and many of my answers include the alderman’s political party allegiance. I’m teaching her to insert the phrase “The city council is officially nonpartisan” in every news article.
The other day she was asking me about various characters she has noticed at council, and I found myself trying to illuminate the roles of Ernie Slottag and Todd Renfrow. Slottag is the city’s director of communications; Renfrow the director of City Water, Light & Power. But anyone familiar with the workings of city government knows that these titles don’t begin to describe the true scope of the two directors’ responsibilities. I’ve lived in Springfield less than five years, which is just long enough to realize there are some things I’ll never be able to explain. Amanda will have to figure Slottag and Renfrow out for herself. Horseshoes fall into that same category. Horseshoes may be the official taste sensation of Springfield, but I have never eaten one and don’t intend to ever eat one. Maybe young Amanda can try one and tell me all about it. I’m buying time on Springfield’s other culinary curiosity. With the temps around 90 this time of year, odds are, she’s not going to hit me with the “chilli” question anytime soon. Springfield produces a veritable river of the red stuff, including at one time as many as four different chili-canning companies, including “Chilliman chili.” Why does Springfield insist on misspelling chili “chilli”? Maybe someone will tell me before winter arrives. I have a hunch that I already know, though. I think the answer is “It’s because we’ve always done it that way.” That’s the answer to so many questions around here, it might as well be the town’s official motto. I don’t want to be cynical, just realistic. The truth is, neither Amanda nor I have been here for five generations; neither of us can go back in time and relocate our ancestors. By Springfield standards, no matter how long we stay here, we’ll always be just passing through. I hope Amanda will enjoy Springfield as much as I do.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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