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Thursday, June 30, 2016 12:21 am

At the corner of Someplace and Nowhere

Street names as archaeology

Breaking the norm, Indian Hills subdivision street names recall the original residents of the place that is now Illinois.


Attentive readers might have noticed my recent preoccupation with the problem of place – how people come to define a place as a “place” and what it means to the people who live there. (See “The blossomy haw, remembered,” “A school by any other name,” “Official graffiti” and “Naming rights and wrongs.”) Our politics suggests that many of its citizens seem to feel a weak attachment to the place that is Illinois and its cities. Given our antic diversity, the only thing all the people who live in a place have in common is their shared experience of that place, both the actual experience of today and the imagined experience of its shared past.

Thus the question – Does it matter that Illinois is not a place the way that Texas is a place or California or New York City? (Chicago is a place, but that’s not in Illinois, at least according to the governor.) Certainly Illinois doesn’t seem to inspire much love. Would people act differently in defense of their place if they felt differently about it? And how might they be made to feel differently?

Curious to understand more, I took up an essay written by Irishman Darran Anderson, author of the book Imaginary Cities. His topic was what he calls the archaeology of streets – not the actual unearthing of remains, but the relics of a city’s past as revealed in the names its people gave its streets in different eras. Not much is revealed by old Springfield’s street names. As laid out by its propertied men, those names did not recall the old prairie groves or long-vanished Indian encampments, the famous crimes or the old mines. Until the postwar years new streets were laid out in a grid that arrayed streets without regard to old stream valleys or other relics. The grid is not about shaping a place, but about marketing property. “The grid system, while highly functional, is deadening to the imagination,” says Anderson. “It severs the link of history.”

Not entirely. Later streets bore the names of local worthies, or were named for where they went or what was on them. Thus we had the Old Rochester Road in my old neighborhood, or the North End's Reservoir Street, Reisch street (near the site of the old brewery) and Converse, which marks the boundary of the farm owned by Henry C. Downtown there is Market Street (now Capitol), where the public market once stood. On the far west side, old meets new on the knitting urban fringe where New Springfield encounters old Sangamon County. Here the streets names are still redolent of place – Archer Elevator, Riddle Hill, Stagecoach Road, Koke Mill, Old Salem Road.

In 20th and 21st century Springfield, most streets were and are named after the developers who build the streets, the female members of developers’ families, the tree species that developers know, subdivisions in other places that the developers have read about, golf clubs by developers who wished they could play at or posh colleges they hope to send their kids to if their subdivision turns a profit.

Indeed, developers clearly feel it imperative to make Springfield places sound like any place but Springfield. British and British-sounding place names, for example, abound in the capital city. (There will always be an England on the maps of Springfield.) The attempt to invest repurposed corn fields with the magic of faraway places betrays the namers’ assumption that there is no magic in nearby places. In this they are mistaken, as the Wanless estate proved in the late 1950s and early ’60s when they named the streets in their new Indian Hills project after the different bands of the Illini nation, plus a few individual leaders such as Shabbona and Keokuk.

Sadly, the Wanlesses’ example was not imitated. “We require names and symbols but, above all, we require meaning, stories, resonances,” writes Anderson. “If we fail to find them in the past and in our existing signs, we must create them anew.” Springfield has done some re-creating when it renamed major streets for Douglas MacArthur, Everett Dirksen, Adlai Stevenson and Martin Luther King Jr. But Mayor Buddy Kapp did more for Springfield than a hundred Ev Dirksens; why oh why was the old Route 66 bypass not named Kapp Parkway?

But what names would resonate among today’s Springfieldians? Apart from TV and pop music and national sports, we have little in common. We don’t live in places anymore, we live in what used to be called the ether, an electromagnetic cloud that allows us to be anywhere and thus nowhere in particular, and we know everywhere better than we know here.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.


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Wednesday June 26th