Phthursday Musings: Running Around Illinois, Part 2
or, Welcome to the Mulch State
Two weeks ago I wrote about my weird latent idea for a separate blog, Running Around Illinois, based on the conceit of running a race in each of the 102 counties of Illinois. Then I was focusing mostly on the running. Ahh, but today, we get Illin’.
One of my backburner writing ideas is a look at why Illinois is so… internally divided. Our collective state pride here is pppth. There’s Chicago pride, to be sure, but I never see, say, bumper stickers talking up Illinois. Compare Illinois to the likes of Michigan or Kentucky or even… Indiana… I mean, my god, Indiana.
As it so happens, I know a lot about the state. I’ve lived in a lot of places in Illinois - big city, medium city, small town, suburb. I’ve lived north of I-80, I’ve lived south of I-80. I even wrote a thesis about Centralia. I chaired a state political party for five years, holding meetings everywhere from Crystal Lake to Macomb to Carbondale.
An excellent place to start is by looking at the state quarter:
When I was in high school, our back yard ended, and a cornfield began. Ten years ago, I worked in the John Hancock Building - that’s the most prominent building you see on the quarter. My final image of my grandfather, a lifelong Illinoisan who, to the best of my knowledge, never set foot outside of the state, was him in his casket, intentionally or not, looking like Abraham Lincoln. I feel this quarter deeply.
Now, as state quarters go, this is a remarkably busy one. There’s a lot of things to unpack here.
Thematically what the quarter seems to represent is that Illinois is both the rural and the urban, unified via the singular figure of Abraham Lincoln. But even in an attempt to unify Chicago and the rest of the state, the design serves to literally separate things. It may as well be Marshal Tito holding Yugoslavia together: A young, book wielding Marshal Tito, studying his way into being a young lawyer, riding the circuit, litigating in Metamora… anyway.
Illinois wasn’t the only state which chose to put its outline on its quarter, nor was it the only state to pick a singular person and put him or her on the quarter. But no other state quarter - indeed, no other state - so closely identifies and aligns itself with a single person like this. (I ignore states literally named after people like Louisiana or Washington.) There are of course a lot of obvious historical reasons why this is the case, why Lincoln is so central a figure, blah blah blah.
The thing is, at the time, Abraham Lincoln was arguably the most divisive man in Illinois. And, of course, he was do divisive nationally that, after his election, states literally seceded from the Union.
Illinois pre-1860 was hardly some sort of coherent, unified construct. Since its very inception, Illinois has been bound by tension. We may not be Bloody Kansas, and there may not be anyone here chanting Forty! Million! Daggers!, but the reality is that Illinois formed as a mess of confusing, conflicting regions. The first capital was Kaskaskia. The most important region was what we today call Metro East, and outside of there, the next most important city might have been Galena. The Illinois & Michigan Canal wasn’t completed until 1848, and railroads weren’t omnipresent until around then. Chicago may as well have been on another planet from Peoria.
The emigrants who filled in northern Illinois tended to come from New England, or from northern Europe - lots of Germans and Swedes. In southern Illinois, they were more likely to come from southern states. My own family that settled in the Centralia region in the 1850s, one side was from Germany, the other side had slowly migrated west over time through southern Pennsylvania, into Kentucky, into Indiana, and finally into Illinois. Different cultures, different crops, different politics. Very different politics.
[confusing paragraph about Lincoln and Douglas deleted, why the hell am I writing about Stephen Douglas]
Last week in writing about Jim Loewen, I noted how between the two of us, we had Illinois pretty well covered. Having grown up in Decatur himself, he understood many of the contradictions of living in a place called the Land of Lincoln. His unearthing that it is Illinois which has the most known sundown towns is essential to understanding the political problems which persist in the state to this day. The way in which the people of Illinois are pitted against one another lies deep within the state’s DNA. It’s not just about region. It’s not just about race. There is something even more to it. The problems of the 21st State do indeed persist into the 21st Century, just like the coin weirdly shows.
I’ve written in the past about how, in Rockford, we were somehow allowed to get away with being fans of multiple baseball teams at once. But this sort of thing does not happen when you get truly downstate. Nor does this sort of thing does not happen when you get into the city.
Downstate, you picked sides. They were Cardinals fans, like my wife’s stepfather, growing up on a farm outside Wapella, listening to games on the radio. Or they were Cubs fans, like my grandfather, put on a train by himself from Centralia to Chicago as a pre-teen to get surgery, and while in the city being taken to Wrigley Field. Now, maybe there wasn’t antipathy between those Cubs and Cardinals fans… but maybe there was. Within Chicago proper, of course, the divide is between Cubs fans and White Sox fans, and yessir, I’ve known Sox fans who have acted more anti-Cubs than pro-Sox. Do these sports rivalries merely represent existing geographic divisions? No, I think otherwise. They represent, but then they reinforce, and I’ll go farther and say that I think that all of it is tied up in in a more general other-ism that pervades the politics of the state. It’s a localized version of Orientalism. And it’s horribly wasteful.
There’s always a Someone Else, always a scapegoat. Often that has meant Black communities. But a sundown town can’t exactly scapegoat people they won’t even allow in. So then the scapegoats are the cities themselves. Yes, obviously, it’s racism at work. But there’s more. There’s a multiplier. And it’s never been tackled head on.
In my lifetime, the one person who truly united Illinois was Michael Jordan. It’s been over 50 years since St. Louis had an NBA team. The world’s greatest athlete, then, played for the only nominal home team, regardless of whether you lived in Waukegan or Waterloo. Today, bizarre as this is to think, the Bulls are arguably the sixth most popular professional sports franchise in the state. But in 1997, the center of the entire sporting universe was Chicago, Illinois, and yes, Illinois as a whole was along for that ride. (It would be fascinating to see someone write about this phenomenon specifically.)
Well, Jordan’s been gone for over 20 years. In that time we’ve had a surprisingly long succession of Chicagoans as Governor (plus one as President!), and the politics of the suburbs have changed immensely. Meanwhile, downstate writ large has been in bad economic shape overall. I think the divide between Chicagoland and Downstate is in some ways as bad as it’s ever been. This divide has been exploited by politicians for as long as Illinois has existed, but now that exploitation is tightly aligned with a lot of right-wing madness. The seeds of all this… well, maybe they’re not so surprising if you’ve read Sundown Towns.
I think people should be addressing this divide. Head on.
This is where Running Across Illinois comes in.
Again, the conceit of Running Across Illinois is to run a race - probably a 5K - in each of the 102 counties of Illinois.
Now, I’ve already knocked out some of the easiest counties. Really, anything in Chicagoland proper should be fairly simple for me. Lake County is close enough. Will County is close enough.
My thought, pre-pandemic, was to then build in some short Amtrak trips. The Amtrak line which goes to Kansas City via Galesburg runs a few blocks from our hours. There are stops in Yorkville, Mendota, Princeton, Kewanee, and Galesburg. Switch trains there, and you can go on to Macomb and Quincy. And who wouldn’t want to go on to Macomb and Quincy?
I find the idea of taking the train to Kewanee, staying in an Airbnb for a night, running a race in the morning, finding breakfast after the race, all without needing a car… I find that, I don’t know, romantic? I find the idea of hauling the family off for crazy trips like this to be… exciting! Because every place like that has something weird to see. Mendota, outside the small historical society museum, has a statue of Wild Bill Hickok! Princeton has two historic districts! Macomb has… well, weed, probably. But that’s something!
Ahh, well, eventually, the far-flung places have to be accessed. Places which might never hold races, for all I know. Is there a 5K in Schuyler County? Wabash County? Oh, some day, there will be.
The thing is that I find Illinois eminently explorable. It’s true, Illinois is the rare state without a national park. And it’s also true that Illinois is the second-flattest state. (Not Kansas! Only Florida is flatter.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t all sorts of things to see, both in the natural and built environments.
Unfortunately, I find that when people talk about exploring Illinois, it’s usually limited to Springfield, a small number of state parks like Starved Rock, or Galena. Nobody ever talks about visiting Havana. Nobody ever talks about visiting Paris. Nobody ever talks about visiting Vienna. These are real places! With unique stories! I mean, come on, why do people have to keep fleeing to Michigan when they want to get away‽
Now, me hauling my creaking knees around from Danville to Danvers, and then blogging about it… that’s probably not some kind of magic solution for a state which seems hellbent on being at each other’s throats. But that is the sort of thing which I wish the State of Illinois was trying to do. No, JB, I am not asking for an appointment to the Office of Tourism. I’m just saying, you give me your ear, and I’ve got some great ideas here for how to slowly pull this state back together, five kilometers at a time.
For a relevant update, I did the Fall Color 5K a couple weekends ago in 29:51. The next day I had the tightest calves imaginable. I have new running shoes though! And also new non-running shoes! I am expecting my next shot to be this weekend in Batavia, which will tick one more county off the list.
I was also given the unexpected pro tip that a suitable running soundtrack is Alice Cooper’s 1971 Killer. I think come November the calendar may allow for some META-REVIEWS to finally come out again. Maybe I should rate albums solely on their potential as running soundtracks. Come on, Mom, I can’t hit an 8-minute mile listening to Joni Mitchell. Sheesh!
A certain percentage of you readily understood what I meant by Forty! Million! Daggers! Sing along now:
It was hard to find a good video of the song. I mean, there’s a guy right in front of the stage with a camera, where’s his footage?
An aside comment on the usage of “downstate”. As a native Rockfordian, the idea that Rockford is somehow “downstate” is of course absurd and obnoxious. We’re at the top in Illinois! For what it’s worth, I think that Rockford in particular has tended to evade a lot of the confusing Chicago versus downstate silliness over time, in part because of its relative proximity to Chicago, in part because there’s so many Swedes hanging around, in part because, up until the ‘60s, it was a fairly affluent place, all in all. I actually think Rockford has become more of a “downstate” city in the last 20 years than it used to be. Rockford today shares a congressional district with Peoria, for crying out loud.
I would also be remiss at this point if I failed to point out that, in terms of cultural export, while Chicago certainly holds a lot of things down - blues, house, the ouevre-unto-himself that was Wesley Willis - the two greatest rock bands ever to come out of Illinois were most definitely not from Chicago. First, straight out of Belleville:
Yeah, I didn’t know there was an official video for “Chickamauga” either. Not exactly a large budget for that one, eh?
Oh, can’t share a Jay song without sharing a Jeff song:
See Jay repping the Bottle Rockets t-shirt on Conan? Man, did they have it together then. And man, Conan is so much taller than those guys!
Meanwhile, somehow, I think I’ve never seen this before:
I gotta rep too, right?
On a final brief note, I was out for a long walk tonight. At one point the sky to the west was a marvelous shade of blue, buffeted by weird big gray clouds. To the south, the moon hovered, unobscured, waxing gibbous, seeming like it had something to say, but patiently waiting to collect the right words.
I went to take a picture, but it was a little fuzzy. I went to take another, and I got startled just at the critical moment. And I liked it enough to share it with you now:
This is my favorite time of year. A walk on a cool but not cold night, leaves having just begun to fall. It might be marvelous in the fall where you all are too. It’s definitely marvelous in the fall in Illinois. All of Illinois.