A letter to my hometown
May 21, 2009 § 2 Comments
OMAHA, Neb. — Dear Springfield, Mo.:
It’s been a while, certainly, since I found myself in the Ozarks. I’m in Nebraska on business for a couple of weeks, and I had a chance to drop by and see you for the first time since 2007. It’s always good to be in your familiar embrace, to watch familiar sights fill in as Missouri 13 becomes Kansas Expressway, to tune the radio to 94.7 and hear Need-to-Know News on the Ozarks’ Best, KTTS.
This trip was extra special because I was able to carve out time to hang out not only with family, but with some good friends with whom I share a lot of memories. That part warmed my heart almost enough to help me get past the sentiment I’m about to express.
Springfield, here’s the thing: You look like shit.
Time has not treated you well, at least not the part of you that’s north of Battlefield Road — which, despite all that southern prosperity, is still well more than half the city.
I have fond memories of hanging out on Kearney Street in the mid-1980s, and if I want to relive them, all I have to do is go back. You’ve changed nothing, certainly nothing for the better. A few of the businesses that were there in 1988 have closed, but their empty shells remain.
From your interminable traffic light at Glenstone Ave. and Battlefield Road, the mall — once your showpiece, the gleaming shopping palace that made downtown unnecessary all those years — looks like the set of a post-apocalypse thriller. The sign’s rusted, the parking lot is mostly empty at noon on a Saturday.
A few blocks to the north, Sunshine Street lay basically in ruins. Ever since U.S. 60 was re-routed to the James River freeway, the once-businesslike road has drifted into abandonment. I counted three title-loan establishments, two adult video stores, and a big pawn shop as I lurched from traffic light to traffic light. I remember listening to people gush about the downtown revival several years ago; to my jaded eye, it looked like little more than a row of coffee shops and bars. Coffee shop, bar, coffee shop, bar, little restaurant serving “down-home American food,” bar, coffee shop. Everybody in Springfield was thirsty. Now, apparently, everyone in Springfield is thirsty and broke.
My old neighborhood was on its way down from lower-middle-class when we left in 1987. Two decades later, its descent is complete. I wouldn’t want to be on Madison Street after dark. All the old ladies that had lived in their houses since the Depression are long since dead, and the current homeowners have probably never set their SUVs’ tires anywhere near Madison Street; they just wait for the rent checks to come in and send a maintenance person out, apparently very occasionally, to make sure their houses haven’t completely fallen down around the hapless tenants.
Commercial Street has been an embarrassment to you since 1970. There was an effort in the early ’90s to gentrify it, to at least contain and try to help the homeless population while preserving the area’s historic significance commemorating the city’s heyday as a railroad hub. You gave up.
I’ve been to a lot of cities since I left Springfield in 1993. I lived in one of the United States’ great cesspools, the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati. Newport and Bellevue and Covington, Ky., have gone from gawdawful, sleazy blight to the pride of the Ohio River in a little more than 10 years, thanks to the efforts of preservationists and money from developers. I see places like Omaha, which has done a wonderful job preserving its history alongside an ultramodern downtown. I see places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Rockford, Ill., two cities almost exactly your size, who have managed to not give their city over completely to TGI Friday’s and Chili’s and Target and Walgreen’s and neglect.
Springfield, you once had a thriving working class, powered by the Frisco railroad, Zenith, Dayco, Kraft Foods, Solo Cup, and other industries. They’re all gone now, or mostly gone, or shadows of their former selves. In their place you have Bass Pro Shops, credit-card call centers, and convenience stores. You ballyhoo the arrival of yet another credit-card call center offering hundreds of jobs, and leave out the fact that those jobs pay 60 percent or less, in today’s dollars, of what those factory jobs paid. That’s not progress, folks.
The city has many things to be proud of. Missouri State University is growing and thriving, even without the “Southwest” in front of its name. The neighborhoods around the university are mostly still beautiful. The crime rate has decreased somewhat since the peak of the meth years. Mexican Villa’s still there.
But really: If it wasn’t for the wonderful people that I came to see this weekend, I wouldn’t have any reason to give you a second look, Springfield. You need a sprucing up. You need to find a way to get businesses that aren’t coffee shops or bars. You need to find a way to get the rusting hulk that was Springfield Lincoln-Mercury off of Glenstone Ave. Tear it down and replace it with a park, for Pete’s sake. Anything. Get the Country Club Plaza shopping center to either repaint or replace that sign. Get some life in areas that aren’t south of Battlefield or on campus. Restore the Tower Theatre the way you restored the Gillioz, or lose it. Some things are classic; some things, as Bob Walkenhorst once sang, are just old.
I loved my city once, Springfield. I don’t necessarily miss the way you were; I miss the way you could have been, back when we thought the population would pass 200,000 and the promise seemed infinite. You’re never going to be a metropolis, and that’s fine.
Find a way to be what you could be, the best city of your size in all the land.