Last month, I took a drive through Illinois. In three days, I covered the entire length and breadth of the state. I spent a night at the state park in Cave-in-Rock, on the Ohio River, where the woman running the lodge spoke in a deep Southern Illinois. I posed next to the Superman statue in Metropolis, toured the faded Magnolia Manor in the faded city of Cairo, and visited the Casino Queen in East St. Louis, an island of prosperity surrounded by urban decay. In Alton and Quincy, I stood on sites where Lincoln debated Douglas, and in Galesburg, I paid a late night visit to Carl Sandburg’s grave.
Before moving to Chicago, I lived in Decatur. So I’m familiar with Downstate Illinois. But I never understood, until now, why it is so isolated and alienated from Chicago. In Quincy, I was standing in the Villa Kathrine, a quasi-Moorish dwelling that overlooks the Mississippi River. It was built by a local eccentric in the early 20-th Century, and has been preserved as a museum. I’ll bet not one in a hundred Chicagoans has heard of it, much less seen it.
I’d make the same bet about the statue of Popeye in Chester, the hometown of the comic strip’s creator, Elzie Segar.
What I realized at that moment is that it’s easier for a Chicagoan to visit New York or San Francisco than it is to visit Quincy, Cairo or Chester. O’Hare Airport connects Chicagoans to the great metropolitan centers of the world.
You can fly to New York in 90 minutes, for as little as $108. But to get to Quincy, you either have to fly through St. Louis, take a four-and-half hour train ride on the Ann Rutledge or the Illinois Zephyr, or drive six hours. Cairo doesn’t even have an airport, a train station, or a bus station. And the drive to the bottom of the state is at least eight hours.
The result is that Chicagoans are more connected socially, professionally and recreationally to other big cities than we are to the rest of our own state. We think of Downstate -- on the rare occasions we think of it at all -- as a benighted rural appendage, a Red State grafted onto our Blue City-State by mapmakers who did their work nearly 200 years ago.
It's Illinois's own Flyover Country. We feel we have far more in common -- politically, socially, intellectually -- with our fellow urbanites on the East and West coasts than with country folk in Mount Carmel or Effingham. If we’ve even heard of Mount Carmel or Effingham.
Gubernatorial candidate Bill Daley won't even campaign Downstate, because all the votes he needs are in Cook County. Air travel, which has brought so much of the world together, has deepened Illinois’s divisions.