Through the Lens Backwards

Today, Galesburg, Illinois, is unprepossessing. My old hometown has seen better days. As you drive through various residential neighborhoods, you see signs of urban decay. 

Still, there is a vitality. People are doing things. 

Main Street Underpass. Contractor photo.

New overpasses and underpasses have liberated Main Street traffic from its former bondage to the railroads’ freight-hauling schedules. 

The commercial section of Seminary Street was remodeled decades ago, its old brick pavement lovingly restored. Stores, restaurants, and a coffee shop line both sides of the street for a three-block stretch, south and north of Main. Establishments like the Landmark Café have been in business for a long time now and do a steady trade. Redevelopment of this old street is a retail success story.

Knox College looks prosperous. There are new buildings, and some of the old classics, such as Alumni Hall, have been rehabbed and repurposed beyond their former glory. The Knox Bowl football stadium is a big step up from the old field where we used to watch the hapless Siwashers struggle against the bruisers of Lawrence and St. Olaf. 

The very term “Siwashers,” once a proud and unique moniker, has been officially retired in favor of “Prairie Fire.” Ladies and gentlemen, applaud as the Knox Prairie Fire take the field. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but we learned in 1993 that “Siwash”—which the college had used in all innocence for nearly a century—was also an ethnic slur against Native Americans, used especially in the Pacific Northwest. 

Victorian house, Buffalo, New York. Note the fishscale siding on the tall mansard roof. Photo by Andre Carrotflower, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

Another sign of the times: There is now a nice soccer pitch beside the Knox Bowl. Not quite as nice as the gridiron for American football. Still, it’s something.

The tony streets north of Main in the central part of the city—Broad, Cherry, Prairie, Kellogg, and Seminary—are still lined with very nice, well-kept houses. Some of them are gorgeous Queen Annes or other late Victorian castles. Here and there one of these old dowagers crumbles down towards her foundations—neither rehabbed nor yet plowed under. Such eyesores tend to bring the neighborhood down. But it’s still a nice neighborhood. Some of the streets are still made of brick and lined with old globe-style streetlamps. 

Charming it is, as in quaint.

That fin-de-siècle architecture, and the town’s disused streetcar tracks, prompted the late Jack Finney to pen a classic short story called “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” In case anyone under sixty is reading this, I ought to explain the story’s title was a sidelong allusion to a line from “I Love Paris,” a very popular song penned by Cole Porter in 1953.

Finney, a Milwaukee native, was a 1934 Knox college graduate. Most of his best work was what today we call speculative fiction—a mélange of sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism. The basic thrust of “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime” was a comforting conceit that the old red-brick and fishscale-sided town was possessed by a benevolent antiquarian spirit which actively subverted the schemes of developers to tear things down and modernize. 

You might not enjoy the story—if you can even find it. I, however, have long been captivated by Finney’s atavistic sensibility. 

James Daly in “A Stop at Willoughby.” CBS Television photo. Public Domain.

The late Rod Serling penned a favorite episode for the first season of The Twilight Zone called “A Stop at Willoughby.” In it, a harried, hounded, and henpecked New York ad exec looks out the window of his commuter train as he goes home in the evening and sees a little town called Willoughby—a town that’s never been on the train’s route before. 

In Willoughby, the sun always shines. A band plays in the park. Men and women in outdated garb stroll down streets traversed by horse-drawn rigs. Young boys roll hoops along board sidewalks. The ad man, portrayed by actor James Daly, longs for the slow-paced serenity of the little town. 

The story has a Serlingesque dark side in the harsh forces of modern life that impel the ad man to crave a life in Willoughby. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but my point is that the protagonist’s yearning to turn back the clock is pure Jack Finney. 

Maybe Jack was right. Maybe Galesburg harbors a stubborn, almost animate, resistance to change. Perhaps that’s why not everything has gone right for this grand old American city. 

But speaking as a native, I still love it—springtime, summer, or fall. 

Winter is another thing altogether.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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