Ralph Laughery’s eyes light up when he remembers his neighborhood the way it used to be. “Everybody knew everybody,” he says. “It was an extremely friendly place.” After he was born, in 1932, his parents brought him home from the hospital to the house at 800 N. Seventh St., at the corner of Seventh and Enos. There he lived for the next 67 years, until he moved into an apartment in 2000. Every workday for 48 years he walked to his job as a medical technologist at St. John’s Hospital. “Everybody lived close to everything,” he recalls. He walked to grade school at McClernand and later walked to high school at Lanphier, where he graduated in 1951. He could walk downtown in 10 minutes.
When planners talk about the kinds of neighborhoods they want in the future, they describe the neighborhood his was in the past. In cities across the nation, the goal for the future is to blend housing, offices, stores, and parks into compact neighborhoods that foster a sense of community and reduce the need for driving. Springfield did that once. Could it be done again?
Among the best features of the old neighborhoods were the small commercial establishments — stores, taverns, restaurants — that not only provided services and supplies within walking distance but also provided destinations with personality. When Ralph Laughery was a child in the 1930s, directly behind his house was the Enos Candy Kitchen Confectionary, 709 E. Enos Ave. There proprietor Charlie Poulos sold candy, ice cream, sodas, and barbecue and lived above the store. “Sometimes after he’d just made ice cream Charlie would come up to the house with a sample. He made the most delicious orange-and-pineapple ice cream you ever tasted.”
There were five grocery stores within a few blocks of Laughery’s house. One of them, Reinhart’s Grocery, was at 713 E. Enos Ave., just behind the candy store. Across the street from that was Andrew’s Tavern. “Dad ran it more like a church than a tavern,” recalls Jack Andrew, the former city council member, whose father bought the tavern in 1937. “There was no swearing, no fighting, and no big gambling. You could get a shot and a beer for 15 cents and a bowl of chili for 15 cents.” Jack took over from his father in 1960 and ran the tavern until he sold it in 1978. “It was the last tavern in town to have barstools. You put your foot on the rail and drank standing up.” It’s still in business as Suzie Q’s.
In the old days the taverns and stores were supported by foot traffic, especially from area factories. The International Shoe Co. factory was at 10th and Enos, and the Farris Furnace Co., which made coal furnaces, was at 920 E. Enos Ave., next to the 11th Street tracks. The factories closed and then cars changed everything. “After the war there were more automobiles,” explains Laughery. “The town started spreading out. The old people moved away.”
“That was democracy in action, when the little people had stores,” Andrew says. “The economy and the conglomerates have forced the little people out.” Sociability and a sense of community were lost in the shuffle. Neighbors knew each other when the little people had stores.
You can still find tucked within Springfield’s neighborhoods some of the old brick commercial buildings that used to be mom-and-pop groceries or corner stores. They’re often empty or used for storage, built too well to die completely. Now that big stores have given way to big-box stores, would it be possible for Mom and Pop to come back and make a living off the backlash? Could government, banks, or nonprofits lend a hand to someone starting a store that will help revitalize a neighborhood? Can Internet sales supplement the income of a book shop or antique store enough to make a neighborhood location viable?
In Springfield’s old neighborhoods, there is still plenty of foot traffic. The very young and very old don’t drive, and many in the middle can’t afford cars. Others of us live in old neighborhoods because of their walkability. We all just wish there were more places to walk to.