The Maytag plant in Galesburg, Illinois, closed three years ago. Three thousand people worked there.
Photo: Tfooq

Riding Across Illinois in Mid-Summer — It is high summer on the once-prairie. The wheat has been harvested. The soybeans look pretty good at 50 miles per hour, and the ears of corn are beginning to fill out.

Today, I am riding on Amtrak from Macomb (population 20,000 or so) to Chicago (incredibly large) to testify to a legislative committee about broadband policy. (No, Chicago is not the state capital. Springfield is.) But, right now, I am watching the landscape of farms and fields, the small towns and cities stretching from Western Illinois near the Mississippi River to downtown Chicago.

I can’t help but think of Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans as we travel across the varied landscape of a state that so many people think is flat and boring. The song’s lyrics, at some level, are shaping my perceptions of the passing scenery, which seems to send messages of hope and hopelessness.

Railroads tend to run through the nation’s back yards, offering a different perspective on towns and cities you may have driven through before. There is no doubt that the Illinois landscape is beautiful on this fine day, but my eye for rural community development cannot miss some distressing sights.

So few people live on this beautiful land. Large-scale, highly mechanized agriculture that is oil dependent and hard on the eons-old soil and watersheds has caused people to leave the countryside and rural towns. Then, there’s the stark contrast between many of the smaller rural towns and the inner ring around downtown Chicago, compared with the suburbs and the core business district. The closer you get to Chicago, the better the suburban towns look.

As one of my friends says, “Rural Illinois needs a new coat of paint.” So do a lot of our inner-city neighborhoods. Paint would help, but the problems are far deeper.

Sunset in McLean County, Illinois.
Photo: Tfooq

Increasingly, there are two backyards in America. One set of backyards includes the so-called urban ghettos of the 1960s and many rural areas, including small towns that don’t seem to be benefiting from this time of relatively high prices for agricultural commodities. The other set of backyards includes suburbs and vital business districts such as Chicago. The contrasts between these two sets of backyards are stark.

Rural slum seems a cruel and pejorative term to describe a rural town on this bucolic day. After all, romantic images of small-town America still linger deep in our cultural memories. But many of our rural towns are deteriorating, suffering from long-term effects of population loss, limited employment opportunities, growing poverty, and an aging population. Many young people go to the suburbs and downtowns where money, people, and opportunities reside.

As the rails run into the fringes of Chicagoland, the outer suburbs emerge quickly. With fresh memories of poor towns littered with junk cars and sagging buildings, the sudden appearance of huge houses on large lots is jarring. Fields of crops and pasture turn to streets, yards, homes, and commercial areas. People chase little balls across closely cropped grass where crops once grew. My mind plays with a pun about golf and gulf, the distance from tee to hole, the distance from the vital center city to the urban and rural slums, not to mention the exclusive golf-centered club of suburban wealth. If the passenger car window were open, I think I could almost smell the sweet odor of urban and suburban success, in short, money. This abstract smell is quite different from the pungent, “fresh country air” of manure.

The quick take of this essay is one word: inequality. I have lived and worked in and studied rural areas for much of my adult life. Although I know the long history of rural and urban inequities all too well, entering the vibrant suburbs and business district of Chicago is still something of a shock when compared with my home in Western Illinois, which is, from time to time, dubbed “Forgotonia.”

A T-Rex mailbox in Woodford County, Illinois.
Photo: lindenbaum

Western Illinois is struggling. The loss of 3,000 jobs in Galesburg with the closure of the Maytag plant three years ago still smarts. Earlier this year, Methode Electronics announced the closing of two plants in Carthage and Golden, a loss of 700 jobs across western Illinois and southeastern Iowa. So much for the 500 or so jobs created when the new Pella Window plant opened in Macomb in 2006.

The poverty rate in McDonough County, home of Western Illinois University in Macomb, is near 20 percent, up from about 12 percent in 1997. The county’s current 20-percent rate compares with about 12 percent of the population in poverty nationwide and across the state. If it weren’t for the university, who knows how bad it would be? The gulf across social classes is not only widening across areas, it is widening within communities.

What I’ve seen on my ride across Illinois leaves me bittersweet, a feeling that often accompanies my line of work. Part of my job today is to advocate for more equity in broadband access in the state’s rural areas. This is the new highway, and its importance is vital in an area served mostly by two-lane highways in a four-lane highway world. Broadband will not bring salvation to our region, but increased service will give us more tools and better access to information within our communities and around the world.

As I return home in the falling darkness, I think about the good things that are happening in rural communities across the state: their efforts to build broadband networks that serve local and global needs; the local foods movement; alternative agriculture and energy development; revitalizing housing and downtowns; and just doing the everyday thing of helping neighbors. This is a necessary exercise in maintaining hope.

It turns out that my day has gone pretty well. Things out there aren’t all hopeless. It isn’t just the darkness that masks the rural slums that leads me to this conclusion. It’s the renewed realization that the lives of the people in these small towns and rural do matter; they are doing the best they can with what they have in their own back yards. Life would be better, however, if they weren’t born into an unequal society that is far beyond their control.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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