Growing up in the Chicago area has absolutely shaped my perspective on the state of Illinois as a whole. Whether or not we were in Chicagoland, as it’s generally referred to, was never in question. Elmhurst sits on the eastern edge of DuPage County, with the Eisenhower Expressway just blocks away from my home offering easy access to and from the city. Until I was in junior high, the whole area had a single area code.
I’m old enough to remember when the civilized world ended at Wheaton. Aurora was somewhere beyond that, but getting to it involved driving past farms that were still actively operating. Now you can drive there down any of a number of streets and never not be surrounded on all sides by either housing or strip malls and chain restaurants.
The worldview resulted in the following bit my late buddy Todd and I used to engage in whenever the topic of “downstate Illinois” came up:
One: That’s south. That’s way south. That’s like…a millionth and Harlem.
The Other One: What’s that, Tinley Park?
I bring it up because of Logan Jaffe’s piece at Propublica about what parameters should define “Downstate.” There are various good ideas, including:
- The limit of Chicago area media’s broadcast signals
- The endpoints of the Metra commuter rail lines
- Where the neon signs on the bars switch from Cubs to Cardinals (Side note: On surface roads going north, the transition from Bears to Packers signs is an excellent early warning system that you’re approaching Wisconsin.)
Her story reminded me of an exchange I was part of shortly after starting school at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal. The college is less than two hours south of the Chicago city limits and easily accessible by I-55. But when I went there it was the first time I’d spent any substantive time south of Joliet.
I remarked as such when hanging out one night with others I’d just met on the floor of my dorm, saying something like “Well I haven’t spent this much time in southern Illinois.”
The eyes of others quickly turned on my in amusement. Many of the others there were either local or from areas even further west or south. One of the girls from closer to Peoria said something that forever changed my perspective and forced me to reevaluate the position of the state as a whole.
“Sweety, you’re barely in central Illinois.”
She was right, of course. Bloomington-Normal is still well north of a city like Decatur, which is more centrally-situated in the state. Objectively, you have to at least get on the other side of that city before you can consider yourself to be in the southern part of the state.
I was coming at it from my own point of view and with my own experiential baggage. There was no reason for me to explore anything further west than Naperville (nice town to visit), further north than Schaumburg (Woodfield Mall) or further south than Tinley Park (major outdoor concert venue) because Chicago was literally right there, dominating the attention of myself and my friends.
The definition of “downstate” is more than just a quirky conversational topic, something I became increasingly aware of the older I got. Cook and the “collar” counties (those directly adjacent to Cook) contain 65% of the state’s population but make up just 8% of the state’s total square mileage.
That distribution gives the Chicagoland population an outsized voice in state and national politics. It’s why Hillary Clinton could win the state in the last presidential election but only lead the votes in six counties outside the Cook+Collar area. It’s why there have been so many conflicts over the years between the City of Chicago with its population density-driven needs and lawmakers who want to allocate resources to those in the 97% of the rest of the state. That conflict most recently came to the forefront in a fight over school funding.
The Chicago area has changed a great deal over the last 40 years. “Chicagoland” can now reasonably be applied as far west as DeKalb because of the population spread westward and the growth of businesses to support that. It’s a fun topic to debate and share opinions on. There are real issues behind those definitions that determine how the people living throughout the state are supported by lawmakers in Springfield and the decisions they make.
Considering there appears to be no end in sight for that debate, I’ll go back to Jaffe’s original story and signal my approval of the “No longer receive Chicago broadcast media” definition in lieu of anything more concrete. That doesn’t mean downstate doesn’t matter, but the term continues to be used. It’s not derogatory, simply descriptive.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.