Beyond Kankakee – Midwest Main Streets

  • A text by Per L-B Nilsson
  • 1983-84

”State and 35th” in the south of Chicago was my operational base. Here I was going to live and work for three years. The skyline of Chicago was outlined against the horizon. I moved towards Maxwell Street, Halsted Street, State Street, The Loop, Michigan Avenue and Lincoln Avenue. It was a two -year long walk. Then I left ”The Windy City”. Beyond the city line the prairie spread. At the time, this was something entirely unknown to me. However, there was an undescriptive excitement over this apparently unlimited land. In a small field outside Peotone I first felt the smell of fresh corn, together with the photographer and professor David Plowden. I was convinced that I should work through Chicago and then onto the prairie, but it was not until I really stood there that the genuine feeling for the wide landscape hit me. My years in Chicago turned into an expedition, and in this project I developed my experiences of the city and its streets. All the time I was attracted towards streets and roads. As I changed, the street changed. An overpopulated State Street had to give room to abandoned ”Main Streets” and solitary main roads.

David Plowden, advised me to go ”south of Kankakee”, where the ”real” country begins –three hours by car south of Chicago. The triangle formed by the cities Kankakee, Champaign and Bloomington limited my travels. This land was the most beautiful I had ever seen, with a beauty so unlike the European landscape we’re used to see in postcards. It was the feeling of excitement that made me go back, week after week. The cities were spread like little isolated islands on the prairie. There was nothing constant about their looks. It was as if each and every building or telephone pole was there just as long as the practicality required.

A windy lowland, endlessly spreading, but as made to be loved. My way out there was lined with garages and other head-ache. From the day in September 1983, when I went along the Dan Ryan Express road and later Interstate 57, as on rail, all doubts were gone with the wind. Chatsworth along the US Route 24 become my second home. There was all I ever looked for. In the beginning, it was merely a question of collecting impressions rather than to fasten all I saw and experienced on film. In Chicago, I had photographed the antitheses of a cultural phenomenon. On one side the city core, the evidence of progress, on the other side Maxwell Street, where all who didn’t cope with competition found a place of refuge. I found ”my” America in the canyon between the heights. My photographs from the ”south of Kankakee” tell about places and people on the plains of Illinois, in a broader sense a piece of America, present and past. Here was nothing of the prestige or obtrusion of the big city. Nor were there any gothic cathedrals as barrier between master and land. At the moment the line of the horizon is broken and human elements take the scene, things start to get exciting. Roads, telephone poles, electricity wires and water towers tell of a populated land. Wheat silos rise like lamp posts. This is the first sign of a small town and the evidence of a fertile environment. They are all situated along the railway, though it’s years since the last train stopped. All these towns with their bars, billiard rooms, antique shops, gas stations, churches, railways and then McDonald’s and Kentucky Chicken. Freight trains keep thundering by accompanied by melancholy signals.

All is repeated with almost mathematical logic. White, grey and white-grey houses with closed shutters, drawn curtains and fine-meshed mosquito nets. It appears to be closed and uninhabited. At first sight it looks dull and banal, but only just to the point where it’s beginning to be interesting. There is something shabby and fatal about places like this, yet it is here people live and work. Architects and town-planners never found their way here. The visual disorder and the rich variation of building styles reflect the different and often contradictory needs of the inhabitants. It is a disorder that creates excitement and may be regarded as an expression of American liberty and independence. Buildings, electricity wires and wheat silos are there because they fulfill a need, have a practical function.

Someone said to me: ”You should have been here 30 years ago, then there was life, people walking up and down the ”Main Street”, gossiping on the corner of Main and East Walnut Street”. And then pointed out the shops that were. Shops after shops is being closed, unless some pensioner or other obstinately tries to keep it open. It may not be so everywhere, but the surrealistic fatefulness by which the Main Street fights for its existence is noticeable. With my camera, I keep steeling pieces of a changing era, by picturing ”Main Street” which nowadays only serves the car traffic. But it was built for it, contrary to European towns, which were planned during the Middle Ages to serve the pedestrians. I visited Chebanse, Clifton, Ashkum, Gilman, Crescent City, Watseka, Piper City, Forrest, Cheona, Saunemin, Thawille, Roberts, Sibley, Strawn, Anchor and Pontiac. It is in places like these you get in touch with real people. They are simple hard-working people. Their work ids often connected to farming. You’ll found them in shops, silos and out in the fields. It was also here that I should make new friends. First catching my attention was the environment, the streets and the buildings. Then the day come, when I sat down at the bar at ”The Candy Tap” in Chatsworth, equipped with camera, flash and tripod. After a Miller-Lite I released a flash. Nobody raised an eyebrow. They had all seen my camera and my tripod in the ”Main Street”. They rather fancied my interest. That I was a foreigner with an imperfect English worried none. I was told: ”We have always had good experience from Swedes here. They are honest people”. Otherwise, most people around Chatsworth are of German origin. For a few weeks I was a regular customer at ”The Candy Tap”. Everything should be documented, be it the Saturday dance. ”The Halloween party” or just the last beer before dinner on Friday afternoon. I also documented the school dance at ”The American Legion”, not to mention ”Walters”. That’s where the teenagers play billiards and all kind of video games when the home-work is finished; if they not, they just drive up and down ”Main Street” in an older friend’s car. I intensely caught the nightlife of a small American town. Could it be said, then, that the people here live for and off entertainment? Of course not. It was high time to go into the fields.

Then followed the morning service of the Lutheran church – there were lots of Lutherans here. Then followed, in order, the bakery, the butcher and the launderette. It was a Saturday evening. Around the table at ”The Farmers’ Pub” in Chatsworth sat the local municipal employee, the farmer, the used-car salesman, the policeman, the car-washer and a member of the local school board. On the table there was various kinds of beer: Budweiser, Miller-Lite, Strohs and Pabst. The used-car salesmen confided to me, that Pabst was ”shit”, but that he refused to drink ”Bud” since the strike. The dance at ”The American Legion” should be in an hour. This was the excuse for all of us to rest at this table, though it was the policeman who thought of going there. He was 22 years old and had taken his exam at the university in Champaign a month earlier. The local municipality employee suddenly said: ”You should know, Per, that people around here like what you are doing. I bet 95% of them would not object if you’d settle here. Well, should you be broke we’ll put you to work.” Then he turned to the used-car salesman and asked how long he had been in town. ”It’s ten years in next month. I come from Houston, Texas and I used to hitch hike around when I was young. Then in Chatsworth I ran out of money.” The local municipality employee and the member of the local school board laughed, seemingly endlessly. They still remembered that it was George at the gas station who put him to work. The used-car salesman continued: ”And still I cannot afford to leave”. No one believed he wished to do so, either!

The following months were expensive. The fuel tank emptied about as fast as the camera. Spending the night at the Midwest Motel in Forrest became a Must. So did breakfast with scrambled eggs and sausages. I got pictures of all kinds, varying and contradictory. ”Main Street”, shop- windows, beers, landscape, dances, laundries, billiard balls, tractor repairmen, smiths and school children. My flash pictures from ”Walters” give balance to the desolate atmosphere radiated by the ”Main Street” itself. The flash caught the moment, and the delayed time of exposure, also the following seconds. The teenagers’ enormous engagement in the play is therefore intensified. And in spite of the fact that they are flash pictures, they don’t seem to be. By the way of photographing these places and people I become more a participator than a viewer. I felt as if I stole pieces of their lives, and therefore I felt the responsibility to give some of them back.