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National Editorial & Columnists

A quick tutorial on just what ‘downstate Illinois’ means

It’s a geopolitical, not a directional, term here in Illinois

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

A TV reporter got a bit snippy with an Illinois gubernatorial candidate the other day and informed her that Rock Island and Moline are not in “downstate” Illinois.

I lived in Rock Island for almost a decade, and I considered myself a downstater. In fact, most of the folks I knew there did. But times change, so I called up longtime Quad-City journalist John Beydler and asked him.

“Of course, the Quad Cities is downstate,” he said with a sigh.

Downstate is a geopolitical term, Charles Wheeler III, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, added.

“Traditionally, downstate Illinois is the 96 counties in Illinois that aren’t Cook County or one of the counties touching Cook. That means that Rockford is just as much downstate as Carbondale,” he said.

No argument here.

I grew up on a hog farm near Galesburg. We were 199 miles from Chicago and 288 miles from Carbondale. But we always referred to ourselves as “downstaters.”

It’s a sociological term more than a geographic one.

“Downstate is what geographers refer to as a ‘vernacular region.’ There isn’t anything negative about the term. It simply refers to the area of Illinois that isn’t as closely tied to Chicago as those in the immediate metropolitan area. So, places like Quincy, Galesburg, Peoria, Carbondale, Rockford and the Quad Cities are all considered part of downstate Illinois,” said Dr. Norman Moline, who taught culture and geography at Augustana College in Rock Island for 45 years.

Illinois is hardly unique in these geopolitical designations that don’t always make sense by just looking at map. For example, San Francisco is considered “northern California” even though it is closer to Mexico than to the Oregon border.

In Maine, the area of the state known as “downeast” is north of where most Mainers live. Go figure.

I chatted with Wally Haas, editorial page editor of the Rockford Register Star, and asked him about this “downstate” designation for Illinois’ most northern major city.

“Just about everyone in Rockford knows that when the term ‘downstate’ is used, it includes Rockford, even though we are about as far north as you can get in Illinois. You’ll hear some folks who don’t like the term, but everyone knows it includes us.”

Rich Morthland, a communications professor at Black Hawk College in Moline and a former state legislator, said, “Of course the Quad Cities is in downstate Illinois. People in the area know that. When I was in Springfield, I was a member of the Downstate Caucus.”

Morthland, by the way, is the running mate of Jeanne Ives, the candidate who was “corrected.”

Peoria is in the north central part of Illinois. But for decades, the Peoria Journal-Star’s front page proclaimed it “Downstate Illinois’ largest newspaper.”

So, am I picking on this young KWQC reporter who “corrected” a candidate about what is or isn’t “downstate”?

No. But it is important for all of us to remember that meanings of words can be nuanced. And sometimes their definition is not quite what one might think.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.

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