Wed, Apr 18, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Visiting the town that inspired cartoon classic ‘The Simpsons’

Blue-collar spirit, slapstick cops and a Latino Bart show life imitating art in the snow-covered Oregon town made famous in Matt Groening’s TV animation

By Rory Carroll

The Guardian, SPRINGFIELD, Oregon

Snow recently coated Springfield, canceling school, so a boy nicknamed Bart and two friends spent the morning building a snowman on the corner of Fifth Street. They rolled the two main mounds so big that they could not hoist one onto the other. Bart had an idea: “They look like testicles. Let’s add a penis.”

Three hours of dedicated effort later, a three-meter phallus towered over the corner of Fifth Street, delighting its creators and infuriating an elderly neighbor who arrived in a motorized wheelchair.

“Disgusting! Indecent!” she cried, jabbing the sculpture with a pole until it crumpled. Bart was defiant. “We’ll build it back bigger and straighter.”

Welcome to Springfield. Not the cartoon version, where Bart Simpson wreaks mayhem in a fictional town, but the real place, population 59,000, which originally inspired the television series and now, in some startling ways, reflects it.

It has a Latino Bart, a prank-loving police force, Indian convenience stores, a blue-collar underdog spirit, rumors of mutant amphibians, dingy taverns, cheap beer and doughnuts; lots of doughnuts.

And now, fame. Last week, Matt Groening, the cartoon’s creator, told the Smithsonian magazine that the animated town was inspired by one near his childhood home of Portland, Oregon.

“Springfield was named after Springfield, Oregon. Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the US. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought: ‘This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.’ And they do,” he said.

They did. Now Springfields in Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts and elsewhere that had claimed The Simpsons for themselves are mourning their loss and Oregon is mulling its gain. An ambivalent trophy. The longest-running US sitcom is a pop cultural phenomenon that has earned multiple awards and immortalized its characters — but it is also a merciless parody of family and societal dysfunction.

The rainy strip of malls and single-story homes along Interstate 5 in the southern Willamette valley lacks the sunshine and the nuclear plant of the fictional version. A gritty town battered by the decline of its lumber industry, it is mocked as “hicksville” by its rival, snootier neighbor, the university city Eugene, which Groening renamed Shelbyville.

The animator drew on his experiences growing up in the 1970s, but today’s Springfield has a wackiness and poignancy to rival its cartoon equivalent.

Edgar Aguilar — Bart to staff and classmates at Springfield high school — is the 16-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who work in a fast-food restaurant, part of a fast-growing Latino population. It was his idea to build the snowman last month and also his idea to amend the plan.

“Well, we couldn’t lift the balls. And they looked like a pair of genitals. We improvised,” he said.

He tried in vain to protect it from his affronted neighbor — an encounter filmed on a phone and uploaded to Facebook.

“She demolished the whole shaft,” he said.

Edgar’s father laughed and his mother groaned at the episode, much as Homer and Marge Simpson might have.

“Homer is always letting Bart off the hook,” said Edgar, who usually wears his black hair in a spike.

In another echo of the show, Edgar lags in schoolwork but his sister thrives.

“It’s across the board. The boys struggle and the girls — oh my, whoosh, way ahead,” said Carmen Gelman, the principal, a charismatic Latina with a nose stud who overcame youthful poverty, abuse and delinquency to become a respected educator.

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