Don’t go back to Rock…er…ford?

Most Chicago readers have never visited Rockford Illinois – although many say they have. “Yeah, that’s the place with the Clock Tower.” Yes. It has a clock tower. Yes, you drove by the clock tower while you drove by Rockford, but you did not visit Rockford. And I’ll be honest, three’s not much reason to do so.

Rockford has a long and storied history of depression. Starting in the 1980s when unemployment hit 22% it started getting ranked as the worst city to live in the nation. Over the last 35 years it has stayed on many of those lists bouncing up or down, jockeying for position with Flint, Detroit, and Baltimore. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the current unemployment rate is 6.9% – 25% higher than the national average. Wages are on average 10% lower.

In the early part of the 20th century, however, Rockford was a thriving community. For many years, it was the second largest city in Illinois and supported many companies in aerospace, hardware, and machined metals. Amerock, Ingersoll, Sundstrand, Barber Colman, and Woodward Governor were the bedrocks of this manufacturing community, and the downtown bustled with shops, restaurant, theaters, churches and lots and lots of people! In 1940s and 1950s it was a picturesque American town.

12028630_977940288914586_5134517047481550556_o
Downtown Rockford bustling in 1944

I can only guess, but it may have been that appeal that lead the mid-century civic leaders to make the mistakes they did. As automobile transportation and trucking logistics began to shape the American suburbs, Rockford’s leaders elected to eschew a highway that went through town in favor of one that went around town. Their thinking was likely that the eminent-domain acquisition and demolition of property followed by the scarring construction would disrupt Rockford’s quaint urban appeal. And they were right.

But what they didn’t realize was that the new highway built along the outskirts of town would be a powerful draw and many of those businesses would move toward the outskirts taking with them all those people. Mega in-door shopping malls were built, businesses moved to improve access to transportation, and people simply lost their reasons to be downtown. It began to die. The department stores and restaurants began to suffer.

Meanwhile, there was another powerful demographic shift at work. The manufacturing industry that provided the jobs for Rockford’s working class was moving to Mexico and China where labor was cheaper. One by one the major corporations closed their manufacturing centers. Today, only Woodward Governor is still a presence.

The image in the upper right corner of this blog is some of what is left of the Barber Colman plant. I think it looks like a scene from Fallout 4.

This is when Rockford’s civic leaders made their second grand mistake. Thinking they were taking a page from a European playbook, and hoping to return vitality to the downtown area, they – get this – paved over the streets and created a “walking mall” (what the what what?). The unanticipated consequence of no cars was no people. Of the 50 or so business that were there, all but two closed. The “pedestrian mall”, as they called it, became a no-pedestrian wasteland. The theaters and churches hung on a little longer but eventually they went away too.

They church buildings are still there and you can buy them. My childhood church which is referenced in a previous post recently sold for about $500K.

Rather than admit defeat, the City leaders defiantly erected a huge (I mean 30 ton!) contemporary sculpture called “The Symbol” by Alexander Liberman that the citizens hated.

Symbol_Rockford__IL
Downtown Rockford Abandoned in 1984

There was no precedent for modern art appreciation in Rockford. With their hubris, the city leaders were shoving their misinterpreted definition of modernity down the citizens’ throats. No matter how many times they barked with unconvincing bravado that “this sculpture  represents the intersection of culture and manufacturing blah blah something else blah” the people of Rockford still saw no reason to call it anything other than the “The Monstrosity.”

Soon after this the Rockford Public School Board (more civic leaders) was caught in a funding scandal and the ensuing lawsuits decimated the boards coffers ensuring that Rockford’s children would receive second rate educations for generations to come. Most recently Rockford built a $8MM bridge from one park that no one goes to to another park that no one goes to. One has to wonder, when will it end?

Meanwhile many of the valuable downtown buildings that were abandoned when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s still sit in shambles. These beautiful buildings deserve to be developed and could be great projects for community investors. A truly revitalized downtown could bring business, people, artists, civic pride, and best of all tax dollars. Unfortunately the continuing weak civic leadership has only been able to:

Tacitly encourage a pocket of retail development at State Street and the river. This effort and the city’s commitment to it ebbs and flows with seeming revitalization some years and decay in others.

Encourage social service organizations to occupy the buildings downtown bolstered by state, city, and federal grants. The problem with this is although social services are important to every community, they do not build a neighborhood and their presence tends to repel the they crowds that the residential, retail and restaurants developers are trying to attract.

But with bold leadership, downtown Rockford could be the jewel in Northern Illinois’ crown. It requires municipal expenditures, but not much relative to what will ultimately be recouped by the entrance of sustainable tax payers.

First. Rockford needs to incent the social service organizations to move their operations out of the city hub. The focus needs to be retail, restaurants, and for-profit businesses and the end-goal needs to be up-market residential.

Second. Offer developers financing or TIF incentives to renovate whatever they can make a case for. Like many of the towns in which I have lived, this type of development starts with funky residential lofts and coffee shops. Some of this is already happening. With cultivation they will be followed by boutiques and apartment renovators. Then mid-sized and and start-up white collar offices. And finally Those huge old decrepit houses on Main street will become attractive renovation opportunities.

Third. Rockford needs great egress and ingress into the downtown area. There needs to be wide roads with properly timed traffic lights – fast streets that allow people who live there to get to work fast and allow people who want to visit a way to get there without hassle. Any remnant of that damned mall has to go. On a positive note, all the abandoned lots and demolished buildings means there is plenty of parking, so there’s that!

This strategy has proven successful in many cities throughout the US including Chicago and Omaha. In Chicago’s Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood it happened organically. Thirty years ago you couldn’t safely walk there and now people are investing millions of dollars in crumbling old mansions because the neighborhood housing market can support it. In Omaha, it happened intentionally when the city made investment attractive around a couple funky blocks called the Old Market and rejuvenated much of downtown.

For years Rockford’s leaders have blamed their problems on the migration of machine tool industry to other countries. But the truth is, these same leaders have done more damage with their terrible decisions – trying to protect something that was already dead – than any damage caused by the march of progress. The more Rockford unwinds these mistakes and embraces the best practices of similar communities, the better the chance of a real resurgence.

Thanks to my friends at Rockford Rocked inspiring for this post. You can visit them on Facebook. Antique photos from Bob Anderson.

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “Don’t go back to Rock…er…ford?

    • I thought this was well written and while I can’t confirm or argue any of the specifics as a Rockford from 1968=1986 I can say that the overall general theme is very close to my experience and observation. ROCKFORD WAS A VERY SPE IAL TOWN LIKE NONE OTHER and for whatever the reasons it was completely stripped of all or any of its splendor the immense force from the whirlwind behind all the good leaving was matched only by the same that must have been felt by the arrival of the same in years past. I can’t help but imagine there is no hope with the ridiculous property tax leaving the most upside down houses in all America which I can’t help believe is nothing less than thievery and the result of a larger wholesale fleecing of America”s inheritance. Matthew Robert L

      Like

  1. The overall theme of this article is mostly accurate, but some time spent fact checking would have been helpful in making it factual and thus more relevant.

    Like

    • I completely agree. I don’t have a lot of time, any staff, or a budget. I do my best from memory with Google as my back-up. I welcome you to point out errors, exaggerations, and misinterpretations as you encounter them. I may go back and edit, or they may be fodder for a latter post.

      Like

  2. Mr. Conklin has hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head with this observation. One would be hard put to argue any of the points brought up in this article, and the suggestions he offers would be a pretty darn good place to start for Rockford’s “Civic Leaders” to give some serious consideration to. After all just about anything would be an improvement over the decades of corruption and bad decisions that plagued Rockford and the whole darn state for that matter. I left Rockford in the late 60s after returning from Vietnam and headed to Southern California via Detroit, and I wouldn’t leave here for anything. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a special feeling and a very real loyalty to Rockford, and I would really, really like to see it develop into something more than the poster child for urban blight. Todd Houston over at Rockford Rocked on Facebook has been bringing up a lot of how Rockford used to be and some of the history behind its development especially in the entertainment arena. From that website you can tell that although Rockford is in a state of decay and confusion the people that live there are tough and creative, and at least some are trying to make Rockford work………………so to speak.

    Like

  3. Please, look at what’s happening in Rockford today. Amerock building is renovated and leased. Downtown is becoming a great place to eat, new sports facilities, and very nice apartments to lease. New roads are being built. The Symbol was moved years ago to the bike path, and that mall was opened to traffic with some great shops, offices, restaurants. I wish people would come and look before posting old inaccurate information. My family has been here since the mid 1800s. We are proud of our town and its first class schools. Please take the time to look up your old schools academic record. Take care and Merry Christmas, Curt.

    Like

  4. Rockford simply needs more GOOD jobs. The loss of the industrial base has been filled in with urban sprawl and minimum wage fast food and retail jobs. Rockford has done an excellent job of courting this consumer industry and done very little to bring higher paying job opportunities to town. The huge machine tool industry will never come back, however, there are countless start up technology businesses looking for low overhead work space. With Rockford’s air hub and interstate connection it is ideally suited to turn it’s empty manufacturing spaces in to small and medium sized technology oriented business locations. Nothing will ever improve until the median income increases.

    Like

  5. Curt, thank you for the taking the time and having the passion to encourage resuscitation into this city that seems to be wasted. I’m encouraged by Rick’s comment as many of my memories of Rockford instead mirror Curt’s words. Rick, thanks for pointing out the progress and certainly I hope that it continues. There are beautiful buildings that would serve well as very trendy residences and certainly breathe life into what seems to be a relic of a city.

    Like

  6. Hello,
    I’d like to respond to a number of items within your post. There are a number of inconsistencies, mis-statements, half-truths, and blatant lies within this piece. To be frank, your content trends towards farce.

    1: “Unemployment there currently runs at 12% – more than twice the national average.” This is incorrect. Rockford’s current unemployment rate is 6.8%, according to IDES: http://www.ides.illinois.gov/LMI/Local%20Area%20Unemployment%20Statistics%20LAUS/PressRelease/Local/Rockford_Oct.pdf

    2: “One by one the major corporations closed their manufacturing centers. Today, only Woodward Governor is still a presence.” This is not true. Aerospace companies (BE Aerospace, United Technologies, and more), Chemical manufacturers, Healthcare industries, Industrial machine manufacturing…the list goes on.

    3: “The image in the upper right corner of this blog is what is left of the Barber Colman plant.” This is also not true. There are several buildings on the premises: Still standing, far more substantial than the check-in building you illustrate, and full of potential. In fact, the City has targeted this as a key site for mixed-use development. Source:

    4: The concept of downtown pedestrian malls is neither unique nor exclusive to Rockford. Kalamazoo, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Sacramento, and many other mid to large-sized cities tried pedestrian malls. Some succeeded, many failed. But to suggest that Rockford’s City leaders were hubristic, defiant persons is just not true. They were doing what countless other municipalities were trying to do: Deal with the auto-oriented, high-cost low-return development patterns that cities are still dealing with today.

    If you want to use your digital self to sling mud on a City and impose the worst kind of nostalgia on your readers, that’s your choice. But I suspect you’re different than that. You actually give ‘suggestions’ as to how Rockford can improve. Before you offer up recommendations, source your content. And take the time to actually visit Rockford. It’s not 2005 anymore.

    Like

  7. Hello,
    I’d like to respond to a number of items within your post. There are a number of inconsistencies, mis-statements, half-truths, and blatant lies within this piece. To be frank, your content trends towards farce.

    1: “Unemployment there currently runs at 12% – more than twice the national average.” This is incorrect. Rockford’s current unemployment rate is 6.8%, according to IDES: http://www.ides.illinois.gov/LMI/Local%20Area%20Unemployment%20Statistics%20LAUS/PressRelease/Local/Rockford_Oct.pdf

    2: “One by one the major corporations closed their manufacturing centers. Today, only Woodward Governor is still a presence.” This is not true. Aerospace companies (BE Aerospace, United Technologies, and more), Chemical manufacturers, Healthcare industries, Industrial machine manufacturing…the list goes on.

    3: “The image in the upper right corner of this blog is what is left of the Barber Colman plant.” This is also not true. There are several buildings on the premises: Still standing, far more substantial than the check-in building you illustrate, and full of potential. In fact, the City has targeted this as a key site for mixed-use development. Source: http://www.rockfordil.gov/media/6882/Survey%20final%20report%20text.pdf

    4: The concept of downtown pedestrian malls is neither unique nor exclusive to Rockford. Kalamazoo, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Sacramento, and many other mid to large-sized cities tried pedestrian malls. Some succeeded, many failed. But to suggest that Rockford’s City leaders were hubristic, defiant persons is just not true. They were doing what countless other municipalities were trying to do: Deal with the auto-oriented, high-cost low-return development patterns that cities are still dealing with today.

    If you want to use your digital self to sling mud on a City and impose the worst kind of nostalgia on your readers, that’s your choice. But I suspect you’re different than that. You actually give ‘suggestions’ as to how Rockford can improve. Before you offer up recommendations, source your content. And take the time to actually visit Rockford. It’s not 2005 anymore.

    Like

    • Michael, you are right about unemployment rate. My source was from 2014 and things have improved. I have reworded that sentence to reflect US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ numbers. Thanks for the catch.

      Like

  8. I am kind of thrilled to have brought out so many passionate opinions both supporting and flaming my post. At nearly nearly 1300 words, it was way longer than it should have been, but there may be 5000 words written in response which is amazing.

    I did want to respond to some of the comments, share a little of my background, and offer a little perspective.

    First, this is not a negative post. Yes it retells some sad stories from Rockford’s past, and it does so in colorful language, but that ‘s fair game! Furthermore, my intended audience was my Chicago peers who haven’t heard these stories. If you read the whole thing you will see that main content is a plan for making Rockford better, and that requires historical context.

    Second, Most readers recognized that I didn’t say contemporary Rockford was a bad place, I didn’t take any pot shots, and I didn’t poke fun. Still, some readers got very defensive probably because they didn’t read all the way through. Again, not a negative story.

    Third, there were two factual errors. I appreciated people pointing them out, thanked them, and made corrections.

    Fourth, I am writing about Rockford from a distance and that is fair criticism. It is likely that little things that I don’t see are getting better. But the big things like schools, a vacant and crumbling downtown and north side, and the loss of a unique character are very clear from where I sit. And my time spent in similar cities offers has shown me solutions that I would not have learned had I spent my whole life in Rockford.

    Finally, It probably doesn’t need to be said, but the “civic leaders” I so often reference are my people. My grandfather was the Superintendent of schools in the 50s (Paul S Conklin School?) and my uncle was the President of the School Board in the 80s. I adore both of these men, and maybe that is why I put so much energy into analyzing mistakes they were likely party to.

    So, you don’t have to like my post, but I will argue that ideas like those I posit are good for your city. You can accept them or come up with your own but if you believe that Rockford is great city or that simply more of the same will make it one, your head is buried in the sand.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s