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.

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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.

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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.