An Elegy for Rockford, IL.

(cross-posted on DailyKos)

I grew up in Rockford, Ill. A smallish city, 160k in the city limits as of the last census, about 300k in the “metro area.” I was lucky enough to get out of there — went to public high school, a son of thoroughly middle-class parents who sacrificed a lot to pay for my education, probably more than I’ll ever know, for which I’m eternally grateful. Rockford is a great place, or has been. About an hour from downtown Chicago, Rockford is the real Midwest, full of kind people with Midwestern accents, the children of Swedish, Norwegian, and German immigrants, long accustomed to hard work with little credit.
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I grew up in Rockford, Ill. A smallish city, 160k in the city limits as of the last census, about 300k in the “metro area.” I was lucky enough to get out of there — went to public high school, a son of thoroughly middle-class parents who sacrificed a lot to pay for my education, probably more than I’ll ever know, for which I’m eternally grateful. Rockford is a great place, or has been. About an hour from downtown Chicago, Rockford is the real Midwest, full of kind people with Midwestern accents, the children of Swedish, Norwegian, and German immigrants, long accustomed to hard work with little credit.

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Rockford, grew up on the relatively prosperous northeast side, but worked in high school at the town paper in the heart of downtown. I’d take my girlfriends in high school down to the quai off Market St. to sit and watch the lights glimmering on the Jefferson St. bridge — a bit of transcendent wonder in an otherwise thoroughly middle America kind of place, where churches are rampant and “morality” means something. I was raised Baptist here and attended a Lutheran church before losing religion for good. My immediate family remains evangelical, and are not bad people merely by that fact. Deeply-held Christianity is like anything else — it can be cruel and it can be kind. My mother believes that homosexuality is a mortal sin, but would welcome anyone in need into her home. Faith is never simple.

Rockford is a strange sort of town. About ten miles out is a Chrysler plant, where my uncle worked for about 35 years before retiring with a pension. His wife — my aunt — and he both have cancer, and receive their care through the company’s health benefits. Were it not for his long years on the line, he wouldn’t have care right now when he most needs it. My father has worked on the managerial side of manufacturing his whole life — he currently works for a family-owned business in Elgin, Ill., a distant suburb of Chicago, and a 50-or-so minute commute from Rockford. He had a kidney stone last summer, was between jobs, couldn’t afford COBRA, and paid about $5k out of pocket to get treatment for a simple procedure.

Rockford used to be prosperous. A long time ago, we manufactured screws and fasteners — the Sundstrand plant supplied NASA. The Swedish immigrants developed one of the nation’s best and most prosperous furniture industries. When America made goods, Rockford did well. The West side of Rockford used to boom, full of churning factories employing earnest workers paid well for their labor. When I was born in 1985, Rockford was a thriving community, a middle class haven, where hard workers could earn a solid wage with good benefits. Parents needn’t worry then — a strong work ethic and a high school diploma was enough to ensure the next generation’s prosperity. As American labor became superfluous and too expensive, Rockford suffered. The plants closed, the jobs went elsewhere, and the Walmarts and box retailers took over State St. to the east, offering the spoils of the consumer economy to those fortunate enough to still have well-paying jobs.

Downtown stagnated. Shops closed. The West side became a haven for crime and drug-dealing as desperation set in. The downtown is beautiful and desolate. Rockford sits on the Rock River (hence its name) and is plsnning on inviting a waterfront casino and building a riverwalk to staunch the bleeding, but no one believes that that will save this city. Once a year, we host a music festival — On the Waterfront — which draws large crowds from the greater Illinois area, and momentarily revives an otherwise moribund series of 1890s buildings, where farmers once bartered for seed. Rockford is a quintessential Midwest manufacturing town that bears some responsibility for not adapting to the times, but accepts the fate of neglect by those in power, whose agenda did not include skills training or investment in flagging communities. The well-paid Rockfordians earn their wages in the Chicago suburbs; the bright graduates of Rockford’s public schools move on to the University of Illinois — if they can afford it — and quickly move into the Chicago sphere of influence, finding what jobs they can in marketing, sales, consulting, et al. No one who can avoid staying in Rockford does, myself included.

Meanwhile, Rockford suffers. My high school friends find themselves working low-paying jobs in town, unable to leave and unable to stay, lacking health care or a sustainable future. My first real girlfriend works as a special ed teacher in a horrendously underfunded school district, where she can only pray for tenure and hope that the beleaguered state budget will find room to keep her in work. Winnebago County, of which Rockford is the seat, has the highest unemployment rate in the state: http://lmi.ides.state.il.us/… (county maps on the top right, pdf.) 12% unemployment in Winnebago county.

Rockford is not yet Muskegon, and I dare not steal Muskegon Critic’s thunder. I’ve read his diaries and sympathized, because our communities have a lot in common, but things in Rockford aren’t that bad yet, but they’re headed there. I recently became aware of a Wall Street Journal series documenting Rockford’s pain, and I share it not because Rockford is unique, but because it’s becoming all too typical — a formerly prosperous community left to fend for itself. http://online.wsj.com/…

These are real hardworking people. Midwesterners are stoic, they don’t complain about long hours, and they work as hard as they can. I only hope that the president keeps such communities in mind; they are the repositories and graveyards of the American dream.

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~ by Benji on 6 February 2009.

3 Responses to “An Elegy for Rockford, IL.”

  1. yo what up ben(–annmary)

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    • Howdy! This is my first comment here so I just weantd to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading through your blog posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same subjects? Thanks a ton!

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      • Thank you! I’m kind of all over the place (as you might have noticed haha) in terms of what blogs I read, but the blogroll I have listed includes most of the sites I read most often. If you come across anything you find really awesome, please share! Who has the time, but I’m always looking for more good stuff to read. I would definitely recommend petchary.wordpress.com — she’s a friend of mine who blogs about Jamaica. I know very little about Jamaica, but she’s a brilliant writer and a really awesome person.

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