Guest Column: Believe it: River District set to launch

Editor’s note: This is a reprint from the Oct. 1, 1997, edition of The Rock River Times.

“I just moved back to Rockford,” I told the clerk at the gas station off the tollway.

“Where ya movin’ back from?” she asked.


“Chicago?” she pondered. “Did you lose your job, or are you just crazy?”

“Neither, I quit a great job and left a great neighborhood because Rockford is becoming an awesome place to live.”

At that, I realized that she did not take me seriously, so I let it go without further explanation.

But it’s true. I came back to Rockford in May, after 10 years away at college, law school, then working in Chicago, because I share the belief and vision that Rockford’s time is now. I want to be a part of the renaissance: the revitalization of our city’s center, the heart and soul of this community, the River District.

So many of us are tired of blaming other people or making excuses for the fact that we are a “bottom 10” city. We are tired of waiting for some other person or group to solve our problems. We are tired of watching so many mistakes and missed opportunities by the people with the power and money.

We are ready to embrace the challenge, engage the opportunity, and achieve the vision of greatness that our community is meant to be. Don’t laugh—believe it! Rockford’s “real greatness” will happen!

The challenge

At the Sept. 9 tongue-lashing of now-outgoing Community Development Director Diane Voneida, I heard one frustrated west-side resident sum up the issue in one short question: “Why is all the development going on at the east side of State Street and none on the west?”

To put it mildly, Rockford has not always been the most progressive city. So when plans for I-90 were being drawn up decades ago, our parochial city fathers, acting in what they thought was the community’s best interest, tried to “keep out” the dangers and disruptions that would follow with the influx of foreigners into the area, by putting the interstate in the hinterlands to the east, safely away from the city’s center.

Unfortunately, their decision, probably more than any other single decision, resulted in all the growth to the east, and the gutting of our city’s core. Without main arteries bringing life to the central area, our fate was sealed. Slowly at first, more rapidly later, the life was sucked out of the city’s center and moved toward the east.

Other decisions have been almost as devastating. We gave up Northern Illinois University to DeKalb. CherryVale and Machesney Park malls were lost to the outlying villages. We fought to keep out crosstown roads. We let Chrysler go to Belvidere. We put up office buildings and warehouses, instead of condominiums and apartments on prime real estate on the waterfront. And one final dose of cholesterol to clog the arteries: we put up the downtown mall over the main roads in the downtown, without adequate parking or access to serve the area. The devastation has almost been complete.

The opportunity

So why am I so glad to be back in Rockford? Because the changing dynamics and demographics of all of the growth from Chicago westward along I-90, and the saturation of building along the State Street and Riverside corridors in Rockford offers a unique chance. A window has opened up, a window facing inward, back to the city’s core. It’s a message that can be heard echoing through the few remaining vacant downtown storefronts, and defeated hometown businesses. Our salvation lies where our city fathers first landed—the Rock River.

Open your eyes. Rockford was born on the Rock River for a reason. From my 12th floor office window at the Talcott Building downtown, I see our beautiful city, our beautiful river, and I see the opportunity. While we blundered opportunities to develop our waterfront in the past, this has left a rare opportunity today. We have the chance to build a unique riverfront community, and there are many resources to help us.

Talk to anyone at the city’s Community Development office, and they will point out a multitude of federal, state and local programs designed to facilitate urban renewal. Homes in the central area of the city are an absolute steal. For less than what you’d pay for a pre-fab home in a new subdivision to the east, you can get a real home: real trees, real wood, real walls. Moreover, the Rockford Central Area Corporation has mapped out a plan that can succeed, if we choose to embrace it now.

As the plan points out, the River District area is prime for development of businesses catering to the young and affluent who are beginning to repopulate this area. Young people with a moderate amount of money, and anyone who can appreciate quality, are taking advantage of the great architecture abandoned by our parents by renovating areas like Haight Village, near East State Street, Market Street, Indian Terrace and the River District mall area.

This new population base creates a ready market for national retail chains like The Gap, Urban Outfitters, Dalton Books, McDonald’s, a major department store or more Seattle-style coffee houses, as well as opportunities for local businesses. Indeed, new local restaurants, bars, artists’ studios and lofts are emerging to satisfy the growing demand from these individuals. Moreover, stop by a place like the Irish Rose, Bacchus or Octane on a weekend night, and you’ll meet people traveling from throughout the city to take advantage of the emerging River District scene. Tired of the generic blur of far East State Street, a generation of Rockfordians who never knew the “glory days” when the downtown was the place to be, are searching for quality. They can sense the possibilities, and they want to live in and be a part of the River District.

The vision

Anyone who has lived in a place like Lincoln Park or Wicker Park in Chicago knows that the renaissance I am talking about is possible. Just a short time ago, these areas were abandoned, desolate places inundated by crime and neglect. Sound familiar? Today, however, they are fantastic neighborhoods with great architecture, a multitude of bars and restaurants, and outstanding live theaters and movie houses. Again, don’t laugh, the River District can be the same.

In the River District vision, empty downtown buildings become artists’ lofts and apartments; old riverfront warehouses and showrooms become the chic homes of lawyers and professionals; vacant factories become places for musicians and artists to practice their trade; Haight Village offers spectacular apartments, homes and parks for the people supporting the neighborhood; and old greasy-spoon diners become funky urban kitchens and cafés with great food by day and live music by night. Imagine being able to walk to work, walk to the YMCA for a workout, and walk to a neighborhood bar, restaurant or theater for entertainment. It’s not just a possibility. You can do it today. Last weekend, perhaps you saw the crowds in the River District for RELI’s A Chorus Line at the Coronado, or Charlotte’s Web’s Robin and Linda Williams concert at Memorial Hall or WZOK’s birthday party at the MetroCentre. If you missed all that, you definitely should attend Art Scene this weekend.

If all this sounds too progressive for Rockford, remember, the dynamics and demographics of this town are changing. Through mergers, acquisitions and sales, the old local industrial base has entered the multi-national arena. Our local airport is a national hub for the nation’s largest shipper, UPS. Chicago continues to expand our way. Like it or not, growth is all around us, and we cannot remain an island. We must choose now to exploit the growth before we become a victim of it. We must see our city as part of the regional economic unit. We must see ourselves linked to the surrounding counties and cities. We must envision Rockford as a regional commuter railroad hub, linking Chicago, Galena, Madison and Minneapolis. If we step back to see our city as part of this growing economic region, the picture I paint is not so far-fetched.

If you’re having trouble seeing the new Rockford, c

heck out the Visions for Downtown Rockford, commissioned by the Rockford Central Area Corporation, which illustrates some of the things I’m talking about. And for the pessimists out there, just stop and think about On the Waterfront. For three short days, this city puts on a live demonstration of what it can be. We open our doors to others, and we are alive with people invigorated by the vibrant pedestrian community, supporting local business, and taking in our growing cultural scene.

I didn’t come back to Rockford to accept “a different kind of greatness.” No, I like the old-fashioned kind—the one that’s really great; and I’m not complacent enough to accept a different kind of greatness as the best we can achieve. The River District will unite the city once again, as it was meant to be. The river that has divided us, will again be the physical and spiritual center of this community. This is the River District vision. Let’s stop talking. Let’s make it happen. If you can see it, they will come. Build it now.

From the April 13-19, 2005, issue

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