Guest Column: Sprawl Watch: Cruising 20—toward the price of prosperity

You can almost sneak up on the city coming in from the west. Cornfields lay to either side of the highway, and a rural feel permeates the area. You’ll pass old motels named Gold Star, Rustic and Travlur before reaching an unassuming green sign along Business Route 20 that announces, “Rockford” population “150,200.” Years ago, maybe you’d have stopped for a rest before making your grand entrance into the city. But these motels probably won’t fit what the family’s looking for by today’s standards, so you’ll keep driving.

The vacant fields alongside the roadway subtly transition into an increasingly dense smattering of low-rise commercial and residential buildings. Upon examination, you’ll notice many establishments are shuttered. Traffic is light. It looks as if few people care to shop or conduct business on this end of town anymore. Yet, amidst signs of urban decay, hope springs eternal at The House of Refuge Church and places where the downtrodden can turn, such as the Crusader Clinic, Life Center or Rescue Mission. Finally, like a beacon, the higher rises of downtown Rockford are in sight.

The hulking behemoth under construction at a point essentially marking the gateway to the city center is the Winnebago County Justice Center. With a structure this size, you quickly realize you’re in a big city oozing with big city problems. Downtown grows more appealing after the “justice area” as you come upon important businesses and quaint stores. But still, there’s something missing. Where’s the rush of people you’d expect to see on a sunny, autumn Saturday? Perhaps finding a parking place and trudging the sidewalks from shop to shop is just too much work.

East of the river, you’ll see there’s more to downtown and come across evidence of the city’s Swedish heritage before entering a pleasant middle-class residential neighborhood. The houses here predate the ’70s, and their styles are varied and charming. I can’t help but wonder whether the residents in these tidy homes ever stroll downtown to mingle with their neighbors from the other side of the river.

After the residential district, you’ll find the early suburbanization of State Street in the form of older, but well-kept, retail strips lining the thoroughfare. This is vintage ’70s, judging by the architecture culminating with the Kmart and the Value City, which is across the street and has no doubt moved into space vacated by a Venture store, or maybe even a Zayre. Then modern suburbia begins resplendent with every fast food establishment and every big box, electronic and mid-priced fashion store imaginable. The area is a bustling consumer’s paradise where no one will leave in want of food or provisions. I spot Lowe’s and immediately expect to see Home Depot. There it is, next store over. I’m in Rockford, but might as well have been dropped into a middle-class suburb anywhere in America.

Closer to the Interstate, hotels sprout in great number. Holiday Inn is here along with Ramada, Hilton and the venerable Clock Tower Inn, which is located out through the other side of the underpass. In my rearview mirror, I notice not only a familiar-looking green “Rockford” population “150,200” marker, but also a much larger and colorful “Welcome to Rockford” sign. People and businesses on the east side must be proud to introduce visitors to their town. On its outskirts, Rockford is growing. The new “ShowPlace” theaters have the look to match their moniker and will provide residents with movie choices galore. Across the road, an almost equally abundant choice in housing will soon be available. Heritage Woods of Rockford, an assisted living community, is being constructed next to a “ranch condo” development and The Villas of University Centre, which are adjacent to Northern Illinois University’s Rockford satellite. All this development makes me wonder how Rockford might be different if the Interstate had circled around west of downtown instead of here.

Let’s face it: people have never flocked to north-central Illinois to marvel at its geological or natural wonders. However, if you look carefully, you might notice a subtle beauty to the gentle, rolling pastureland between Rockford and Belvidere. Look fast, though, because the scene’s a-changing. Signs abound pointing you to estate lots available and to the ubiquitous bigger home for less money. Earthmovers are making way for a new subdivision that will be fronted by retail and commercial outlets in the Westhills Marketplace. Next field over, models already stand for a housing tract to be called Deer Hills. The names ring in irony. It seems that after clearing a swath of rural America, developers take pride in naming their work in remembrance of the open lands they’ve conquered?

As I continue driving toward Belvidere, I think about a line from that legendary film It’s A Wonderful Life. Uncle Billy had never seen one before, but when he noticed all the people lined up outside the bank, he sure knew that it “had all the markings of a run.” I’m no urban planner, but when I see all the developers lined up along the side of the road, it sure looks to have all the markings of a sprawl. Around the bend into Belvidere proper, you’ll see how the town has grown to about almost the entire right side of Business 20. Only one dairy farmer remains to hold on to a small sliver of land between the highway and his suburban neighbors. Then, at the end of the line, where the business route reconnects with main U.S. 20, a Wal-Mart with adjoining retail strip has recently been completed. There’s a wine and liquor store in the strip with quite a crowd streaming in, considering that it’s barely past noon. I stop in to see what’s the buzz, and the store owner invites me to join in their microbrew tasting. The servers and patrons are in good spirits, and I’m tempted to imbibe, but my work’s not finished.

I meander to the Wal-Mart, where Lions Club members selling candy greet me. I suggest that this must be “easy picking” peddling for donations at a great big place like this compared to the smaller stores in “old” town. But the aging Lions only return a puzzled expression. To them, “It’s all the same whether we’re at Wal-Mart or some small store downtown.” Indeed, they’re just doing their duty collecting contributions to support humanitarian services.

I’m not sure why I’m surprised to find the new Wal-Mart busy and vibrant, which makes it hard to argue that there wasn’t a need to put it here. But I can’t help thinking that it’d be nice if some of the west-end shops could be renovated before resorting to building store after store atop open field and farmland. Perhaps, if a few older structures were renewed, the vibrancy I’m witnessing here on the east end of Business Route 20 would return to the west side as well and reign in tandem next to the bastions of hope I’d driven past earlier.

Gerard Murrin is the author of two novels published by Robert D. Reed Publishers. Jackson’s Choice was introduced in 2005, and Forty Acres was released late this summer. Forty Acres is a spellbinding tale confronting the land-use crisis in America set in the Rock River Valley of Ogle County, Ill. With engaging characters and chilling effect, the story foreshadows the look and feel of the mid-21st century given the continued loss of land to commercial and residential development.

From the Dec. 6 – Dec. 12, 2006, issue

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