Hanging Out in Rockford: Rockford, you’re already dead

It’s Sunday morning and I am at the North End coffee shop. I am hanging out with Dana and Lou Ann, the owners, drinking my usual cup of coffee with a shot of espresso. We are talking about (among other things) the proposed downtown jail and Rockford’s resistance to anything new. Another lady, a customer, says she hopes the county puts the jail anywhere but downtown. I hear that sentiment a lot. Dana remarks many of their customers don’t at first understand what they are doing, but that their place isn’t that unusual if you have been somewhere outside of Winnebago County. I tell her that most of my best customers at my downtown location are people who have moved here from somewhere else. A couple of days later, I am at the market. Driving north on Western Avenue, I am hungry and stop at a storefront taco shop. Still on the Atkins diet (one of the best decisions I have ever made for my health), I roll in and slide up to the counter. I order a plate of tongue and salad. The salad consists of lettuce, tomato, onion, and avocado. I squirt fresh lime on it and add a little salt. The tongue (sprinkled liberally with chopped onion and cilantro) is some of the best I have ever tasted, and I feel compelled to tell the people cooking in the open kitchen. (Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the restaurant.) To my right is an American woman eating a steak burrito. She winces visibly at my remark about the tongue. “How can you eat that?” she asks. I reply, “Have you ever tried it?” She wrinkles up her nose. The order taker says very quietly, “When you no longer try something new, you are already dead!” And it sets me to thinking about a whole panoply of ideas. Ideas relating to our community and its unwillingness to try or accept anything new. The new jail is being touted as an icon of downtown redevelopment. Remember carefully, last year it was the Coronado Theatre they predicted would save downtown. At the time, I wrote a rebuttal, saying don’t try to save us, just come and join us. Downtown was doing quite well before they rebuilt the Coronado. It is still doing quite well, even if they cannot afford to repair the air-conditioning in the old jewel. It would do better if they booked something besides the symphony orchestra. Downtown will do quite well, even better, if they put the jail somewhere else. The time has come to say it. Our city fathers, development people, and city staff haven’t got a clue. They couldn’t sell their way out of a wet paper bag. They collectively need to go to college and take a course called Marketing 101. As long as they continue to maintain that downtown is broken, they will continue to stifle the real turn-around that has been taking place over the last 20 years or so. The turn-around that most of them are totally unaware of. They are engaged in what my friend Jon calls stinking thinking, self-fulfilling prophecy that says you cannot succeed because it is impossible. Nothing is possible when you have this mindset. They will continue to give us jails and prisons and call it development. Downtown is actually doing very well. Some nights when I return from my restaurant in Rockton, I am forced to park blocks from my house (I live above the Irish Rose). Between the crowd at Bacchus, The Office, Little Italy and my own place, I often have to park behind City Hall. I am not complaining, I love the walk. When I go to the other side of the river to have a drink at Paragon, Kryptonite, or Octane, I always have trouble finding a parking space. That is why I often walk there. Besides, you can’t get a DUI on foot. Gerlinde Sampson is coming downtown. She is going to take over the Water Street Cafe. She is sitting at my bar on Saturday night, and I suggest we walk across the river to have a drink at Paragon. We have a glass of wine with Rose as our bartender, Mary, stops to congratulate Gerlinde about her new venture. We talk about how the negative energy coming out of the local daily and the politicians causes our job to be so much harder. We talk about the success that is so close and yet so far away. Gerlinde and I walk back State Street. Gerlinde says she is impressed that you can walk downtown at night, that people’s perceptions are simply untrue. The following Sunday morning over a bowl of menudo and Huevos a la Mexicana at Tortacos Soto on Kishwaukee: (Right near where Judy Emerson has said there are hookers at 8 a.m. Well, I’ve been there at 8 a.m. countless times, Judy, and I’ve never seen a hooker. Why don’t you check some of this stuff out before you spit your venom?) I reflect on the fact that although Greg, the Register Star “dining out guy,” has written countless times about this being one of his favorite restaurants ( I have done the same in The Rock River Times), I still never see certain nationalities in here. Greg’s solution is to move it downtown and upscale it. I think the real answer is for people to go where it is and try the real thing. But for that, you have to be alive and willing to try something new. Come on, Rockford, you can do it. Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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