Hanging Out in Rockford: The hottest block in town

Monday, I walk down to Little Italy to have a glass of wine at Susan’s bar (Susan, the union organizer). To have a glass of wine after hiding out all day Sunday (I do that) when I notice that Sambuca is open, finally open. Cru is open, too. Everybody is open—all six bars and restaurants or restaurant-bars, all open. That has not happened before.

We’ve all been waiting, all of us in the neighborhood, all been waiting and waiting. Waiting for this moment, when there would be six, six restaurant-bars, and they all would be open. Cru opens at 11 a.m. and serves lunch until 2 p.m. They are open Saturdays. Sambuca is only open for coffee at this point, but they are open. I walk into 505, the bar next door to Deli Italia, and tell the bartender it is a significant moment that, finally, everybody is open. People are saying that downtown is coming of age. They say you can finally see a difference.

When I came downtown 25 years ago, I envisioned something like this. I had come back from New York, where I was working for the Coca-Cola company, looking for a place to start a business, a business of my own. I was tired of working for other people. I was tired of working for corporations. I wanted to imitate the kind of renewal I had seen in Sacramento, Calif., when I had lived there. I wanted to start that sort of renewal in Rockford. I thought it would only take a few years.

Wendy Vissar lived next door to me in a building owned by Doug Bruno and John Bystrom on the corner of Market and First. She was a photographer for the newspaper. She was from New York. She was very classy. I remember what she said about the first time she saw the News Tower and it being a beautiful art deco building. She had a lot of friends like her at the newspaper. They were all from other places. They all hung out together, downtown. They hung out at my old place, the Old Rock River Café. They wrote about it and photographed it and featured it in stories in the paper. Business boomed. We had lines for lunch.

I bought the building from First National Bank on a contract and expanded the businesses to fill the whole building. In the beginning, it looked like I would be right. I opened on the corner of State and Madison and, in no time at all, Runner’s Image popped up across the street, and Deborah Newton opened up the first artists’ gallery and residence right around the corner, 317 Market St. I gave space free to a group of artists in my building, the State and Madison, and Gallery 10 was born.

Right across the street, diagonally, was the East Side Inn, formerly a YMCA. A group of people, one of whom was Sunil Puri, tried to make that a Radison Hotel. I thought I wold be a millionaire. The City Council didn’t back them up. Sunil sat at my bar and told me how he was going to join the Council of 100. He told me how he was going to change things. Time went by, and things went the other way for a while. As I said, there have been ups and downs.

Finally, downtown elected the new mayor. It was all downtown people at Paragon the night Larry Morrissey won. It was all downtown people who ran his campaign. It was a coming-of-age for downtown. Time goes by. Downtown has its ups and downs. Right now, it is very up. The progress is evident. Morrissey had a lot to do with it. He had a lot to do with it before he became mayor. A lot of the excitement now is still connected with his running. A lot of the excitement is connected with his winning. His vision is more important in the long run than some union negotiations.

Friday, I meet the new director of the Klehm Arboretum at Little Italy. I recommend Deb’s pizza. Kim Wheeler has talked him into living downtown. He says he is enjoying exploring it and that it is one of the reasons he took the job. He says he can feel the excitement.

We are going to have a meeting of the Best of Rockford Committee at 5 p.m. today (Wednesday, Oct. 25) at the Irish Rose.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Oct. 25-31, 2006, issue

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