Hanging Out in Rockford: What it’s about—Part Two

July 1, 1993

Hanging Out in Rockford: What it’s about—Part Two

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

From a talk at the Rockford Woman’s Club…

Enough of my life history, let’s get back to Rockford. While I was living in California, while I was living in Indianapolis, while I was living in New York, Rockford was changing. Rockford was growing up. Rockford was moving into a new era. Its makeup was changing. It was becoming more cosmopolitan. There was a hell of a lot more diversity, in every way.

We were blessed with a lot more ethnic varieties. A large Southeast Asian community erupted in the Seventh Street and Broadway area. A big Mexican population found its way to South Main Street. All of a sudden, Rockford had some pretty good ethnic restaurants, although they were still utilized primarily by ethnic people. Some of us (crazy people) decided to make a home in Rockford’s downtown. As Deb Newton said, we came for lifestyle. We came and we stayed.

Rockford was becoming a real community. A community like we all had seen elsewhere, only not yet as well accepted as in those other communities. I decided to do something about it. I decided to start writing a column. I wanted it to be a vehicle that would open Rockford up to itself. At first, it was just restaurants, but then, one day, a magical thing happened. A group of friends got together for the day. We went the places we went. We did the things we did. And I wrote about it.

It had nothing to do with restaurants, or almost nothing. The standard joke got to be, “When is he going to get to the restaurant part?” That was good. That was where I was going. That was what I was trying to do. I wanted to write about life in Rockford. I announced my intentions. Few paid attention. The few who did became fans. Then, all of a sudden, everywhere I went, people were talking to me about my column. It had become a big success, and a big pressure.

But I had gotten the attention of a lot of the reading public. It gave me a chance to speak out on issues like the renewed downtown and the largely still ignored ethnic restaurants. It gave me a chance to say, see what a good time you can have in Rockford if you just get your head out of your ***.

My friend Jon Agustsson says he wants to set up a fund for people who don’t like our community. They would only have to answer a few questions about why they don’t like Rockford, and then the fund would provide them with a bus ticket to anywhere they want to go with the proviso that they cannot return.

What I am trying to do with my column is to awaken people to the many good things in our community. Not the east side canned chain baloney, the real things that come from real people. The Serbian Deli on North Main where you can get roast goat by the pound; The Penguin Locker on Fifteenth Avenue where there are fresh smoked chickens and homemade sausages on Friday morning; the Mexican restaurant where you can get a bowl of Menudo on Sunday morning; the black-owned bar on South Main Street where they have the best barbecue ribs on earth.

For these things, you have to leave your east-side tract palace. For these things, you have to venture down to where the real people still live. You have to forget your prejudice and your fears and venture out. You might even find your way to the Rockford Woman’s Club.

But it’s about more than that. It is about realizing that right here in Rockford, we have many of the same things for which people drive to Chicago. We have the aforementioned ethnic restaurants, we have an outstanding art and music scene. We have a wonderful, restored downtown that has just as many cool things to do as Peoria or a number of other towns people point to as having been redeveloped, only we just don’t know it yet.

Downtown needed redevelopment for so many years that now it has happened, people are still stuck in the idea that it needs to be done. In reality, the empty storefronts and mall of 20 years ago are history. The River District is vibrant and lively and much busier on most weeknights than its chainstore counterpart on East State. It’s also much more real; it has character.

That is what my column is about. All of that, and more I probably haven’t even thought about yet or, for that matter, haven’t even experienced yet.

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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