Which way, Rockford?

In 1966, my family pulled up its Rockford roots and moved to New Lenox—at that time a town of 1,200—near Joliet. A lot has changed about New Lenox since then—its situation along the railroad lines turned it into a bedroom community for Chicago commuters. Recently returning to live again in Rockford, it seems to me a lot has also changed here. It’s hard to tell for sure; I was only 9 years old when I left, and the old Rockford is but a few hazy images. Still, I will never forget this town’s incredible Halloweens, how people went all out to decorate, act up, and see who could make the most kids pee in their costumes. Yeah, I’ve always felt Rockford had a sense of community.

In the 37 years since leaving, I lived in each quadrant of our country—states such as Maryland, Georgia, New Mexico, Washington, Alaska, even Texas (forgive me, please!)—and towns with names like Laurel, Forest Park, Farmington, Spokane, Anchorage, and Beaumont, among others. The most populated I lived in was near 350,000; the smallest, well, me and two neighbors within a mile. Each of those places was livable for a reason, and in each I met citizens proud to call it home.

Most towns had a mix of folks: lifetime American citizens, those new to this country, educated, uneducated, rich, poor, city slicker and country roughneck. As a news and documentary cameraman, I saw the best and worst of those places. I loved it. It takes all kinds. I learned the greatest wisdom comes from the most unlikely souls… and it is a great mistake to take any damned thing for granted.

Along with that mix of people, what made a place livable to me was a clean environment, ease of getting around, career opportunities, educational opportunities, affordability, cultural attractions, outdoor recreation, an active art community, and good food (probably not in that order).

I came back to Rockford for two reasons: I found the most tenderhearted, lovely, smart and funny woman I’d ever met in all my travels, and my aging mother is close by and could use a little help. I didn’t come for any of the reasons mentioned in the prior paragraph.

And that’s good, because apparently, at least to the Rockforders (can that be right?) I have met, the town must have few of those admirable assets.

Here is the experience that most intrigues me since my return: I have run into no fewer than 10 people who have reacted with befuddlement at the fact that I chose Rockford as my new home. Additionally, I have met not a soul who spoke of this river town as a good (let alone great) place to spend a life.

I don’t think it’s just that I’m running with the wrong crowd —I’ve mixed with quite a cross section since arriving. Yet, I know there are people out there happy and proud to be here, I just haven’t met them. Right?

I’m actually way too new here to be speaking up (though speaking out of turn seems to be an unfortunate forte of mine). Maybe this really is a butt hole of a place, but I don’t think so.

Since returning I have experienced the Waterfront festival and the Arts weekend, both widely supported. I have found a couple great little cafés, and there seems to be promise in other local restaurants. My times along the bike paths and hiking in Rock Cut State Park have been pleasurable. The river adds dimension and recreation, and I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to stroll under these glorious broadleaves again. I am sure the air could be better, but it’s breathable, the water drinkable. There’s a great city little more than an hour away and some fine countryside left to care for and admire. Jobs may be tough, but there are plentiful businesses here, creative and bold entrepreneurs who have found a way to make a living…and a life.

OK, Rockford doesn’t have the Rocky Mountains. It lacks oceanfront property and a national reputation. But a place is what its citizens make of it. How they envision it. Whether we are talking about a country, a city, or a house… it is shaped by the hands of the willing. (Notice I did not say only the educated, or uneducated, or lifetime citizen, or new, or rich, or poor…) It takes everybody. It’s about attitude, that sense of community. It takes hard work, perseverance, and involvement on all levels.

I don’t see Rockford as falling apart. I see it evolving, in the constant process of change. And I’m wondering, which way will its citizens (myself included) take it?

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!