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Guest Column: Rich City, Poor City

February 16, 2011

By Eric Howanietz
Free-lance Writer

Rockford is poor, and poor in the sense that it is cheap to live here, but nothing is really going on. The impetus to get something started here is strong, but it comes with an equally strong undertone that multiple generations have tried to change things and have failed bitterly.

Add this to a slab of monumental F-ups that this city has blundered on (like failing to get a state university here, or having weak interest in a train) and we sink deeper into a pile of whispers that everybody knows but no one talks about.

One can easily while away your 20s here hoping to change things in the perception of a power vacuum but finally coming to the realization that the whole pie has been sliced up.  No one is willing to shave off a sliver, even for a chance of prosperity. Well, this pizza has been stale for 30 years, and saving your slice under the couch cushion is far from appetizing.

Even sprinkling some readily-available narcotics on this dish cannot make it any more palatable than our loosely-enforced drug laws imply. While talking to a world-weathered friend, his perception was that something seemed amiss with this sphere of authority in town (not that anyone under 30 complains about this; but it is apparent). Which leaves me with the question of who is in control here?

I think I’m going to drop in on the Justice Center’s “Gang 101” seminar; funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (Feb 9-11). I want to see what they are really talking about.

Is this seminar just going to be a no-brained discussion about tactics and procedures; another attempt to polish the notched and tarnished holy sword of justice? Or are they going to say what a gang really is? Do they have creditable statistics or numbers? Who are these gangs, what are their numbers, what geography do they occupy, and what is the nature of their operation?

Tax dollars are paying for this; do I have a right to this information? Or is this the kind of knowledge privy to closed doors where important people qualified to make decisions reside? So, I want to ask, Rockford, who is slicing up the pie? Who is commanding interests seen and unseen that have so much control over our city?

Narcotics, of course, are just one slice, but like everything in Rockford, it seems like just another members-only club. I would voice these things not as an attack or reproach on ordinary people of all stripes making their way by the only means available. But as a reminder to the powers that be that their stagnant control does us all a disservice.

Given the context of a geographically, divided community cut along racial, ethnic, and class lines, our yearning for equality cannot be more apparent. But still our heartfelt attempts at neighborhood organizing have a “hunker down” mentality that only serves to create divisions in our community.

When one visits the average neighborhood association, there is the ever-present prattle of aging baby boomers complaining about the one house in the neighborhood that is parking their car wrong or playing music too loud. Followed, of course, by the unfailing statement “I know they are dealing drugs there!” But the question in my mind is, why don’t you go talk to them? I go talk to all the drug dealers on my block. If I ever have a grievance, they would be more than happy to remedy the situation. Anything less would be bad for business in Rockford’s last prosperous industry.

That simple understanding brings more peace to a neighborhood than any authority figure could deliver. And best of all, we prevent any judgment passing between us in the community. I guess one could say this is the difference between integrating into your neighborhood and colonizing it. No one is saying you have to look the other way when there is violence on the street or youth are in trouble. But participating in communication and understanding are the keys to harmony.

Forums of community and communication must be given priority in relation to the spaces of our city and free of the burdens of special interest. Adequate infrastructure of public transportation, affordable housing and economic opportunity are a “must be” for this engine of civic unity. The culture of special-use permits that prevails in our government bodies must be obliterated; for if it is not fair for everybody, it is fair for no one.

Revising the yellowed pages of our city ordinances cast like iron in the 1950s is a move that could only be considered as a breath of fresh air. These are all casual observations and general suggestions known, but all too often never brought into the public dialogue. And what will the old-timers and big bank accounts say? “Where is the money going to come from?” Well, choose your priorities, Rockford.

We are sitting on multiple white elephants that drain our municipal funds and leave our priorities in the hands of people with already deep pockets. Yes, the MetroCentre is to be named, along with the River District Association, and other poorly-administered public/private partnerships. The money is fungible, and should go to where the greatest share of Rockford’s citizens will benefit.

The old families have been controlling this city for 100 years, and the end result is what we have before us. Success in this town will not come from a ballot box or some special grant. Success will be cultivated through diversity, equality and an exchange of ideas. Not lame favors and payouts to overpriced consultants but exchanged ideas, from inside and out, from new and old. Organizing beyond the clique lines (legal or illegal gangs), associating freely, and making pressure where pressure is due, is the best use of Rockford’s greatest resource—its people.

Only through people can we use the bricks and mortar we have set down for the benefit of all the people of Rockford. Until we see more than our own little slice of the pie, we are all poor in Rockford.

I’ll let you know about that gang meeting.

From the Feb. 16-21, 2011, issue

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