Outside In: The struggle of Rockford’s majority
By Joe McGehee
Having lived and worked on Rockford’s east and west sides over the past four years has allowed me to garner a greater understanding of the struggles facing the men and women of the Rock River Valley. During my time here, I’ve bounced around this city like a pin ball, which has given me ample opportunity to view the realities of life on both sides of the Rock River. The homes are as different as the faces, and the economic realities are as different as the cars in the driveways from one side to another.
I’ve walked the sidewalks of nearly every street between Auburn High School and the subdivisions lining the side of Interstate 90, either peddling cable television or the bliss of subdivision living. For the right kind of person, that experience could lend to the creation of a very unique view of Rockford’s disparate economic and geographic realities, as it did for me. Also, arriving here from Owens Cross Roads, Ala.—via Chicago’s north-side avalanche of humanity at top speed—provided me tangible examples of the economic and geographic realities of two very different regions, which allowed me to observe the effects of both in one city as an outsider here in Rockford.
Sitting at the front desk of The Rock River Times’ office for more than two years has exposed me to the realities of Rockford’s east and west sides, passing by the huge windows looking out onto Church Street in a blur of faces and loud conversations on seemingly damaged cell phones. The unique location of our office gives us the chance to have one foot firmly planted in Rockford’s west side, while the other foot rests in the graying shadow of downtown Rockford. Lawyers and the unemployed walk shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalks surrounding our home base, and that is where the struggle of Rockford’s citizenry becomes painfully apparent.
Truthfully, the men and women of the Forest City, regardless of race, religion, creed and ZIP code, struggle to somehow miraculously make the sweat-drenched, back-breaking ends meet to feed, clothe, house and educate their loved ones. From the four lanes dividing commerce between the sides of Perryville Road, to the impending farmland looming off to the west of Springfield Road, men and women endure the rigors of at least a 40-hour work week for the chance to survive, to make it another month, to just scrape by.
A quick glance at your family, friends and neighbors will reveal the signs of this struggle to make it through deeper, wider creases in foreheads—as a result of the constant furrowing of a stressed brow—and darker circles beneath the eyes of those forced to sacrifice sleep to earn an extra dollar or two, and the nearly-desolate pockets whistling the lonesome tune of the cash-strapped masses after the bills are paid.
Not all of Rockford carries the signs of this struggle, but they are the rare exception. The seemingly-endless throngs of lower- to lower-middle-class Americans in 2011 hide the sights of those unscathed by the recent economic downturn by the sheer force of their numbers alone. And these throngs in Rockford have shown me clearly that the lives of most men, women and children here aren’t all that different from the constant financial challenges of the life I’ve come to know…trying to somehow squeak by, stay afloat financially for another month.
The baby-boomer realities of 1950’s America seem almost sarcastic here at the beginning of America’s second decade of the 21st century, as an overwhelming odor of self-loathing eminates from the excesses of crime and unemployment at or below the poverty line, where more and more Americans suddenly find themselves hovering around the grim possiblities of financial ruin.
Like the rest of the country, Rockford has grown tired from the stress of this struggle playing out at its dinner tables and barstools every night. Unfortunately, Rockford’s economic and geographic differences have come to inaccurately define the identity of its residents, without acknowledging the day-to-day realities of those of us working full-time jobs and just barely getting by, regardless of race, religion, creed or ZIP code. Everybody is struggling now, and we should identify with the hurdles standing in front of us all creating ugliness and distress along the banks of the Rock River.
However, despite the struggles, you can make your way to the darkened banks of the Rock River on a clear February night, peer westward, and with the right kind of focus, see the beauty of life here in this corner of time and space. Struggles are everywhere. Rockford should identify and unite behind the struggles of its different citizens, and work together to make it over the hump.
From the Feb. 16-21, 2011, issue
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