By Tim Hughes
With all the hullabaloo over the misery index concerning Rockford, a far more sinister and damaging portrayal of the city, complete with false and misleading statements having the likely potential of keeping prospective business leaders from considering Rockford as a site to relocate their business, has gone virtually unnoticed in spite of the fact that portrayal appears in a 2006 book by a major publisher and went on to win the prestigious Business Book of the Year Award.
The book is titled China Shakes the World, and it is by James Kynge, the former China bureau chief for Financial Times.
The author describes Rockford’s proud manufacturing and industrial history. Yes! What he says is true. At the height of the Cold War, Rockford was on a list of American cities after Washington, New York, and Los Angeles to be targeted for a Soviet nuclear strike (although when I was growing up in Rockford during the ’50s, it was said Rockford would be the second American city hit in a Soviet nuclear attack, after Omaha, Neb., headquarters for Strategic Air Command).
The author visits Rockford, and at this point in his account what is known as a “scholarship of convenience” takes over as he shades and distorts facts in order to support his thesis. Here is what he claims to find upon visiting Rockford, and keep in mind, this is from the winner of the Business Book of the Year Award, making it likely reading for business leaders around the country and beyond.
Cabbing it into Rockford from the Greyhound Bus Depot, he’s puzzled by a “small traffic jam” of outbound traffic along East State Street, Why, he wonders, is there no inbound traffic? The answer, he’s told by the clerk at the Alpine Inn, is summed up in one word: “Wal-Mart.” Everyone’s headed to Wal-Mart, which has created a “vast” store on the city’s outer perimeter. Apparently, in the author’s view, there’s no possibility the outbound traffic could be headed for CherryVale Mall or other east-side shopping districts.
The author ventures downtown and finds it “deserted.” It would be interesting knowing which day of the week he makes this discovery, for on an average weekday, 20,000 people work in the city’s metro area. According to the author, however, the only places open are the library, a movie theater (presumably the Coronado), and a “run-down Greek restaurant” (presumably the former Parthenios).
At the library he asks, “Where is everyone?” And supposedly the librarian on duty launches into a full-scale dissertation about how businesses have closed down, and everyone moved to the city’s outskirts, creating what the author implies was the shift away from downtown Rockford due to China becoming a world economic power. In fact, it was due to a Rockford entrepreneur. Ernest Estwing, civic leader and holder of the original patent on one-piece hand tools and owner of the Estwing Manufacturing Company. Back in the 1950s, he led a campaign to keep the original plan for the interstate highway from going through downtown Rockford and having it moved instead far from downtown businesses. In those days, the Alpine Inn wasn’t known as the Edge of Town Motel for nothing, and it’s hard for anyone who came to Rockford after that time to imagine that there were at least four major department stores in roughly a five-block radius of the downtown area, three of them in a two-block radius of one another! No one could have foreseen then the result of Estwing’s efforts, which affect Rockford to this day and has nothing to do with China.
When I brought the book to the library staff’s attention, they scoffed at the notion of a negative explanation having ever been given by one of their own, noting staff are instructed when asked about the city by out-of-town visitors that they speak in a positive way about Rockford, and I believe them.
The author attends the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet at Cliffbreakers, which according to him, has a Las Vegas touch that seems out of place in such a “straight-laced” community.
He names certain local businessmen and women by name and comments on the doom and gloom that pervades the banquet whenever Rockford’s economic future is discussed.
I tried to see Einar Forsman, president and CEO of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, to ask whether he knew about this book, but he didn’t have time for me. I also alerted city council members and the mayor about the book, thinking someone in an official capacity might write a letter to such publications that might be widely read by business people who had read the book. But as far as I know, no one among our city leaders has done so, and so the damning and undeserved portrait of our city created by James Kygne remains undisputed.
Tim Hughes is a former teacher in Rockford School District 205 who coached debate and taught English at Auburn High School for 20 years. At Auburn, he coached three debate teams to first-place national championships.
From the June 19-25, 2013, issue