I couldn’t wait to get out of Rockford. Now, I can’t wait to get back.
I’ve lived in the Rockford area all my life. Probably had a similar childhood as a lot of you. Probably related to too many of you.
But I gotta tell you, growing up here was rough. I don’t mean I had a hard life; I mean life around here was boring. Driving to Keith Country Day for school, I knew little more than the route from my house through Auburn/Spring Creek. Then, for everything else, all I knew were the franchises along E. State, Alpine, Mulford, Perryville, etc.
I couldn’t wait to move to a major city like Chicago or New York. To actually feel the hustle and bustle of life. Actually be able to walk places! Actually have neighbors who have pride for their city. In my head I was out the door before I even made it into high school.
That was, until the Auburn/Main St. roundabout was built.
It’s kind of funny to try and pinpoint a moment in your life where you sensed your views shifting. Especially since mine involves road construction (how Illinois of me).
I only had my driver’s permit when the roundabout construction started, and the reroute made me turn right onto Main St. heading south. Now here’s the part that embarrasses me the most. I had never in my cognizant life turned right onto Main St. And before I knew it, I had to do some funky turn to get onto a one-way!
It may not come as a surprise to you but I messed it up, almost hit the car next to me, and got yelled at by my Dad (“Pull over!”).
I pulled to the side and we switched seats so he could drive the rest of the way. We made it to Whitman Street and got onto the bridge. That’s when I saw it. Downtown Rockford.
“Holy crap, this is Rockford?!” I remember saying as I eyed the Register Star News Tower in the distance.
To be honest, I don’t remember my father’s response. I was too busy gazing at this other world that was only a mile or two from my usual life (Who knew Rockford had tall buildings?).
A year or two after that, Forbes came out with their (now locally-infamous) stats ranking Rockford as the 3rd most miserable city in the United States. “Oh, come on, it’s not that bad,” I grimaced. But a more pervasive thought crossed my mind: Why am I defending a city I couldn’t wait to leave?
After graduating from Keith, my parents drove me to my new home of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Now, Evanston is ranked one of the best places to live in the country, and it’s easy to see why when you’re here. It’s basically Chicago (though I’d probably upset a few Chicagoans by saying that). Extremely walkable. And I’d be hard pressed to find someone in Evanston who isn’t proud to live here. It’s everything I wanted, right?
But when I walk around here I can’t knock this feeling that it’s like I just clicked the easy level for SimCity. Like, of course this place would be successful. Even as it suffered manufacturing loss and at one time had a declining population, it has all of these amenities and a virtually-built-in community energizer (Northwestern) that would keep it from being on the lists Rockford has made.
Rockford, on the other hand, has had to dream up and build from scratch its own community energizer (Transform Rockford) and it’s only a few years old. But that’s not all, a lot of the coolest things in Rockford are “just a few years old” such as the Nicholas Conservatory, Stroll on State, Prairie Street Brewhouse, and Rockford City Market. You know what that means? Rockford really is in the midst of a transformation (“The Rockford Renaissance”, rather).
Now that’s something that excites me. To be a witness to and an active participant in a movement that will have historic implications for the entire region? How could I not get behind that?
So now ask me where I want to move to and I’ll tell you:
The place I can make a difference. Forest City, Winnebago County; Rockford, Illinois.
In other words, home.