When I mentioned to friends and acquaintances that Charles and I were headed to Rockford for the weekend, the reaction more or less was, “Why the hell would you do that?”
Apparently it has a bad rep. In 2013, Forbes magazine named it one of the most miserable cities in America. Its decline in manufacturing base, high property taxes, and high unemployment (in 2012, its unemployment rate was ranked 30th out of 372 U.S. metropolitan areas) placed it at number three, just behind Detroit and Flint, Michigan. (They ranked my dearly missed Chicago at number four, for a sense of perspective). Law Street Media named Rockford the number two most dangerous city under 200,000.
I’d been curious about Rockford, as it is the largest town in the 815 area code and certainly closer than Chicago at just a quick 30 to 40 minute jaunt from DeKalb on Interstate 39. I can’t say I knew much firsthand about Rockford, beyond being a signpost on Interstate 90 and the home of Cheap Trick. Speaking of, their guitarist Rick Nielsen still lives there and is a bit of a local fixture (for the benefit of younger readers, he’s the guy who says, “Are we really the Dream Police?” at 1:04). In 2012 he told the Washington Post, “I could’ve gone anywhere; I could’ve moved to Hollywood. But I stayed here. This is an authentic place. It’s got a lot of warts, but it’s real.”
You might say, “Sure, but a rock star doesn’t have to worry about unemployment and can afford to live in the nice part of town.” True, but he does put his money where his mouth is. Since 2007, he’s had plans for a dream project called Rick’s Place, a proposed $25 million restaurant, hotel, conference center, and music education center off Interstate 90 (unfortunately the plans went on indefinite hold in 2011 due to the recession and his investors’ resulting skittishness). Nielsen is part owner of the Stockholm Inn, a Swedish breakfast joint, and in 2013, he won a Lincoln Award for Excellence in Tourism for his Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair with Guitars and Music exhibit at the Burpee Museum. “If you can make it in Rockford,” he says, “you can make it anywhere. Rockford is where our families are. We made a decision to raise our family here. All my kids went to the same school that I did. How crazy is that?”
Incidentally, Go Rockford, the official website of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, grabbed hold of the Forbes magazine “miserable cities” designation, attempting to repurpose the label to their own ends with the slogan “Rockford: Real. Original” as well as as this “Misery Loves Company” video:
I can’t say I have a personal investment in Rockford, but their spunky tourism slogan reminds me a bit of that Nelson Algren quote about Chicago, the number four most miserable city (“Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real”).
Tune in for my tour of the Burpee Museum, the Anderson Japanese Gardens, and a local Rockford eatery or two.