This is a story about Rockford, Ill., even though it starts with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Or, more precisely, it starts with Wisconsin’s political tumult of early 2011, when the polarizing Republican executive debuted his divide-and-conquer governing style by targeting the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
The 14 minority Democrats in the state Senate lacked votes to stop Walker’s fast-track agenda, but they succeeded in slowing the legislative process — and thus enabling time for mass protests in Madison — by traveling en masse to Rockford and hiding out there. Celebrity national satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert glommed on to the story, as did the mainstream national press.
Rockford’s civic boosters reacted quickly, seizing on this unexpected attention. The Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau commissioned a video titled “Hideaway in Rockford,” poking fun at our senators and whimsically extolling attributes of this old manufacturing community, which is roughly a one-hour drive down Interstate 90 from Madison. Many in Rockford even seemed to relish the role reversal after those years and years of enduring “Escape to Wisconsin” tourism ads.
Scroll forward to this past February.
In its most recent rating of urban areas, Forbes magazine called Rockford the nation’s third “most miserable city,” citing its high unemployment, declining manufacturing base and high property taxes. Rockford finished behind only the Michigan cities of Detroit and Flint as most awful.
But instead of firing off an indignant and predictable damage control missive, those same Rockford promoters made another video, this one titled “Misery Loves Company.”
The Capital Times wrote about it at the time: “Forbes schmorbes!” intones the video’s narrator. “Does this look like misery to you?” What follows is two minutes depicting Rockford at its best.
Jay Graham, who as creative director of Rockford’s GrahamSpencer marketing firm produced both videos, acknowledges this “out-of-the-box” response did not sit well with everyone in town.
Yet he and others I talked to, including Rockford Mayor Lawrence Morrissey and visitors’ bureau president and CEO John Groh, see no point in denying that the city has challenges. They then pivot to underscore the message that Rockford is a “real, original” place.
Going in, here was my thought: When we Madisonians venture out in our leisure time by auto to another urban area, it is most often Milwaukee or Chicago, even the Twin Cities, but seldom, if ever, Rockford. So I decided to spend a long day recently exploring Rockford with Graham, making 10 stops and meeting with all sorts of the city’s advocates.
My summary impression of Rockford 2013 is that there are many people and places there quite like those in Madison, albeit in Rockford they are mixed among more boarded and abandoned brick buildings, the bony remains of a vastly diminished manufacturing economy.
People in Rockford like to tout their city as being filled with self-effacing folks who have a sense of humor and do interesting things.
Certainly the most interesting and colorful local I met was Rick Nielsen. He’s the gregarious lead guitarist and backup vocalist for the rock band Cheap Trick, which was formed by four Rockford guys in the 1970s and eventually gained enduring national and international fame. (If you have seen the band, Nielsen is the one with the checkerboard guitar, goofy hat and clownish over-the-top expressions.)
Nielsen still lives in Rockford and agreed to come by to visit with me at a museum exhibit — which has since closed — of the guitars and mementos of his rock career called “Rick’s Picks.”
I asked him about choosing to continue to live in Rockford, when he would afford to live anywhere. “It’s like any city, Madison, Chicago, Rockford,” he says. “There are great people and then there’s all the other kind of stuff. We all have that other kind of stuff. We also have great stuff. Let’s not dwell on the bad stuff,” he adds.
As we got to talking, and he knew I live in Madison, Nielsen recounted his many trips here, where he says he played “every little club, every big club” as an aspiring young musician, bought illegal drugs and even heard legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix perform.
“I was up there in Madison when there were riots up there,” he says. And then, seeming to suggest that no place, not even Madison, is perfect, he adds, “How about when those guys blew up the math building?”
I interject, “You mean Sterling Hall?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” he says, referring to the 1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center that killed a campus researcher.
Let me pause here for some full disclosure: Rockford is my hometown. I was born at Swedish American Hospital and lived there 17 years, returning from college for summer factory jobs. My side of town, the area west of the Rock River, was and is now regarded as the “tough” part. Almost all growth has been towards the east, towards the interstate.
As I randomly searched the Internet about Rockford for this story, I happened across my boyhood home, a three-bedroom ranch. It sold for about $50,000 in 1971, and, surprisingly to me, I found a real estate site that says it has increased in value since then to only about $71,000. So the housing market is, well, not sizzling.
In 1996, Money Magazine’s annual rankings chose Madison as the best place to live in America; that same year it placed Rockford 300th, or dead last. I wrote a newspaper story back then for the Wisconsin State Journal that reminisced about the Rockford of the 1960s as a vibrant and utterly typical blue-collar Midwestern town, a place packed with World War II veterans making solid livings at the city’s giant and locally owned factories.
Madison and Rockford, in those days, had much in common. Today they are quite different, but I did stumble across a couple of anecdotal links.
The most interesting was the connection between Nielsen and Otis Redding, the soul legend who died when his private plane crashed into Lake Monona as it brought him to a planned Madison concert in December 1967.
Nielsen was playing in a Rockford band called The Grim Reapers and was on the bill with Redding. Nielsen pointed to the poster for that concert on display at the exhibit, adding that it fell to him to announce Redding’s death to the crowd at The Factory, a club on West Gorham Street that no longer exists. “I had to get up on stage and say: ‘He’s not going to be here,’ ” Nielsen recalls. “And so then we played anyway and I think it was kind of very depressing.”
As we talked, fans visiting Nielsen’s exhibit started to surround us for his autograph or simply to connect with him, and our private conversation suddenly turned public.
Nielsen was wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Mrs. Fisher’s” on it. As a fellow Rockford guy, I recognized that as the name of a distinctively thick potato chip that was invented in Rockford in 1932 and is still made there. Nielsen tells me he really likes the chips and has given them to fellow musicians, including to the members of Aerosmith.
As an interview, Nielsen was entertaining, but my success was limited in getting him to focus on talking about his favorite stuff to do in Rockford. For example, I asked him about Maria’s, a famous old-line Italian restaurant in a rough part of town. I asked him, ‘What do you like there?’
“Not getting shot,” he replies.
My day in Rockford surfaced another strong anecdotal link to Madison.
Rockford native Albert “Ab” Nicholas, a wealthy Milwaukee money manager and former Badgers basketball player, gave $50 million for University of Wisconsin athletic scholarships three months ago. Nicholas, who attended the same high school I did, donated a beautiful new conservancy I visited on the Rockford riverfront that bears his name. I had met Nicholas in person once, and we talked about how his Rockford West High School basketball coach was still there 25 years after he graduated, when I was editor of the school’s newspaper.
But the fact is I had not visited Rockford in many years, so the experience had a surreal, time-travel quality to it.
Graham escorted me to the Coronado, an ornate 1927 theater that houses a piano once played by George Gershwin. The venue also hosted countless high school graduations through time, including mine.
Graham showed me an impressive children’s museum on North Main Street that I remember as a Sears, Roebuck and Co. store, a place that then not only featured those newfangled escalators, but was famous for its huge windows and holiday displays in which the mechanical reindeer actually moved.
He also ushered me around a downtown I recall as a bustling retail center in the 1960s and early 1970s before the manufacturing exodus, an area that is now starting — brick building by brick building — to make a comeback.
Says Nielsen: “Rockford is not a horrible place. It’s like any place. I travel all the time, so I’ve seen a lot of places and, trust me, this isn’t the worst place there is.”
In sum, and as someone who has been ensconced in Madison’s culture now for three decades, I do think Rockford has something to offer the visitor from Madison — interesting food, entertainment, attractions, plus some regional history.
Bring a map … and an open mind.