Rockford is one of those cities that’s hard to explain to other people. It’s not an important city like Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, or any other “big name” cities you’ve heard of. You can’t mention Rockford, Illinois to someone and have them understand what you’re actually talking about. Is Rockford a classy, small town in Illinois? A larger college town with a fancy economy supported by the mass of college kids in the fall and spring? An old, rundown, ex-industrial town like Pittsburgh? What exactly is Rockford? Hell, even people understand something upon mentioning “Omaha, Nebraska” as bland of a place as that actually is; Rockford is somehow even blander. Rockford doesn’t mean anything and it’s hard to explain something when it really isn’t anything at all. I can tell you what Rockford isn’t and that would be easier than describing what it is. Rockford is a lack of character. A shell in a way.
Rockford is close enough to Chicago to be described by it (“Rockford is close to Chicago…”) but far enough away for it to not really mean anything. Rockford is about 30 minutes away from the outer suburbs of Chicago like Elgin and Schaumburg and the miles of farmland in between excludes it from being a Chicago suburb. Sadly, Rockford would be more notable in this way. Rockford isn’t like Peoria, Moline, or Champaign where it’s its own shitty, solitary city, but isn’t close enough to Chicago to be a suburb. This leaves it in it’s own unique category of being “sorta near Chicago” but not actually part of the Chicago ecosystem.
Hell, we even renamed our airport years ago “The Chicago/Rockford International Airport” because being sixty miles away from Chicago still requires our airport to be named something-Chicago-something to be “notable.” Our airport, despite the name, has nothing to do with Chicago at all, except serving as a convenient location for diversions given heavy storms around the Chicago O’Hare Airport. That’s it.
Rockford is one of those derelict midwestern cities that has its days of glory well past it. The neighborhood I grew up in was surrounded by large and abandoned factories and buildings, and as a kid I always wondered what exactly was in them. I’m talking buildings that take up numerous city blocks that are five or six stories tall: what was left in their remnants? They weren’t being used anymore, but surely someone owned them? What was left in their carcasses? Most of the lower windows had long been shattered and boarded up after bored and mischievous teenagers busted them all out with rocks; you couldn’t even look in and see what the interior was like. The unbusted and boarded windows on the third story and above were obviously impossible to look through. These buildings always mystified me, long-dead symbols of something that Rockford used to be decades ago. Something that it wasn’t any longer.
Apparently the city used to be a heavily industrialized city, and I was told (I’m not sure about the factual basis here) that during the Cold War the Soviets even had our quaint and shitty city targeted by their ICBMs; decades ago Rockford used to be important enough that someone on the other side of the planet felt it needed to be destroyed in a nuclear first-strike against the USA. That’s something right? Sadly (not sadly?), this isn’t the case anymore. I was never concerned for a 9/11-style terrorist attack because of Rockford’s total lack of notability. If anyone wanted to make news, they’d hit a high-profile target. Not Rockford. Communism is long gone and no one feels the need to hurl nukes at Rockford anymore.
Rockford does have a few notable things about it though, if you could call them that. You might’ve heard of the Rockford Peaches, the female baseball team depicted in the Tom Hanks’ film A League of Their Own. You can even see the nearly-forgotten ticket booth that still stands near the river in a fairly run-down and shady looking neighborhood. The actual baseball diamond has long since been demolished and turned into a school. But the ticket booth still stands next to a bunch of shitty houses and small businesses in a neighborhood you probably wouldn’t want to linger in for too long.
Rockford is also known for Sock Monkeys. No one ever explained to me why this was a thing. And I don’t want to read up on why it’s a thing either.
Cheap Trick, a fairly famous rock band popular in the 70s and 80s also came from Rockford. Strangely I’ve never really listened to them. In fact I feel less inclined to listen to them because they came from Rockford, like I feel pressured to be a fan because of the city I live in or some shit. Their most famous work is At Bufokado (really At Budokan but my attempt at spelling it as “Bufokado” was hilarious enough to leave in place) which actually is a pretty decent album. As for the rest of their discography? I have no idea. At Bufokado was good at least. All I do know is Rockford — the city, the actual government apparatus that is Rockford — felt that Cheap Trick was notable enough to plop signs up of them randomly around the city. I’m especially aware of the one on Spring Creek Road. It shows a bunch of old musicians with Rick Nielsen, their guitarist, looking like a fucking immature kid. Like that’s his look or something. With the stupid guitar with the five necks to it for some reason. He always has this goofy smirk on his face and something about him is immensely punchable (maybe he isn’t that bad). Cheap Trick. Rockford. Yay.
Note: Rick Nielsen looks even worse when he was sporting a beard/goatee thing. Everything about that look oozes child molester. I don’t know how he ever thought that was a good look for him. Go Google it.
OOoo and before I forget, Fred VanVleet, a big basketball player dude, also grew up in Rockford. He won the 2019 NBA Championship playing with the Toronto Raptors. Yay? I mean cool for him, great job!, but who gives a shit that he grew up in Rockford? It doesn’t make Rockford any cooler; it’s not Rockford that made him win the NBA Championship.
The biggest thing Rockford has going for it (if you could call it that) is the aforementioned and terribly-titled Chicago/Rockford International Airport. UPS set up a fancy air hub back in the 90s — supposedly UPS’s second-largest sort facility — which drove literal tons of cargo volume to the airport. In the past few years Amazon has also begun setting up shop at the field and appears to rival UPS in the package delivery business. While air cargo companies don’t make the biggest news, the airport is rather lively, employing thousands of people to sort, ship, and load packages onto airplanes. In a city of 150,000 (as the sign on West State Street claims it to be at least) package and cargo companies might employee perhaps 1 or 2% of the entire city’s population. While no one really knows about it, the
Rockford Airport Chicago/Rockford International Airport is a large cargo airport, one of the largest in the US (according to the link, the 19th largest. Well…). This is probably helped by the total lack of passenger and airline traffic allowing cargo companies to have the airport all to themselves. As the meme goes, it’s ain’t much but it’s honest work. It’s also where I work. (Surprise)
It is the popular and chic thing to talk total shit about Rockford. Everyone who lives here rips on the place nonstop. You can’t help but understand them to some degree. Rockford, as I’ve described, is kinda a black hole of nothingness. There is nothing notable about this place at all besides a few kinda random bullshit things. Old, derelict buildings. An old baseball team they made a movie about. The goddamn infernal sock monkeys. Fred VanVleet. AND CHEAP FUCKIN’ TRICK! It is your typical, bland, and unremarkable midwestern city seemingly well past its prime with nothing for its citizens to be proud of. You can’t make a career here outside of retail and customer service. Even if you find a cushy upper-management job in Rockford you’d almost certainly be working in customer service. Even shipping packages is another form of customer service. To really make something of your life you need to escape, at least to attend a college or a university, only returning with a degree to do something semi-notable.
But outside of all of this, what else does someone want from a city? I really think while some other cities are nicer, have more “going on,” have some semblance of a “scene,” especially in their downtowns, they’re all more or less the same. Sure, while Madison might be nicer, it isn’t some Eden-tier paradise to escape to. I don’t think any city is perfect, and while some are much better than Rockford by whatever metrics you want to measure, who actually gives a shit? While I hate Rockford just as much as the next Rockfordian, I guess I realize that it is home to me. These bombed-out, potholed roads are my bombed-out potholed roads. And the shitty Walmarts that constantly smell like marijuana? Well, they’re my pot-filled Walmarts. The forgotten husks of factories gave my childhood some mystery to think about. The bike path along the river, the lighted Morgan Street Bridge, the uneventful and dead downtown, the bums on the corners begging for money, and the drunkards stumbling around on the roads at 11 p.m., well, it’s all home to me.