Monday, May 23, 2011

“Worst City in America” -- How Rampant Globalization Transformed Rockford, Illinois

Not many people have the "honor" of having the city near where they grew up named as the “Worst City in America.” I am one of those unfortunate souls. In 1996, Money magazine ranked the mid-sized rust belt burg of Rockford, Illinois, dead last among 300 U.S. cities in terms of quality of life. Money’s reasoning was simple: “few jobs and not-great health care.” And this was at a time when the tech-boom was fueling one of the fastest periods of economic expansion in recent American history.

By the time that article came out I had graduated from college and was long gone to the East Coast, but I was taken aback that Rockford could be named the worst of the worst. Surely, I thought, the place couldn’t possibly have become THAT bad in the half-decade or so since I had split town for good. Could the hometown of notable Presidential candidate John Anderson, the great classic rock band Cheap Trick and early 80s porn star and long time Charlie Sheen girlfriend Ginger Lynn Allen really have sunk so low?

Obviously, Rockford wasn’t always the butt of such derision. In fact, back in 1949 Life magazine actually said, “It is as nearly typical as any city can be.” Okay, so maybe that doesn’t bring to mind a glorious land of milk and honey, but it sure sounds like a pleasant place to live rather than an absolute urban hellhole.

So what happened? Well, unfortunately for Rockford and surrounding environs more than half of its earnings back then came from manufacturing…well above the national average at the time. Sundstrand Corporation, Woodward Governor Company, Airbrush Manufacturing, Hanson Clock Company and Hess & Hopkins Leather Company were just some of the industrial concerns headquartered there. In 1965, a major Chrysler assembly plant also opened in nearby Belvedere. Rockford was a town where things were built, and for nearly a century it formed part of the vital backbone of the American economy and supported tens of thousands of good paying blue-collar jobs.

Starting in the 1970s, however, all of that began to change as American corporations started to export manufacturing jobs overseas in search of cheaper labor. The trend accelerated in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, a politician who was revered as a near-deity in conservative Rockford despite the fact that he repeatedly knifed its working class labor base in the back. The final nail in the coffin then came under Bill Clinton, who despite being a Democrat and alleged union supporter pushed through “free” trade agreements like NAFTA, completing the process of globalization that was the demise of manufacturing cities like Rockford.

Rockford’s downfall from the kind of place where working men (and later working women) were proud to raise a family to a post-industrial wasteland was a bipartisan effort more than a quarter-century in the making. It all boiled down to the fact that there was more money to be made in destroying America’s manufacturing base than there was in preserving it. Some cites that have fallen victim to this vicious turn in the business cycle have tried to arrest their decline by transforming themselves into tourist Meccas. But a place like Rockford, situated as it is among the Illinois cornfields and possessing little of historical interest, hardly has that option. The only factor preventing a complete collapse in the local economy to date is that the eastern section of the city lies close enough to the ever-expanding Chicago suburbs to derive at least some economic benefit.

Like the scenes in Michael Moore’s stinging documentary, Roger and Me--about the similar decline of his own hometown of Flint, Michigan--where hapless local officials try to arrest the decline of their city with increasingly desperate economic development schemes, Rockford’s city leaders have tried their best to revitalize the town in recent years. Their lack of success can be measured by the fact that Forbes magazine just recently ranked Rockford as the 14th Most Miserable City in America, stating:
“Once known as the Screw Capital of the World because of the billions of screws and bolts made locally, Rockford has struggled with high crime as well as soaring unemployment, which is expected to average 16.9% this year.”
But hey, at least the locals can take comfort in the fact that so many other places have been hammered even harder the past few years that they aren’t dead last anymore.

With Peak Oil-induced economic collapse sure to accelerate in the coming years, economically distressed places like Rockford are going to decline even faster. It is as inevitable as the fact that all those abandoned factory buildings will never be reopened. Thus we will witness the downward spiral into economic oblivion of countless American communities that not too long ago people were actually proud to have called their hometowns.


  1. "But hey, at least the locals can take comfort in the fact that so many other places have been hammered even harder the past few years that they aren’t dead last anymore."

    Those places would be the Nail Capitals of the world?

  2. Actually, Harry, it was largely the Meccas of real estate fraud. Many of those that beat out Rockford in misery on the recent Forbes list were in Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California.

    Fitting I guess that the destruction of the "new" economy is catching up with that of the old.

  3. I was born in Rockford in 1950. After living most of my adult life on the east coast, I was shocked to see, on a recent visit back home,the state of ruinous decline that is Rockford today. And the now elderly residents still cling to the short sighted Republican party policies of money-first short time gain with no forethought or public investment in the future. Note that long ago "industrialist" (recently deceased) Seth Atwood closed all of his manufacturing down, fired everybody, and started a bank. Here is where the "smart money" was headed as I left the town I loved. There remain, however, some of the finest homes in the country, available at cheap prices. The magnificent Atwood house on Harlem Blvd. on the river was sold two years ago for $550,000 and Zillow values it today at $450,000.

    1. Hi Bob. Thanks for checking in. The last time I visited Rockford (or Freeport, where I actually grew up) was in 2006, and even then before the financial crash the decline was stunning. I feel really bad for those who are stuck without jobs back home.

  4. In 2007, my employer wanted a business forcast for the coming year (2008). A few key strokes and phone calls revealed the Rockford metro area had lost 9,000+ jobs since 2000. There were also 5.7 million square feet of empty manufacturing space. As my employer served the manufacturing base, it was plain to see why revenues were falling. In September of 2008 we hit the wall. Wages for those who still work in manufacturing have tanked also. A machine shop instector in a small company can expect the make about $12.00/hr. That's what the same job payed in 1980 if you were in a union

  5. It makes me sad to read the seemingly never-ending negative reviews of my home town. I have a lot of priceless memories growing up in Rockford, but like most people who wanted to attend college after high school I left and never looked back. I think that is Rockford's number one problem- all the ambitious smart people don't have a reason to come back after getting a higher education.

  6. 'Rust Belt'... That was just plain rude...

  7. What these replies miss is the huge change in attitude among so many of the locals. When I was a kid growing up in Rockford, the typical complaint is that the people want things to stay as they are. During an extended stay decades later, I found that, plus a noxious meanness along with over-defensiveness and power-trips. Over and over again when I asked people there why the city is so bad, I would get, "It's the people." I quite agree.