Only a few months after Forbes Magazine named my hometown, Rockford, Illinois, one of America's most dangerous cities in America, a Gallup poll named the city America's fourth fattest, which brought to mind Dean Wormer's infamous words to the members of the Animal House fraternity: "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son," but fat, drunk, stupid AND violent does seem to be the Rockford way.
In 1996 Money Magazine rated Rockford the 300th and worst city in America, an honor which elicited exactly the response you'd expect from people who are fat, stupid, and violent... they started a big fire and burned Money Magazine. Which is, I suppose as good a show of civic pride as one's likely to see around here, but what might be a better response to being called out for being woefully inadequate is to try and get better. But that shit ain't going to fly around these parts. The outrage over Money Magazine's appraisal of our worth soon dissipated, but what didn't go away was the blight, ignorance, and resignation to failure that caused the ranking in the first place.
I was born in Swedish American hospital 43 years ago. I currently live two blocks from Swedish American Hospital, where I was born 43 years ago. Is there something wrong with me?
But maybe I just like an underdog. Maybe I like a lost cause. Call me nuts, but maybe I like Rockford. I live on a block with five restaurants, any one of which you could go in and get a really good meal any day of the week. I create poetry and art in a community with other artists I have great respect for. Every day I walk amongst great architecture and pass by shops where people with a deep commitment to this community are trying their best to bring the Downtown area back from the dead. What's more, you get a mile outside of Rockford and you're in the place that feeds the world. It's beautiful. So, what's the problem?
Well, last week I heard sirens and I look out my window, not because there are sirens because that happens hourly, but because we'd been having an unheard of streak of beautiful weather, and I saw the emergency vehicles had coalesced on the next block, also not unusual, because there is a huge, historical hotel there that is now used to house the elderly and if a crane isn't tipping over while workers are repairing the building someone is calling for an ambulance every thirty minutes. But this time it wasn't the Faust, it was the equally historic theater across the street, The Midway.
The roof had fallen in.
Problem is no one will admit to owning the building. No one knows who owns the Midway. Over the past decade several groups have tried to raise public awareness about restoring the Midway, but no owner could be contacted to even talk about selling. So, it sat. And it rotted. And it sat. And it rotted. And eventually the roof fell in.
I contacted the mayor's office that afternoon to inquire why a landowner would be allowed to let a structure on a very busy street sit and rot until it became a public danger, but of course I received no adequate explanation. A week later I have seen no effort to stabilize that building. No one has stepped forward to take responsibility for this symbol of our collective decay and collapse. My guess is whatever powers that be are conspiring to relieve whatever slum lord who allowed this to happen to abrogate his responsibility for fixing it. Hell, that person will now probably make a profit and the city will be left holding the bag for demolishing the building.
I like it here. But I also like boxing, cheap whiskey, and the poetry of Charles Bukowski. I'm far from being shocked by any act of corruption, ignorance, or hatred I see, so all that's left are the good surprises. The times when the underdog wins. Instances of the forsaken and condemned defying expectations and doing the right thing for the right reasons. It happens. It happens here every day. Sometimes a place can be rotten but the people as decent and honest and willing to change for the better as anywhere else.
A good power clean of the filth and sewage that's piled up over generations in this city's places of influence and power might be all that's needed to give Rockford, Illinois a new lease on life. Too many parasites and blood-suckers in this city feeding on the carcass of the past and fending off anyone who wants to make a change with a blind rage to think it will be easy, but it has to be done. Too much federal money simply being poured into a trough for hogs to feed on while no one seems to be offering the oversight to how those funds are allocated to think anyone really cares or wants to make an effort.
There's apathy and there's learned helplessness and there's cynicism here. Maybe this city will never get up off its knees. Maybe there are forces that benefit from a city and a workforce and a populace that has been trained to expect less than nothing. Maybe we all just feed off of each other's sense of helplessness like the Ouroboros, but I'll tell you what, and maybe this is just a spurt of three a.m. bitterness: when the roof collapses on a building in the geographic center of your town, get off your ass and either put the fucking roof back on or at least show enough backbone to make someone get their ass down their and show some sense of civic responsibility. Someone wanted to profiteer from holding that building hostage until it became profitable, and now I want to see that person down there taking responsibility for yet another embarrassment to a city that is too often embarrassed by this type of invisible leadership.
Every bit as beautiful and tragic as it looks.