Rockford is the third largest city in the U.S. state of Illinois, the 164th most populous city in the United States, and the 148th most populous region in the United States. It is the county seat of Winnebago County and is located on both banks of the Rock River in far northern Illinois. According to 2010 census data, the City of Rockford had a population of 152,871, with an outlying metropolitan area population of 348,360, which was estimated to have decreased to 150,251 and 344,623, respectively, by July 2013.
Settled between 1834 and 1835, Rockford was strategically positioned between Chicago and Galena and thus became suitable for industrial development. Rockford was notable for its output of heavy machinery and tools; by the twentieth century, it was the second leading center of furniture manufacturing in the nation. Its decline, emblematic of other cities in the Rust Belt, led to economic diversification into automotive, aerospace, and healthcare industries, as well as the undertaking of various tourism and downtown revitalization efforts.
Referred to as the Forest City, Rockford is known for various venues of cultural or historical significance, including Anderson Japanese Gardens, Klehm Arboretum, Tinker Swiss Cottage, the BMO Harris Bank Center, the Coronado Theatre, the Laurent House, and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Moreover, its contributions to music are noted in the Mendelssohn Club, the oldest music club in the nation, and performers such as Phantom Regiment and Cheap Trick.
Settlement and development
Rockford was founded by New Englanders in in 1834 as separate settlements (commonly known as Kentville and Haightville, for the founders of each) on each side of the river and originally called Midway. Galena resident Germanicus Kent, his associate Thatcher Blake, and his slave Lewis Lemon are credited as the original settlers of Midway along the west bank of the Rock River; in addition, Daniel Shaw Haight is credited for completing the same task along the east bank. It was established as the county seat over rivaling communities Winnebago and Roscoe in 1836. Due to the area's proximity to a ford across the Rock River, the village of Midway was renamed Rockford in 1837 by arriving New Englanders.
Rockford was chartered as a city in 1852, following the establishment of a post office in 1837 (of which Shaw Height served in as the first postmaster) and a weekly newspaper in 1840. Growth was fueled by the charter of Rockford Female Seminary in 1847 and a connection to the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad in 1852. The New York Tribune inspired the metonym The Forest City for Rockford in 1853.
The decision of John Henry Manny to locate production of his horse-powered combine harvester in Rockford attributed to a local rise in agricultural machinery manufacturing. Swedish furniture cooperatives did the same for their respective industry. The Rockford Union Furniture Company, under John Erlander, spearheaded these cooperatives; today, Erlander's home is a Rockford museum, demonstrating his efforts in elevating Rockford to second in furniture manufacturing in the nation, behind Grand Rapids.
In the antebellum period, Rockford shared abolitionist leanings, lending considerable support to the Free Soil Party. In 1848, 42 percent of voters in Winnebago County, which Rockford dominated as the county seat, voted for Martin Van Buren. Four years later, John P. Hale became the first presidential candidate to visit the burgeoning city, although the returns on that visit were minimal, given that he received only 28 percent of the vote. During the Civil War, one of the first Illinois regiments to be mobilized, the Zouaves, were from Rockford, which served as the site for Camp Fuller, a training site for four other infantry regiments.
The Rockford Female Seminary became the alma mater of Jane Addams in 1881. This move accompanied the Seminary's transition into a more complete curriculum, which was represented by its renaming to Rockford College in 1892. Culture flourished with the founding of the Mendelssohn Club in 1884, which became the oldest operating music club in the United States. This was complemented by the construction of a Carnegie library in 1902, which became the first building of Rockford's public library system. 1903 saw the dedication of the Winnebago County Veterans Memorial Hall in the presence of sitting President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt returned to Rockford during his campaign in 1912 and later to address the soldiers at Camp Grant, a training site for World War I soldiers.
The twentieth century saw demographic changes to Rockford. An influx of Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, and African Americans replaced the previously dominant Irish and Swedes. The city was also no stranger to contemporary political issues. Electorally divided between wets and drys on the subject of prohibition, Rockford featured a coalition of labor unionists and socialists that elected numerous aldermen and carried 25 to 40 percent in mayoral elections. During World War I, an antiwar protest by the International Workers of the World led to 118 arrests. In 1920, the city was a target of the Palmer Raids. While its congressional district favored Republicans, Rockford itself continuously elected former Socialists as mayor between 1921 and 1955.
Prior to World War II, Rockford became home to Kegel Harley-Davidson, which became the oldest family-owned Harley-Davidson dealership in existence. One of its contemporary attractions, the Coronado Theatre, was opened in 1927. Notable for its atmospheric styling, the Coronado rivaled its counterparts in Chicago and was later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Camp Grant was turned over to the Illinois National Guard. During the war, it reopened as an induction center and POW detention camp. USS Rockford, a Tacoma-class frigate named for the city, was commissioned in March 1944 and earned two service stars.
In a September 1949 issue of Life Magazine, postwar Rockford was described as "nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be." Due to this archetypal nature, sociologists like W. Lloyd Warner warned of the necessity to "understand the realities of their system." Heavily dependent on manufacturing and experiencing a shift in economic development toward its eastern borders, Rockford began to suffer irrevocable decline. Impetuses for this shift in economic development include the construction of the Northwest Tollway in 1958, the new campus for Rockford College in 1964, and the campus of Rock Valley College and the Chrysler Belvidere Assembly Plant in 1965 near the eastern periphery of the city rather than downtown.
Efforts to revitalize the downtown were made in the 1970s with the construction of a pedestrian mall and a ten thousand-seat multipurpose arena. The former sectioned off Rockford's Main Street, impeding vehicle traffic, to the criticism of nearby business owners. The latter, the MetroCentre, opened in 1981 to performances by Dionne Warwick and The Rolling Stones. State grants were also consulted to reverse the trend, such as those that funded an Alexander Liberman sculpture placed at a downtown intersection in 1978. However, further decay occurred in the 1980s, such as the end of Amtrak service on the Black Hawk rail route from Chicago in 1981 and the closure of the Coronado Theatre due to declining revenues in 1984.
The emphasis given to eastern areas in Rockford have rendered their western counterparts with blighted neighborhoods. In 2002, Rockford's public school system was court-ordered to spend $250 million on upgrades to western schools after it was found culpable for discrimination against residents served by them, many of whom were African American.
Economic diversification has been difficult but ongoing for the area. The aerospace industry, represented by Woodward and UTC Aerospace Systems, is dominant in Rockford. Loves Park, a suburb, was selected by Woodward for a $200 million manufacturing campus toward its energy control and optimization systems in 2012. Boeing included Rockford in a list of five finalists to manufacture the 777X during union disputes in 2014. The healthcare industry, represented by OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center and SwedishAmerican Hospital, is also involved. SwedishAmerican, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, opened a $39 million Regional Cancer Center in 2013.
Downtown improvements became more evident in the first decade. The Coronado Theatre reopened after an $18.5 million renovation in 2001. The controversial pedestrian mall was removed, returning Main Street to a two-lane thoroughfare complete with cafe-style seating and wind-powered streetlights. The MetroCentre underwent a $20 million renovation, prompting interest in the purchasing of its naming rights; the arena was subsequently renamed the BMO Harris Bank Center. An open-air amphitheatre and a riverwalk were constructed to tie the Discovery Center Museum and the Burpee Museum of National History together. Most significantly, the Stanley J. Roszkowski U.S. Courthouse was constructed for $100 million and the restoration of daily Black Hawk rail service began, scheduled for completion in 2015, for $223 million.
Even before the Great Recession had an effect on Rockford, the city was impacted by flooding of its Keith Creek in both 2006 and 2007. Grants were won from FEMA to widen the creek and demolish over one hundred homes to stem the severity of future floods. Since the crisis set in, population has only declined. Thirty two percent of the area's mortgages were underwater by 2013; Forbes rated Rockford number three on its America's Most Miserable Cities list in the same year. In the first four months of 2014, the unemployment rate of Rockford declined from 12.9 percent to 9.2 percent, but these figures remained well above the national average.