On Friday, December 18, 2009, some lucky person became the first motorist in over 35 years to travel a two-block stretch of Main Street in Rockford, Illinois.  The ride must have lasted all of 60 seconds—perhaps 90, if he slowed down to view the handful of restaurants and storefronts that had, until a few months before, been visible only on foot.

This is the way the mall ends: not with a crowd, but a Honda.  Since 1975, the two blocks of Main Street between Mulberry on the north and Elm on the south have been a pedestrian mall, visited each year by a dwindling number of shoppers and diners.  Originally, West State Street, which intersects Main in between the two blocks, was closed off as well, but by January 1984, West State was reopened.  The pedestrian mall had failed.

In reality, the mall had failed before the project even began.  This stretch of Rock­ford’s downtown, the Rockford Register Star noted on June 15, 2009, “had been the retail center of the city since the late 1800s when it featured blacksmith, clothing, furniture and shoe stores.”  Postcards and photos from the 1890’s through the 1950’s show a bustling downtown, with buggies, then streetcars, then automobiles stopping to let crowds of shoppers cross the street.

But the decline of downtown retail began in the late 1960’s, and by the time ground was broken for the mall in 1974, the writing was on the wall.  CherryVale Mall, the Rockford area’s first major suburban shopping mall, had opened in 1973, and the shoppers of decades past had become consumers who would rather drive miles southeast of town to park on a sea of asphalt, so that they could walk as far to the entrance of CherryVale as they would if they had traversed the entire Main and State shopping district.

“There were 48 retailers, restaurants and salons on the mall when it opened in 1975,” the Register Star reported.  By November 1977, Rockford aldermen considered writing off the $1.2 million project as a loss.

J.C. Penney, D.J. Stewart & Co., Ruth D. Clark women’s clothing, Pin Ball Wizard, Fannie May Candy, Stuckey’s men’s clothing, Tom Harmer Athletic Equipment, Rowland’s Jewelers, Barker’s Shoes and the Akropolis Restaurant, among others, had all moved out or closed by 1980.

Today, “A men’s clothing store and an office supply are the only two retailers of the late 1970s left.”

Did the mall kill downtown, or was it simply the final nail in the coffin?  Rockfordians have debated that for years.  My money is on the latter, but if that is right, then the reopening of Main Street—a project first estimated at $1.7 million, then $1.9 million, and finally topping out at $2.45 million—is unlikely to have much effect.  For a few weeks, maybe a month, some Rockfordians will make their way through the snow and the slush to drive those two blocks for the sheer novelty of the experience, but by spring pedestrians will be able to cross in the middle of the block without first looking both ways.

Part of the problem is that the system of one-way streets designed to funnel traffic around the pedestrian mall remains in place.  To get to Main and Mulberry or to Main and Elm, you have to make an effort.  Three-and-a-half decades of habit is hard to break—and for most Rockfordians, the incentive for breaking it simply does not exist.

Meanwhile, less than a mile and a half up North Main, the same city leaders who tore up the pedestrian mall seem determined to repeat, mutatis mutandis, the mistake their forebears made downtown.  The North End retail district, on North Main between Myott on the south and Auburn on the north, has struggled for years, and the Powers That Be have determined that the solution is a massive roundabout at the intersection of North Main and Auburn.  The roundabout, they argue, will ease the flow of traffic through the intersection, and thus (almost as if by magic) attract more cars, whose drivers will feel compelled (why, no one can quite say) to patronize the businesses and restaurants of the North End.

Of course, to do so, they will have to turn off of Main Street and find their way to a lot behind the storefronts, since there is no parking on this stretch of North Main.

What no one seems to have considered, at either end of Main Street, is that the natural clientele for a small shopping district are those who live within walking distance.  And the walking distance of the average Rockfordian is not that much different from that of the average American—about 20 feet, from the front door to the garage and back again.

Unless, of course, he’s parked at the mall.