You can tell a lot about the direction in which a city is headed by paying attention to the types of buildings being built, and those being torn down. Here in Rockford, for some years now, the latter have disproportionately been factories, including some which once made Rockford the manufacturing powerhouse of the Upper Midwest.
The latest casualties were 2 of the 11 buildings on the Barber-Colman campus in southwest Rockford. Built in the early 1900’s to manufacture textile machines, Barber-Colman still employed more than 3,300 people as late at 1981. Three years later, Barber-Colman, which had grown too rapidly through mergers and acquisitions, sold the Rock Street operations to Reed-Chatwood. After Reed-Chatwood went under in 1999, the property changed hands a few times before being bought by the city of Rockford in 2002. It has sat vacant ever since, a silent monument to Rockford’s past.
The other nine buildings probably won’t come down, but only because the Barber-Colman campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That a new manufacturer will move into the buildings is even less likely than the city successfully redeveloping them into a commercial or residential complex—which is not likely at all.
While factories went down, a new “industry” rose in their wake. The healthcare “industry” now vies with the public-school system as the largest employer in Rockford, and each of the city’s three hospitals—Rockford Memorial, OSF Saint Anthony, and SwedishAmerican—has a shiny new building or six to prove it. At the beginning of this decade, Swedes (as Rockfordians call it) convinced the city of Rockford to use eminent domain to take a chunk of a neighborhood south of its main facility, dramatically reroute Charles Street, and free up space to expand its campus.
In truth, it didn’t take much effort to convince the city fathers to disrupt traffic, let alone people’s lives. After all, healthcare is the “service industry” of the future. Never mind that the institutions of healthcare don’t produce anything tangible—not even, in many cases, health. What is important is that the wives of laid-off factory workers can get jobs emptying bedpans while their husbands go through federally funded retraining to learn how to . . . empty bedpans. Why should anyone have to deal with the grit and grime and noise of manufacturing, when he can be exposed to contagious diseases in a sparkling environment—and at a fraction of his former wages!
In the past few years, even the healthcare “industry” has been hit hard by the collapsing economy. Oddly enough, laid-off factory workers who have bare-bones or no health insurance are reluctant to agree to the CAT scans and MRIs and other expensive diagnostic measures that helped fund the physical expansion of the “industry” over the past two decades. So now hospitals are retrenching and looking to consolidate, and OSF and Rockford Health System (the parent corporations of OSF Saint Anthony and Rockford Memorial) are exploring the possibility of a merger.
A few months ago, I mentioned Rockford’s new 6,000-square-foot mosque, a four-story structure topped with a traditional golden dome and accompanied by a green-and-gold minaret. Attached to the Muslim Association of Greater Rockford’s community center and school, the gleaming new mosque is as much a symbol of the future of Rockford as the decaying Barber-Colman campus is of its past.
And it is a future that is supported by, among others, the healthcare “industry” and some of the remnants of traditional manufacturing. The local Muslim community is disproportionately composed of doctors and engineers, and in a story welcoming the new mosque, the Rockford Register Star noted that
SwedishAmerican Hospital displays pictures of the mosque on its website and uses it as well as the nearby K-12 Rockford Iqra School as a recruiting tool to draw Muslim doctors and other professionals to the area. . . . Local hospitals are drawing Muslim doctors, and aerospace manufacturer Hamilton Sundstrand is drawing Muslim engineers.
Of course, not all Muslims attracted by the new mosque’s call to prayer are doctors and engineers; some, like the eight men arrested in federal raids at seven local businesses on December 14, allegedly make their living off of wire fraud and trafficking in counterfeit goods.
But no one ever said that Rockford’s transition to the new service economy would be easy. If you want to make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs.
Just don’t expect to get a side of bacon with it.