There’s a big brown cloud in the city,

And the countryside’s a sin.

The price of life is too high to give up,

It’s gotta come down again.

When worldwide war is over and done,

And the dream of peace comes true.

We’ll all be drinking that free Bubble Up,

And eating that rainbow stew.

Normally, I wouldn’t think of quoting the Poet of Walden Pond alongside the Bard of the Working Man, but Thoreau’s words seem to share a certain kinship with the anti-utopian sentiments that underlie Merle Haggard’s bouncy lyrics:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation; a stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.

Driving past the strip malls and big-box stores of East State Street, watching cars dart in and out of 40-acre parking lots as their occupants desperately take advantage of the after-Christmas sales, I have to wonder whether Thoreau could ever have conceived of a day when “the games and amusements of mankind” consisted primarily of buying, on credit, cheap Chinese-made products at Wal-Mart.

While Rockford “consumers” were being taken advantage of by chain stores based anywhere but here, the New York Times was visiting Rockford.  In an article published on January 4, entitled “The Joyless Recovery,” Edmund L. Andrews showed a greater understanding of the challenges facing Rockford than the entire staff of the Rockford Register Star (with the notable exception of political editor Chuck Sweeny, who, over the past year, has experienced something of an epiphany about the effects of free trade on his hometown).  Worse yet, Andrews seems to have his finger more firmly on the pulse of Rockford than our own political and business leaders, who continue to ignore the obvious, even though the quiet desperation on the face of the average Rockfordian shows that he knows the truth: Rockford, as we have known it, is dying.

Back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, per capita income in Rockford was amongthe highest in the nation.  Ten years later, unemployment was over 20 percent.  Today, one of Rockford’s ZIP codes—61104—is the ninth-poorest white ZIP code in the United States.

One of my earliest columns on Rock-ford, “A Month in the Life of the Industrial Midwest” (April 2001), examined a month’s worth of stories from the business section of the Register Star, a month during which the Rockford area lost two businesses, well over 4,000 manufacturing jobs, and over 100 retail positions.  In the preceding 18 months, nearly 20 area companies had “downsized.”  After the column appeared, one of our East Coast readers sent us an article from the Washington Post that seemed to contradict my pessimistic outlook, arguing that Rockford was actually successfully converting from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based one.  Now that the area has lost an additional 20,000 manufacturing jobs and unemployment is approaching levels not seen since the recession of the early 1980’s (which locally amounted to a depression), no one is making that claim.

No one, that is, except Robert Levin, the executive director of the Council of 100, a local business group founded in 1982, in the throes of that earlier recession.  The council essentially functions as the local equivalent of an international NGO, lobbying government for policies favorable to business and attempting to attract new businesses to the Rockford area.  And, like many NGO’s, it has been funded (to the tune of $100,000 per year since 1983) by government.

In theory, the Council of 100 is not a bad idea: Bring the heads of some of the largest businesses in Rockford together with government officials to increase cooperation in order to revitalize the local economy.  And there’s no doubt that the council, working hand-in-glove with Democratic Mayor John McNamara throughout the 1980’s, helped create the “development” on East State Street that put Rockford on the road to “recovery.”

Throughout the 1990’s, however, the council, along with other nongovernmental organizations such as the Rockford Area Chamber of Commerce and the Rockford Area Association of Realtors, played along with McNamara’s successor, Democratic Mayor Charles Box, and endorsed a series of tax increases (both those imposed illegally by a federal judge and those presented to the voters through referenda) that financed Rockford’s disastrous 12-year-long school-desegregation lawsuit.  And long after Rockford regained an uneasy economic footing, the council continued to focus on retail and service-sector expansion, to the detriment of small manufacturing, long the backbone of Rockford’s economy.

Today, the Council of 37 (as local radio talk-show host Chris Bowman refers to the dwindling and increasingly ineffective organization) is dominated by banks, healthcare providers, and media outlets, with the occasional developer, politician, and university president thrown in for good measure.  The number of manufacturers represented on the council has declined, in part because of the loss of manufacturing in Rockford, in part because many of the largest manufacturers remaining in Rockford are now subsidiaries of companies based elsewhere, and in part because Rockford’s small manufacturers have no reason to believe that the council represents their interests.

And so it was no surprise to read that Levin told the New York Times, quite matter-of-factly, that “We are in a global economy, and we are in the throes of a major transformation.”  Rockford can simply “reinvent” itself once more.  If retail cannot sustain the local economy—since credit cards do have limits, and the Chinese worker who is now performing your job is unlikely to pay your bill for you—then Rockfordians can work at a state-of-the-art telephone call center (until Bombay makes MCI an offer it can’t refuse) or load packages on planes for UPS at eight dollars an hour, four hours a night (plus benefits).  Levin probably takes Merle’s lyrics at face value, too.

When they find out how to burn water,

And the gasoline car is gone.

When an airplane flies without any fuel,

And the sunlight heats our home.

One of these days when the air clears up,

And the sun comes shining through.

We’ll all be drinking that free Bubble Up,

And eating that rainbow stew.

Roger McGrath has noted sadly that, for years, people outside of California believed that they would be unaffected by the problems caused by mass immigration.  Now, when it may be too late, they are finally beginning to wake up.

The same is true of Rockford’s plight, which has been featured recently not only in the New York Times but in the Village Voice (“Attention, Wal-Mart Voters,” December 3-9, 2003), the Boston Globe (“‘The Lights Are Going Off’: Lost Jobs in Rockford, Ill., Underscore Free Trade Issue,” October 20, 2003), and even the Australian Financial Review (“Down the Gurgler,” November 5, 2003).  It seems that outsiders are beginning to realize what some in this city have known all along: Rockford is a microcosm of America, not only politically and ethnically but economically.  Is it too much to hope that, someday, Rockford’s leadership will understand this as well?

You don’t have to get high to get happy,

Just think about what’s in store.

When people start doing what they ought to be doing,

Then they won’t be booing no more.

When a President goes through the White House door,

Does what he says he’ll do.

We’ll all be drinking that free Bubble Up,

And eating that rainbow stew.