I first entered Rockford the way that most people do when they’re coming from the east, taking the exit off I-90 onto East State Street, where the ramp T-bones into the Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center, now closed for good but then, in November 1995, still home to “the world’s most comprehensive collection of clocks, watches and other timekeepers—rivaling the renowned clock room of the British Museum and the other famous clock collections in Europe.”  Twenty-five years old at the time, the Clock Tower stood as both a reminder of the industrial craftsmanship of Rockford’s past and a promise of the city’s glorious future, in which the fertile farmland of Northern Illinois would disappear under acres of parking lots crowned with chain stores and restaurants—asphalt to asphalt, box to box.  A few years later, the Time Museum would disappear as well, when Seth Atwood, scion of one of the earliest families to settle this stretch of the Rock River and an industrialist and philanthropist in his own right, put the collection that he had spent so many years assembling in his hometown up for auction at Sotheby’s (from which the catalog text above was drawn), to be divided up and scattered to the four winds.  Tempus fugit, literally.

As I turned west on a slush-covered East State Street on that cold, gray day, I saw the future of Rockford rising up among fields then still unpaved, and I almost turned back, after nearly five hours of driving through a miserable winter storm from my hometown in West Michigan.  But the farther west I headed down State Street, the more the years slipped away, as I passed through stretches of 80’s-era strip malls, to 70’s-era shopping centers, to older liquor stores and restaurants with classic signs from the 60’s and 50’s, to the outer edges of Rockford’s residential district with its postwar construction, on into the earliest 20th-century “suburban” neighborhoods on Rockford’s east side, now essentially the city’s core.  And finally, as State Street began its descent down to the ford in the Rock River for which the city is named, I caught sight of the downtown, and decided that I wouldn’t turn around after all.

When, a mere six weeks later, we moved into our apartment on the northwest side of Rockford, I was surprised and disappointed to learn from my colleagues at The Rockford Institute that downtown was not what I had hoped it would be.  The few restaurants closed early on weekdays, and had limited (if any) weekend hours; outside of a two-story furniture outlet, shopping was limited to stores that would struggle along for a few months, then close up shop.  If you went downtown at night, I was told, you were looking for trouble, and the news reports of shootings outside of, and occasionally in, sketchy bars and clubs seemed to bear that out.  Downtown Rockford hadn’t been really vibrant since the early 1960’s, and by the mid-1970’s it had gone the way of so many Midwestern city centers, never (the consensus was) to recover.

But a funny thing happened on the way to total collapse: The past became present once more.  Republican mayors in the 60’s and 70’s, convinced that progress required erasing the past, did their best to try to destroy the historic character of downtown, and their Democratic successors in the 80’s and 90’s continued that destruction, even in the first few years that we lived here in Rockford.  But eventually “progress” ground to a halt, and the past began to reassert itself.

“[T]he past isn’t so easily destroyed,” writes Jack Finney in his Bradburyesque story “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime”; “it’s not simply gone with yesterday’s newspaper.  No, it is not, for it has been far too much—we are all products of it—to ever be completely gone.”  In Finney’s tale, the ghosts of the past literally intervene to prevent the destruction of parts of Galesburg that provide a concrete link to the city’s history—buildings, farms, stands of venerable trees.

The storefronts of downtown Rockford, and the apartments above them, are both now almost entirely filled, decades after the downtown was left for dead.  These buildings did not revive themselves, yet the human-scale architecture of Rockford’s past provided fodder for the imagination of a new generation, one that longs for cultural goods that their great-grandparents took for granted, and that their grandparents and parents did their damnedest to destroy: cultural goods like local restaurants that serve locally grown food and locally brewed beer, local stores that sell locally produced handmade goods, local bars that feature homegrown musical acts—and the community that all of these things foster.

Rockford’s downtown lives again because enough of it wasn’t utterly destroyed, and because human nature, despite our best attempts to remake it, is the same now as it was when those buildings were built.  Like calls out to like, as Rockford’s past, in the form of its then-“dead” downtown, called out to me over two decades ago, in a way that its “living” future never did.

The clocks on the Clock Tower, once a symbol of that future, stopped working years ago.  After a long winter of cultural devastation, springtime has arrived, and Rockford’s past may be its future once more.