The first time I drove to Rockford, on a cold, gray, slushy November day six years ago, I entered the city the way most people do.  Heading west on I-90, I got off at the East State Street exit, where I was greeted by a horrifying metal sign, in muted oranges, purples, and greens, welcoming me to Rockford.  As I headed west on State Street, every big-box store and chain restaurant known to man rose up before me, starting with the granddaddy of them all: Wal-Mart.  My spirits sank as I drove along, and I seriously considered turning around and going home to Michigan.  Still, as I went farther west, I noticed that there seemed to be more local businesses in older buildings.

Then I hit Fairview Avenue.  Sitting at the light at Fairview and State, I could see a gentle, wooded hill rising before me, leading into a 1950’s to 60’s era neighborhood.  As the light changed and I continued west, the years melted away: the 60’s, the 50’s, the 40’s, a bit of the 30’s, and then the 20’s.  A wonderful progression of architectural styles stretched along East State.  This, I decided, was indeed a place I could live.

As I entered the heart of the East State Street residential district, I topped a hill and came to a stop at the light at State and Welty.  A spectacular old two-story white mansion sat on the south side of the street, with two low wings and a vast  lawn.  I remember thinking, I wonder who lives there?

As of Monday, December 17, 2001, I know the answer.  That is the night that the Rockford City Council voted to approve a special-use permit to allow Rosecrance Health Networks to use the house as a “recovery home for young adolescent women between the ages of 14-18, not to exceed 12 residents plus staff in an R-1, Single-Family Residential Zoning District.”  Rosecrance will now purchase the house for $299,000 (an enormous sum in the depressed Rockford housing market) from the current owner, who has left it vacant since inheriting it about a year and a half ago.  The house has only been on the market for about nine months, not very long for a house of its size and price in Rockford.  After equipping the house with a sprinkler system, exit signs, and a new furnace—which Rosecrance head Phil Eaton estimates will take three to four months—Rosecrance will begin moving girls from its current halfway house on North Main Street, two blocks up from the offices of Chronicles.

Six months after we moved to Rockford, my wife and I bought a home on East State, six blocks west of Rosecrance’s new halfway mansion.  Although we knew at the time that our neighborhood is what is politely called “marginal,” we wanted to live in an actual neighborhood, with real neighbors.  During the first two years in our home (which was built in 1921), we watched the area, especially southeast of us, decline fairly dramatically.  Up to half of the houses on some blocks are rental units owned by absentee landlords, and an increasing number of drug dealers and prostitutes had begun to call our neighborhood home.

Then, three years ago, Gay Campbell—a tall, thin, tough blonde who was tired of getting the runaround when she called the Rockford police—decided to form the Highland Neighborhood Association.  About 100 angry people showed up for the first meeting at Bethesda Covenant Church.  Since then, the Highland Neighborhood Association has become one of the most active neighborhood organizations in Rockford, and—through neighborhood watch (and occasional patrols), cleanup days, landscaping parties, and constant pressure on absentee landlords, the Rockford police, and Rockford city government—it has turned our neighborhood around.

One of the chief goals of the Highland Neighborhood Association has been to maintain the residential character of the neighborhood, particularly of East State.  We do have some businesses scattered among the houses, but they are small, low-traffic establishments that complement the character of the neighborhood.  (Our family dentist, for instance, has his office in his house just across the street from us.)  And so it should have come as no surprise to anyone when the Highland Neighborhood Association gathered over 1,000 signatures—over 80 percent from a six-block radius around the house—opposing Rosecrance’s request for a special-use permit.  As Gay Campbell argued, having commercial or non-family residential houses in the neighborhood “is not the same feeling.  When you buy your home, you want to have neighbors.”

Phil Eaton did his best to tar those of us who opposed the halfway house, claiming that “this a suitable area, and I reject profiling of any form.”  In the end, of course, he need not have worried.  Despite the aldermen’s insistence that they want the Highland Neighborhood Association to be very active and to provide them with input on issues affecting our neighborhood, the vote to approve the special-use permit was ten to three.  

After the council vote, I asked Phil Eaton what his plans were for the halfway house on North Main, once Rosecrance moved the girls over into my neighborhood.  He replied that he was “not sure what our future is for the North Main house.”  Still, he said with a smirk, “Before any plans are finalized, we fully intend to have the Signal Hill Neighborhood Association involved.”  I did not have to ask why he would seek input from Signal Hill after ignoring the wishes of the Highland Neighborhood Association.  The president of Signal Hill, you see, is former Democratic Mayor John McNamara.  Currently president of William Charles Investments, the real-estate development arm of local public contractor Rockford Blacktop, McNamara serves on the board of Rosecrance.

As Frank Schier, the editor and publisher of The Rock River Times (Rockford’s weekly newspaper), commented, “The council’s vote proves that, in Rockford, democracy is a farce.  We don’t have a say in our own neighborhoods.  Here, the oligarchy and special interests rule.  Unfortunately, I am coming to believe that Rockford truly is a mirror of the nation.”