It’s springtime once again in Rockford, when a young man’s fancy turns to bailing out his basement.  The old downtown and the residential neighborhoods built up through the 1940’s sit on clay soil, on top of rock.  The effect, when the spring rains come and the dry clay cannot absorb the water quickly enough, is to send new homeowners scurrying to Home Depot to discover that their neighbors have bought the last wet/dry vac.  After a year or two, Rockfordians settle into a pattern and offer a little prayer of gratitude when, occasionally, summer rolls around and their basements have remained dry.  Nature intrudes, and man, as he has for millennia, adjusts.

Rockford is known as “The Forest City,” and not without reason.  Once they get past the strip malls and vinyl-sided developments of East State Street, visitors are often surprised by the number of trees, expecting, I guess, every Midwestern industrial city to look like Steubenville, Ohio.  We do have our “brownfields,” especially in the southeastern part of the city, but even those tend to be surrounded by green.  Wildlife—squirrels, birds (including turkeys, hawks, and eagles), raccoons, opossums, even the occasional deer—is abundant.  It is in the post-industrial landscapes of the last 50 years—with their Wal-Marts, chain restaurants, and suburbs built on fertile farmland—where man has most intruded on nature, and nature has been forced to yield.

Conventional wisdom gives much of the credit for Rockford’s greenery to the Rockford Park District, and, for once, conventional wisdom is largely correct.  Founded in 1909, the park district is, by Midwestern standards, relatively ancient.  For the first 50 years, its mission was clear: acquire land and preserve islands of green within an expanding city.  Today, there are 173 separate neighborhood parks, most of which are fairly simple: an acre or two of wooded and grassy land, perhaps with a backstop or a soccer field, and usually a swingset.  The park district’s website proudly claims “Over eight million visits to parks and recreation facilities by local residents, visitors, and tourists occur each year”—not bad for a city of 150,000.

Like the public schools that E. Christian Kopff discusses elsewhere in this issue, parks (pace our libertarian friends) are a legitimate pursuit of local governments, particularly in urban areas where asphalt, small yards, and an ever-increasing distance out to the edge of town remove man from the day-to-day contact with nature that his Creator intended him to have.  That doesn’t mean, however, that every park-related action taken by local government is necessary or that some don’t undermine others.

Case in point: In April 1956, the voters of Rockford gave the Rockford Park District the authority to move beyond land acquisition and maintenance and to provide year-round recreational programs—at taxpayer expense, of course.  Today, “the District offers about 700 different recreational programs, activities, and spectacular special events throughout the year, while operating 30 different recreational facilities.”  These programs (including, as a Rockford Register Star editorial put it, “horseback-riding therapy”) have increasingly become the primary focus of the park district’s activities, to the point where, as the district has found itself in a budget crunch over the past few years, maintenance of neighborhood parks has suffered.

In a local economy hit hard by layoffs and plant closings (unemployment shot into double digits—10.9 percent—in February, with no end in sight) and, paradoxically, by low interest rates, which have driven abnormally low housing prices (the result of our 13-year-long school-desegregation lawsuit) up by as much as 40 percent over the past year, the Rockford Park District decided to ask the voters to approve its first tax increase in 13 years.  Not surprisingly, the 22.5-cent increase per $100 of assessed value was roundly rejected by two thirds of the voters at the election on April Fool’s Day, even though more than half of the money raised would have gone toward security, maintenance of existing parks, and the acquisition of more land.  When people are having trouble feeding their children and keeping their homes, “recreation” is among the least of their worries.

The failure of the referendum should act as a wakeup call to the park-district commissioners, but it probably won’t.  Rather than slashing programs and returning the district to its roots, the commissioners were already warning before the election that, if voters rejected the tax hike, there would be little money for maintenance and none for acquiring more land.

So, for instance, the Edgewater Neighborhood, one of the best-preserved and most-vibrant neighborhoods on Rockford’s west side, may well lose Oxford Park, on the neighborhood’s northern edge.  Since 1927, Ingersoll Milling Machine has leased the park—four acres of open space with a ballfield, some soccer goals, and a small swing-set—to the park district for one dollar per year.  With the closing of the 112-year-old company in April, that deal has come to an end, and the district would likely need to spend a half-million dollars to purchase the park.  Even that may not be enough—the Ingersoll facility has very little parking, and any potential buyer may wish to pave the land over for a parking lot.

I grew up in a small town (cue John Cougar Mellencamp), just across a bridge from forests and fields.  Open space was not a big concern of ours, but neither, for that matter, was “recreation.”  We kept ourselves amused without “programs” and “leagues” and “therapeutic” activities.  When we played baseball, we rarely used the ballfield down the street.  We were more likely to take to its outfield to play football, “smear the queer,” or even—forgive me, Bill Kauffman—soccer.

Those opportunities, however, are harder to come by in a city, and they may have just gotten more rare here in Rockford.  By pursuing recreation (read: entertainment) rather than nature, the Rockford Park District may end up providing Rockfordians with neither.