For me, there were two noteworthy stories on the front page of The True Republican on Saturday, March 5, 1921. This was a newspaper published in the northern Illinois community of Sycamore, about 40 miles southeast of Rockford.
One story reported that Jane Addams, the social activist and founder of Chicago’s Hull House, made a “strong and effective appeal” before a big crowd at the Sycamore Women’s Club to “feed Europe and save America.” She spoke for an entire hour, the story said, on behalf of children starving in Europe in the aftermath of World War I.
The other was more personal. It reported that a judge gave 17 immigrants their final naturalization papers: 13 Germans, a Welshman, an Irishman, an Austrian, and one Swede. The last was a farmer named Anton Julius Fanlund, my grandfather.
That anecdote came to mind when I read in the Chicago Tribune recently about how northern Illinois — and specifically my hometown of Rockford — is again attracting an influx of immigrants, only this time from Africa.
“Shrinking cities draw immigrants,” said the big headline, the subhead adding: “As many Midwest natives abandon their communities, places like Rockford find an influx of people from other countries is helping make up for their population loss.”
The photograph illustrating the story depicts a recent gathering of immigrants in Rockford and focuses on a woman from Eritrea, a tiny country in east Africa that sits on the Red Sea.
Rockford, the story reported, has attractive attributes: manufacturing and aerospace jobs; plenty of “help wanted” signs; proximity to the amenities of Madison, Chicago and Milwaukee; and affordable housing. “There are Buddhist temples and a mosque, and tightknit immigrant communities that praise Rockford to friends and families overseas who are looking to settle in America,” reported the Tribune.
Still, I’m thinking, a majority of voters in Winnebago County, dominated by Rockford, voted for President Trump last year, and he supports reducing legal immigration and backs legislation that emphasizes work skills over family ties, the ties that are credited with attracting Rockford’s influx of immigrants.
I also wondered whether the Rockford I knew growing up, dominated by a heavily unionized, blue-collar working class of white people, would welcome the people of color coming now.
Not that the city has ever lacked for diversity. Long ago, the Germans and Swedes who dominated at its founding were joined by an influx of Italians, Poles, Lithuanians and African-Americans.
So I called to talk to Rockford’s new mayor, Tom McNamara, a 34-year-old whose father was mayor. McNamara, elected earlier this year, maintained that Rockford’s response to the influx has been “overwhelmingly positive.” He acknowledges such claims can be anecdotal and hard to prove, but he said that Rockford has been and continues to be a welcoming city.
“We are trying not just to live with our diversity, but one of our goals is to appreciate and foster the diversity we have,” he told me.
He said the city is hosting forums to help women and people of color create and succeed at business. McNamara said he is also focusing on ensuring that city committees are as diverse as the makeup of the city population.
“The message from the city is that we want every single person who calls Rockford home to have the opportunity to succeed,” he said.
“We would be foolish not to foster the growth” in the immigrant population, said the mayor, especially given population trends. Rockford’s immigrant population grew by 64 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to U.S. Census data, he said, compared with a native-born population growth of 2 percent.
That Rockford, tucked so far into the heart of the country, would attract people from what seem such distant and exotic places, is noteworthy. The Swedes and Germans (and Norwegians in Wisconsin for that matter) were looking for environments that resembled their homelands. There is not much about Rockford that physically resembles east Africa.
This is about people seeking a new life and apparently finding that easier to do in places others are rejecting, where opportunities abound to secure inexpensive housing, get a job or start a business.
In the Tribune story, demographers predict immigrants will continue to flow to quieter, mid-size cities such as Rockford. Without those immigrants, they say, such cities and towns across the Midwest would be far worse off.
“In more than 40 Midwestern cities, immigrants are a lifeline,” the Tribune reported, “bucking the pattern of population loss and revitalizing an aging population.”
While Madison has also seen an influx of immigrants, many of whom start their own businesses — restaurants especially — barriers to entry are apparently much lower in a struggling community like Rockford.
As a native of that city, I’ve been tracking things from an hour north in Madison for decades. Rockford was vibrant and classically American in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s because of its booming manufacturing economy. A 1949 issue of Life Magazine described post-war Rockford as “nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be.”
But by the 1990s, I was writing a column lamenting that in the same year Madison was honored by Money Magazine as America’s very best city to live in, Rockford had plummeted to dead last of more than 300.
Four years ago, I toured my hometown, visited with big shots including the lead guitarist from the Rockford-based rock band Cheap Trick. I wrote a cover story headlined: “Madison’s ‘miserable’ neighbor: A trip back to Rockford.”
Rockford’s city boosters were not mad about my headline. In fact, they encouraged it. Forbes Magazine had rated Rockford as the third “most miserable” place to live in America (in front of only Detroit and Flint in Michigan.) Rockford embraced the slight, launching a “misery loves company” marketing campaign to highlight attributes for visitors.
It’s clear that Rockford needs this infusion of hard-working and hopeful people.
I was thinking about these new immigrants from exotic-sounding African countries and imagining their dreams were the same as, well, the Swedes of yesteryear — to provide for family and to live in a comfortable place, at peace.
My father left his father’s farm in DeKalb County, settled in Rockford, served in the Pacific in World War II, then lived, prospered and died in that city.
He told me stories about the Swedes there back in the day, how in the Swedish-dominated environs of 7th Street you would hear more Swedish spoken than English, and how many of those Swedes would stop at a bar for a “shot and a beer” not on their way home, but on their way to work.
That was then, I suppose. And this is now.
But to me, the whole thing has a “circle of life” quality that I treasure.
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