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Saturday, December 28, 2002

The Rockford Files-It was interesting to get a third look at Rockford; I had been here pre-engagement to visit my now-grandma-in-law Labor Day 2001 and then last Christmas en route to now-sister-in-law Michelle's wedding in metro St. Louis on the 27th (belated happy anniversary, Michelle and Uli). It's been two days of hanging out with the ladies of the clan, Eileen's mom, aunts and Grandma. It's been a largely testosterone-free zone, as the male relatives tend to either stay home or (a la uncle Jack) nap through the gabfests. Eileen's mom's up from Texas and her aunt Alicia's down from Wisconsin, meeting up with an aunt and uncle that live in metro Rockford. Her dad didn't make it up; two weddings ate into his vacation time. Grandma, Eileen, her mom and her aunts are in Old Girl Reunion mode. The laptop has come in handy. The "what do I do in a strange house at 5AM" feeling was replaced by blogging on my laptop, and I have made a strategic retreat to Madden 2003 (a Christmas gift) have made things bearable when I get peopled out. The sociologist and developmental economist come along for the ride even on pleasure trips, and looking at another old factory town confirms some basic trends. In many ways, Rockford feels a lot like Saginaw with a touch of Flint as a declining factory down that hasn't totally died. The development patterns stay roughly the same. The old stuff stays around and is underutilized, while new development goes to the edge of town. Downtowns don't die, they become low rent until they start to get trendy and gentrified. The old highways are just as useful when the Interstate comes through; route 2 south to Byron (I kid not, check the map) was a pretty but December-stark drive along the Rock River. The 60s-era department store building (Bergner's screamed early-mid 60s brick) still carries about the same stuff it did as a kid, adjusted for fashion trends. The old strip mall buildings still work, even if the rent goes down and boutiques turn into dollar stores and check-cashing emporiums. The old timers grumble about minorities moving in and the bilingual signs in certain parts of town. The nice family subdivisions of the 60s, like where my grandma-in-law lives, become the low-end starter house of the 00s (any candidate of how to pronounce "00s"-I've yet to hear a consensus develop, "oughts" is my candidate). There's nothing wrong with these starter houses except they're smaller; they might lack a spot for a "family room" (when you have two rooms of couches and chairs, why do we call the place were everyone hangs out the "family room" and the fancy sitting room the "living room" when no one lives in the living room anymore?)or a nice dining room, but the three-bedroom, kitchen and living room with dining room corner 60s subdivision house still works for a lot of people. For the nice new homes, families wind up either moving into new subdivisions on the edge of town or into exurban subdivisions in the middle of an old field a few miles out of town or on the edge of an small farm town just up the road that didn't used to be a suburb. My sister's house in Freeland fits the latter; it's turned into an exurb of Midland (where they go to church and our parents live) and Saginaw (where brother-in-law Matt works). So does Eileen's Uncle John's house that we visited, on the outskirts of Byron, halfway between John's mechanic's job on I-39 and Aunt Cathy's nursing job in Rockford. You get bigger rooms, higher ceilings, a fourth or fifth bedroom to turn into a Grandma room or a den or a sewing room. The bigger houses are nice, but I wonder if they are worth double the price of the basic home. We all want newer and bigger and nicer, but there should be some way short of anti-sprawl laws to allow better use of existing land and buildings. Environmental concerns make brownfield (old factor) redevelopment difficult, while the smaller houses will go wanting until prices or gentrification or declining crime rates (more a factor in big cities than medium-sized ones, where commuting time starts to make the inner-city attractive) makes them attractive to young families.

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