UR Here: Aunt Millie Knows

Thomas Dean and Aunt Millie
The Local Heroine: Tom Dean with Aunt Millie, 2011
Last month’s Stephen Bloom Atlantic essay about Iowa set off a firestorm, to say the least. This is not a column about Stephen Bloom’s essay. But it bounces off of it. A common reaction to the essay was speculation that Professor Bloom must be miserable living in Iowa and puzzlement over why he doesn’t leave if that is so. I don’t know Professor Bloom, nor do I know–or, frankly, understand–his motives in writing the piece, nor do I know whether or not he really is miserable living in Iowa. But the essay and the reaction to it do spark a question that I have struggled with myself over the years–what do you do when you hate a place?

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, I grew up in Rockford, Illinois, an industrial town whose best days passed it by many decades ago. To put it succinctly, my relationship with Rockford is complicated. Since I left, I have never intended to go back to live there. Rockford is an easy place to hate, and I know many who do. While Iowa City touts its frequent placement on “best of” lists, Rockford cringes and rails against its regular placement on “worst of” lists. This town of 150,000 regularly lands at the bottom of lists that measure a community’s economy, quality of life, safety–you name it. Rockford has boasted one of the worst unemployment rates for probably at least the last 20 years. It is crime-ridden–number nine on 24/7 Wall St.’s “Most Dangerous Cities in America.” The public schools are in miserable shape, fighting decades-old budget problems and (still) desegregation court battles. Why would anyone want to stay?

It’s obvious how Rockford collapsed. Starting out as a major furniture manufacturing center, it went on to become a national industrial powerhouse in aerospace engineering, heavy machinery, manufacturing equipment, toys and fasteners. Regarding the latter, it earned the nickname “Screw Capital of the World” (*pause for snickering*). No need to go any further–American Economic History Since 1970 101 tells the rest of the story. Rockford has yet to reinvent itself.

Last Labor Day, my kids and I visited Rockford. My younger brother, Ken, still lives there and we went to visit him and his wife, Julie, and see Here Come the Mummies at the annual Waterfront Music Festival. As we drove downtown, we passed through a blighted neighborhood and had to slow down for an inebriated woman stumbling in the middle of the street. On 9th Street, not far from where my dad owned a sporting goods store, we saw a lady of the evening plying her trade. It was 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon. When I was a kid, the south part of town’s miles and miles of small factories were already pretty rundown. Driving through the district now, I marveled at the utterly and completely blasted, empty shells. The economy that has replaced them on these streets is drugs and armed robbery.

At the same time, I grew up in Rockford and, in doing some personal archaeology, I’ve written about how my strong sense of place and community was formed in my hometown. Over the Labor Day weekend we also visited “Aunt Millie,” whom I have come to realize embodies everything I do hold dear about Rockford. Millie is not really my aunt but rather my godmother, a family friend from before I was born who is really just that–family. Aunt Millie is now 94 years old. You would never, ever know it. Aside from some hearing loss, she is in perfect shape. She lives in the home she has lived in since she married “Uncle Herbie” (who died over 20 years ago) in 1946. The beautiful brick two-storey duplex was Herbie’s childhood home. We often made fun of Aunt Millie because so much of her time was spent going to funerals. She would be what some might call a “church lady,” providing comfort–and food–for all the church members at times of great joy and sorrow. Millie and Herbie never had kids of their own, but they shared their love bounteously with all their relatives, friends, neighbors and community members as if we were all their kids.

When we pulled up to Millie’s house on Labor Day, I noticed two giant corn stalks in the front yard of the identical brick two-storey duplex two doors down, with two women wearing Muslim garb and a little boy running along the sidewalk. Millie told us they were the Yemeni folks who had moved in recently. The old Swedish neighborhood was certainly changing.

Millie’s house, inside and out, looks exactly as it did in the 1960s when as kids we would walk the three blocks to visit her. As her 100-plus-year-old Swedish clock from Herbie’s ancestral home in the old country ticked in the background, the conversation turned to the condition of Rockford. Millie fully and completely understands why her neighborhood and city have changed so much. She still gets to know her neighbors and helps them when and in what ways she can. Yet she understands, for example, that decline has occurred in part because so many of the old beautiful homes around her are now rental property. Without a sense of history, roots and commitment to the neighborhood–the essence of place–people don’t care enough to do keep up property, keep an eye out for each other, or even care much about each other. My brother tells me that one block away from Aunt Millie’s, drug deals are transacted in the middle of the street at all times of day.

Aunt Millie knows and understands her community’s problems, but I don’t know if I’ve met a more ardently optimistic and caring person in my life. About 15 years ago, Aunt Millie was sitting in the waiting room of Rockford’s Swedish American Hospital (where I was born) with me, my brother and my wife as my dad underwent surgery for the removal of a benign brain tumor. For some reason, the conversation then turned to the state of Rockford, too. To this day, I remember Millie saying, “People don’t understand the good things about Rockford. Rockford has many wonderful things going for it.”

That always stuck with me. I don’t know about the current status of most of these things, but when I was growing up–and even then, people hated Rockford and couldn’t wait to leave–I benefited greatly from a robust library system that put a branch two blocks from my house. I learned how to be a writer from at least four incredible public school English teachers. I went to Rockford Symphony concerts and had the opportunity to see and hear an incredible array of guest artists–Arthur Fiedler, Vincent Price, Eileen Farrell, Garrick Ohllson. I played in innumerable piano recitals and contests at the Mendelssohn Club (now the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center), the oldest continuous community music organization in the United States. I went with my piano teacher to hear Van Cliburn perform at the local community college. I went to summer concerts in the park twice a week with my best friend to hear the Rockford Pops Orchestra and the Rockford Community Concert Band. I have never seen another park system so beautiful and extensive. There are miles and miles of the most gorgeous homes imaginable, many built with pride by those Swedish immigrant furniture manufacturers and workers; think Iowa City’s Summit Street and multiply it a hundredfold. My wife and I had our wedding reception in the Coronado Theater, Rockford’s “wonder theatre”–I have yet to set foot in another as ornate (okay, some would say gaudy). Look up pictures of Rockford’s old architecture and you’ll see civic pride built into brick and stone that would have been hard to beat anywhere.

I hesitate to say I “hate” Rockford. But I know I have no intention to live there ever again. I have intentionally chosen Iowa City as my home community because, as I have often said, I literally love it. Even though there are plenty of folks who despise Iowa City, our town, frankly, is pretty easy to love. So sometimes I feel guilty about Rockford. Rockford is not easy to love. But when I teach and preach about commitment to place, I wonder if I should have tried harder at making that commitment to my hometown, the place that raised and nurtured me, despite all its warts and problems. Was I right just to abandon it, even if maybe it would have made me miserable in a lot of ways? Should I have stayed and done what I could to make it a better place rather than pack my bags and say, “See ya, good luck, and last one out, turn out the lights”?

Aunt Millie sure didn’t do that. And I can’t think of a more grounded, generous and caring person, who, at 94, still has no intention of leaving her town, no matter what ugly list it ends up on, and who has every intention of caring about Rockford, her church congregation and her neighbors as long as she can. Aunt Millie is no fool. She knows the score. But she also knows what it means to be a member of a community. She can teach us all something from her observations from 70 years of Rockford life.

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