Rockford’s Midtown District is blooming into a thriving community, in part due to its annual Ethnic Parade and Festival. Learn how this neighborhood celebrates diversity and culture.
Like many aging business districts, Rockford’s historic Midtown District has had its ups and downs. Even so, the neighborhood is on the rebound, causing many people to ask what keeps Midtown alive and thriving. Midtown District Association’s director of development, Dori Kearney, has a simple answer: “People.”
The district relies on its businesses and their patrons. “There are a lot of people who work here but don’t live here, and they support this district,” explains Kearney. “Businesses down here have hung on for decades, waiting for people to come back, and it’s finally happening. People are starting to see how much it’s changing down here.”
One of Midtown’s biggest attractions is its annual Ethnic Parade and Festival. The third annual festival will begin at noon on Aug. 28. The parade from downtown to Midtown begins at 1 p.m. Admission is free. Last year, 2,000 people gathered for the festival, and Kearney expects attendance will only grow. Planning for the festival begins in January, when organizers from Rockford’s other ethnic festivals collaborate. This year, the festival will include 14 international food groups, dance performances, a beer garden, ethnic art and games and free genealogy consultations.
The festival showcases cultures long rooted in Rockford’s history, such as the Swedish, German and Italian, but it also highlights more recently established ethnic groups from Korea, the Congo, Serbia and elsewhere. Nearly 50 cultural groups will be represented this year. Participants and visitors come from the greater Rockford area and occasionally from Chicago.
“We’ve had an unbelievable amount of involvement from so many ethnic groups,” says Rudy Valdez, board member of SWIFTT (Southwest Ideas for Today and Tomorrow), a city-funded business district that collaborates with Midtown District. “I think people have gained a higher respect for other cultures. There are so many ethnically rich areas of Rockford.”
Valdez has been an active volunteer in the community since he moved from Chicago to Rockford 30 years ago. “The festival draws more and more people from different parts of the community. They see that it’s a nice area, and they come back to visit,” says Valdez. Over the years, he’s seen Midtown’s revival and growth.
“Physically, it’s been changing. There’s a lot of activity in the area, especially down on Fifth Avenue and Seventh Street. The goodness is spreading. Change is spreading,” says Valdez. “They’re developing and converting old buildings. Sidewalks and infrastructure are being renovated. The change is spreading to older parts of town.”
Midtown’s diverse neighborhood features newly renovated storefronts and prosperous businesses in a historic downtown atmosphere. This summer, Midtown Lofts opened in the 400 block of Seventh Street. New businesses have also sprung up, including a new boxing gym and Katie’s Cup, a café and coffeebar.
“There’s a heart for Midtown in Rockford,” says Kearney. “If you put something good in Midtown, people will come. We’ve proven that.”
With an influx of residents, more opportunities arise.
“The area really needs a laundromat and some more ethnic restaurants,” notes Kearney, who moved to Rockford in 2001 and began working for Midtown District in 2006. The idea for the Ethnic Festival and Parade struck her after a trip to her home state of California.
“I came back to Rockford and realized that this place is just as diverse as where I came from,” she says. “It just started out as an idea, but the idea hit home with a lot of people. In the beginning we had 30 core ethnic groups who saw a reason to do it, even though they all do their own festivals. They saw a reason to do something once a year all together to celebrate their diversity,” says Kearney. “All the color and all the culture – this is Rockford.”