Back when there was a different attitude about downtown Rockford, a tight-knit group of neighbors fought off disinvestment, apathy and absentee landlords to restore East Rockford’s first settlement.
The Pepto-pink house he’d just bought on Third Street was a shadow of its former self. Paint was crumbling from the old Victorian; it had long ago been split into apartments.
“There were two halfway houses across the street, and the amount of deterioration was like, ‘Are we crazy, or what?’” says Gary Anderson, now a principal at Gary W. Anderson Architects, in Rockford.
Of course, in 1977 the rest of Rockford’s Haight Village neighborhood wasn’t much to look at, either. Brick sidewalks and limestone curbs were dissolving. Century-old homes had been stripped of their grandeur and left to decay. There were drug houses; a public housing project was across the tracks.
Turns out, Anderson wasn’t the only nut on the block. Ecologist George Fell was restoring a stately home next door. Down the street, aging former school teachers and college professors were desperately preserving their own charming properties.
Joe Dailing, who moved in shortly after Anderson, remembers walking to work from his home around the corner. Every day, he passed vacant storefronts and seedy strip joints downtown.
“People used to stop and ask me if I wanted a ride,” he recalls. “I’d say thanks, but this is deliberate.”
A lot of people couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Why would anyone want to invest in Rockford’s dismal urban core? But these neighbors had a vision. They were ready to save east Rockford’s oldest neighborhood from the brink.
“I remember my own mother thinking, ‘Boy, my son has lost his mind,’ and I think I had a little bit,” says Anderson. “But we had a vision that was more than just about our house. It was, what could we do for the neighborhood?”
Four decades later, it was a much different kind of setting that drew Britney Lindgren and Jarrod Hennis for walks through Haight Village. It was close to the budding growth on East State Street, where their business, Rockford Art Deli, is located, and its architecture was unrivaled anywhere else in the city.
During a walk in May 2013 something stood out about an imposing home on Third Street, with its Gothic tower, ornate Victorian decoration and haphazardly Technicolor siding.
“I took a picture, and I posted it on my Instagram, saying, ‘I will live here someday,’” Lindgren says. A year-and-a-half later, the pair bought the home out of foreclosure.
Haight Village is still a neighborhood in transition, but it’s been greatly transformed. Although enemies from the past still appear, a new generation is turning the tide. “As Rockford grows, the potential for this neighborhood to be one of the top neighborhoods in Rockford is incredible,” says Hennis.
In east Rockford’s oldest neighborhood, the road to victory is a long, slow march.
Where else but Haight Village can you find a dozen architectural styles, representing a century’s worth of construction, in just 14 blocks? Bounded by Walnut Street to the north, Kishwaukee Street to the east, the Illinois Central railroad tracks to the south and Madison Street to the west, Haight Village is one of the oldest and most continuously built-up corners of Rockford.
Many homes here are Victorian and Victorian Gothic, but you’ll also see Greek Revival and Italianate styles, as well as the Prairie style, a bungalow and a prefabricated steel Lustron home from the 1950s.
Some homes, like the so-called Daffodil Cottage, on First Street, or the Erlander Home, on Third Street, have been lovingly preserved by decades of dedicated ownership. They still display the flourishes of wealth and success bestowed on them by their first owners.
The Italianate home at 404 S. First St. had been nearly stripped by the time Ernie Petit bought it in 1995. The porch had been removed long ago. The furnace wasn’t working, and neither were the water or electricity. But it didn’t stop the retired Testors Corp. executive and his wife, Grace, from moving in. His bed moved from room to room as he tore apart the former boarding house bit by bit.
In time he moved outside to rebuild the porch and fence.
He then restored two other homes in the neighborhood, each of which was similarly dilapidated – the demure Greek Revival across the street and the cozy Victorian on Second Street where he now lives with his son.
“I’ve lived in a brand-new house, and they’re nice, but living in a restored, historical house is a totally different feeling,” he says. “They were so elegant.”
East Rockford’s First Settlement
The “rocky ford” first brought Germanicus Kent, Lewis Lemon and Thatcher Blake to the west banks of the Rock River in 1834. A year later, Daniel Shaw Haight built a cabin on the east banks with his wife, his sister-in-law, his two-year-old son and a hired hand.
He built a frame house at what’s now the northeast corner of East State and Madison streets in 1837, just two years before the east and west-side settlements incorporated into Rockford. By 1843, Haight had platted out about 340 acres, encompassing part of what’s now Haight Village.
The oldest surviving residence is the yellow Gothic Revival cottage at 228 S. First St. The so-called Daffodil Cottage was built in 1843 by Willard Wheeler, who would become Rockford’s first mayor. His neighbors included John Lake, a carpenter and lumberyard operator who lived at 612 Oak St., and Walter Peck, a windmill inventor and manufacturer who lived at 326 S. Second St. – where Daniel Haight lived a decade later.
The 1850s brought more prominent citizens, including politicians, judges and businessmen. The Civil War stalled development, but in 1871 Swedish immigrant and furniture manufacturer John Erlander built his home at 404 S. Third St., reflecting the growing prominence of Swedes in Rockford.
The boom times of the 1880s brought a flourish of new development and elite residents to Haight Village. The wealthy Brown family built three impressive homes along Third Street, immediately north of Erlander. Manufacturer J.L. Clark and furniture maker J.A. Lundgren settled nearby.
Sporadic development came to Haight Village after the depression of 1893, although longtime families, including the Browns and the Erlanders, remained closely tied to their homes for decades to come.
Connections with the Past
Anderson marvels at the history that must have taken place in his stately Queen Anne on Third Street. Edward Brown, who brought the Illinois Central Railroad to town and later served as mayor, built the home in 1886. He lived next door to his brother Frank, who was president of Nelson Knitting, and his father, William, a prominent politician and judge.
“I’m totally curious about all of the deals that happened in my house, because Edward’s office was inside,” says Anderson.
Those first years in the neighborhood brought Anderson and Dailing in close connection with another chapter of Haight Village’s history, one that was about to slip away forever.
Anderson and Dailing remember being awestruck by some of the dynamic neighbors they met during those first years. Dr. Frances Johnson, a retired professor at Rockford College, had been a pioneering woman in physics. She kept tedious care over the Daffodil Cottage.
“She had witnessed the first atomic bomb tests in Los Alamos, and she was an incredible woman,” says Dailing. “She was bright, articulate and travelling the world.”
Anderson remembers George Fell, the founder of Natural Land Institute, working until late in the night to restore Frank Brown’s former home. Former schoolteachers Marjorie Britten and Theodosia Keillor made an impression, too.
By the late 1970s, just a handful of aging professors were all that remained of the Rockford Female Seminary, which became Rockford College (now Rockford University). For decades, professors and students had made their homes around Haight Village, given that it was located just a short walk across the railroad tracks. Their presence stabilized Haight Village for decades.
But once the school moved east in the early 1960s, things went downhill quickly. The school was razed to build public housing. Slumlords divided up homes, turning four-family homes into eight-family units and putting 12 families into a six-family building.
“At one time, our neighborhood was zoned R-7, which is for high-rises,” says Anderson.
Then a budding young architect, Anderson, and his wife, Carol, joined up with others leading the effort in Haight Village, including neighbors like Dr. Paul Van Purnis and Ellen Burgeson.
“I thought, if I’m going to get involved, I’d better get my money where my mouth is, by buying a house there,” Anderson says.
Dailing and his wife, Diane, were preparing to move to Rockford when they read about Gary in a newspaper article.
“My wife called up Gary and said we’re interested in a Victorian house, and essentially he looked around for us and found the house we purchased,” says Dailing. The property was just around the corner, on Grove Street.
The Fight Begins
The years of disinvestment had scarred Haight Village.
“There were a lot of commercial buildings on our perimeter that, one by one, we took out,” says Anderson. “A few gas stations, a U-Haul and a cafe – a real wreck of a place. In fact, there were three gas stations, and now we have none. We just picked away at things and asked, how can we improve our neighborhood, solidify the perimeter and keep it residential?”
Targeting the streetscape, neighbors got the City to replace mismatched streetlights with period lighting more reflective of the late 1800s. They updated sidewalks and curbs, and built brick-lined crosswalks.
“It’s hard to remember how bad it was,” says Dailing. “We had a drug house on the corner and a family downstairs that always left the front door open. I just wondered, did I make the right decision?”
Key allies were ready to help, most notably First National Bank, which already was investing in East State Street downtown. The bank offered low-interest mortgages for owner-occupied properties in Haight Village.
“To stabilize the neighborhood, First National thought it was critical to have owner-occupied homes, with owners who would have a long-term commitment to the neighborhood,” says Dailing, who used a First National mortgage to renovate his home.
The City of Rockford was helping with financial incentives and infrastructure improvements, including the installation of period street lights and brick crosswalks. But at times municipal leadership fell short, neighbors say. When a slumlord refused to obey ordinances, neighbors formed a corporation to buy him out.
“Those are the kinds of things we had to do battle with, when we had to ask, what was the city willing to do for us?” says Anderson. “They would turn their backs on us and say, ‘you’re not that important here.’ Those attitudes led to the disinvestment and deterioration of our whole inner city.”
The neighbors won a key victory in November 1987 when Haight Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Haight Village’s status as Rockford’s first historic district, recognized both federally and locally, ensured additional protections to its architectural legacy.
As bad as the neighborhood was in those early years, it had its upsides, too. Dailing remembers fondly the way his son and daughter made friends with youths in public housing.
“It was good for my kids to see low-income people who were like them, but who didn’t have money,” he says. “I consider that an asset to the neighborhood.”
Among residents here, there’s a common bond not just with each other but with Rockford’s history, as well.
“This really is a group of people who came here for a reason, because they loved this type of neighborhood,” says Dailing.
It’s a place where neighbors meet regularly to review issues and take action, and it’s a place where they regularly pitch in. Last summer, when the 40-year-old lampposts needed improvements, 84-year-old Petit was among the most visible volunteers.
“We’re all very open and maybe more united than we should be sometimes, but I think that’s a good thing,” says Lindgren, a member of the neighborhood association. “We have a relationship like we’re all a family.”
It’s also a neighborhood where residents do their best to preserve the historical flavor of these blocks, which comprise a National Historic District and a designated local landmark. Accordingly, Lindgren and Hennis have gone out of their way to re-create architectural elements on their home, using authentic materials as much as possible.
Alix Fox, administrative director of the Erlander Home Museum, located just across the street, admires the close bonds formed within this neighborhood. Though she doesn’t live here, she sometimes wishes she did.
“It’s been a change of mindset for myself, to see neighbors really trying not just to protect their homes for their own property values, but to make it a great place to live,” she says. “It’s been a long, hard fight and they’re going to continue fighting for as long as people give them a voice.”
The museum operates in Erlander’s former home at Third and Grove streets, but it also maintains the Nordic Cultural Center on the opposite corner and a vacant lot across the street, where the museum hosts get-togethers like Midsommar Festival. Fox tries to be sensitive to her neighbors, while also encouraging them to share Haight Village’s story with outsiders.
“Many of the residents here have been here for a few decades, so it’s wonderful to hear the oral histories of what they’ve seen,” she says.
A Vision for the Future
Back in the 1990s, as Petit was fixing up his first home, everyone’s big headache was the drug house across the street. Needles littered the road. His car got stolen.
“I found it on the west end of town with bullet holes in it,” he says. He later bought that house and fixed it up.
Petit and his neighbors aren’t so worried about crime these days. There’s the occasional domestic situation or drug deal, but nothing like days past. The recent rebuilding of the Jane Addams housing project across the tracks has helped, they say.
What really concerns neighbors is the rising number of investor-owned properties, including halfway houses.
“One third of our neighborhood is owned by three people,” says Lindgren. “We’re very interested in making sure that if they have these properties, they’re sticking to the code of the preservation committee and respecting the history.”
It’s not just the architectural standards expected by the historic preservation committee, which frowns upon historically inappropriate materials like vinyl windows and siding. It’s also about landlords who neglect their properties, fail to screen renters or don’t pay taxes.
“They look at it as a way to make a buck at our expense,” Anderson says. “So, we need to be vigilant about what we’d like to see, in terms of changing demographics of the community and how we adapt to certain market forces that are out there.”
And right now, there’s a bursting market in Rockford’s downtown East Historic District – which sits just one block north of Haight Village. Anderson believes the loft-style housing downtown provides an optimal “feeder system” for renters ready to become owners. In Haight Village, they’re only a short walk away from their favorite hangouts.
“One of the neat things about the revitalization of downtown is that, now people have a different attitude about downtown, and that attitude is shifting into our neighborhoods,” says Anderson. “They’re saying, ‘Oh, that’s a nice neighborhood to be part of. It’s adjacent, it’s walkable; I’d want to walk to a restaurant or some other service here.”
But the old mindset still prevails. “My Realtor was not thinking that Haight Village is where we wanted to go,” says Fox. “And now, working in this neighborhood, I’m downtown every day for work. My church is here, my husband is a local musician and plays shows downtown. We eat at just about every one of the restaurants downtown. Our kids love these places.”
It’s old hat for Anderson. “All of the people who moved into our neighborhood faced that,” he says. “They wanted to live here, and that’s where they wanted to put their home and investment.”
In the meanwhile, efforts are being made to engage with the people already renting in Haight Village.
“I would love if renters could participate and feel like they’re welcomed here,” says Lindgren. “Just because they’re renting doesn’t mean they’re not part of our neighborhood. We’re all in it together.”
There’s still work to be done, but after 40 years of fighting, longtime Haight Village residents are gradually passing the baton to a younger crowd with a different memory of downtown.
Behind the scenes, Anderson remains the consummate visionary. As a team lead on Transform Rockford’s Great Neighborhoods Project, Anderson is adapting the tools used in Haight Village to help other historical neighborhoods.
“I think there’s an inner strength in our community that’s been really unrecognized, and I think maybe pushed to the back burner,” he says.
In saving the streets of Haight Village, Anderson and his neighbors are preserving the memory of Rockford’s past and setting a vision for the future that’s quickly coming to fruition.
“People don’t understand that we’re just stewards here, on a temporary basis, and anything we do, we’re just passing the torch,” he says. “This idea that ‘this is my house, and I can do anything I want with it,’ is really missing the point. Our homes are the heart and soul of our community.”