Transform Rockford: A ‘Sense of Place’ Starts at Home

Where we live matters, and it’s important to sell those unique qualities about our neighborhoods. Meet two teams from Transform Rockford that are showing residents across the region how to build a sense of place and belonging.


Every neighborhood has a story to tell. But prospective residents don’t always see those qualities that make a neighborhood unique and desirable.

Some think it’s time to change the paradigm.

In its mission to implement a strategic plan for the region’s self-improvement, the nonprofit Transform Rockford is empowering the region’s neighborhoods – more than 140 of them – to create a stronger “sense of place” among area residents. The group’s focus on “investing here, visiting here, living here” is bringing a renewed attention to the power of where we live.

The team behind its Great Neighborhoods project has spent the past year engaging with Rockford’s 40 active neighborhood associations, telling the story of our neighborhoods and helping residents to write a new chapter.

“When you talk to people, you understand what they’ve got that’s unique and why they love and appreciate their neighborhood,” says Patrick O’Keefe, a project lead for Great Neighborhoods. “In many cases, they’ve stayed there a long time, or else they came as a young person seeking to rent, and they stayed because they liked the experience.”

The project begins with asset mapping – literally, listing out all of the positive attributes and attractions within a geographic area. The team, led by O’Keefe, Gary Anderson and Zach Miller, then meets with the neighbors.

“Some neighborhood organizations are virtual,” says O’Keefe. “They’re on Nextdoor or Facebook, so they don’t really meet, but they communicate regularly with their neighbors. The old notion that Betty’s going to make a pot of coffee and we’re going to meet on the first Thursday – that’s evolving.”

The meeting focuses on positive attributes, beginning with topics that get people talking: How long have you lived here, what do you love about the neighborhood, and what makes you stay?

“The power of some of those messages is pretty cool,” says Miller, the project manager. “I think it was South Highland, where someone said, ‘It wasn’t the Realtor that sold me on the house. A neighbor came up while I was touring the house, and he sold me on it.’”

Through individual neighborhood meetings and periodic “summits,” the team is learning best practices on everything from communication to landscaping. It’s synthesized many of those ideas and other resources in a new guide.

The project is still in its early phases, but Anderson, Miller and O’Keefe are encouraged by early feedback. Anderson believes there’s already been a subtle change in the narrative.

“People are looking for a sense of place, a sense of community and belonging,” he says. “I think we went through a generation or two where it was all about material things, but there’s more to a neighborhood than that. People are starting to feel good about going back to urban neighborhoods, and they’re embracing the pioneering spirit, saying ‘I want to be part of that.’”

In the Fordam Forward initiative, which focuses on the area just south of downtown, neighbors are doing exactly that. Another Transform Rockford project, Fordam Forward is setting a bold vision for the area west of Kishwaukee Street, south of the Illinois Central railroad, east of West Street and north of Lane Street.

Fordam Forward follows the model of Purpose-Built Communities, a model from Atlanta that focuses on community revitalization through mixed-income housing, cradle-to-career education and community wellness. In Fordam, supportive infrastructure, like sidewalks and bike trails, is also a target.

“It’s a holistic model,” says Ashley Sarver, project manager. “There have been other models in the past that only focused on education or only housing or only health, and those things on their own don’t address the whole picture.”

Long on Transform Rockford’s radar, the Purpose-Built model is optimal for the area around Fordam, says Sarver. It touches parts of the ORCHiD neighborhood and the SWIFFT neighborhood, in an ethnically diverse area comprised of single-family housing, public housing, active commercial areas and many vacant buildings. The area contains numerous assets, like organized neighborhood associations, proximity to downtown and a heavy institutional presence, including a library branch, a new elementary school and public parks. Allies and partnerships abound.

But the neighborhood is also interesting because of its growth opportunities. Within its boundary is the former Barber-Colman factory, which is about to undergo a $32 million transformation into a center for education, jobs and housing. Across the river stand the Brewington Oaks towers, public housing units now scheduled to be demolished. Sarver says developers are already preparing ideas for mixed-income housing on that site.

Throughout this process, the Fordam team is deliberately engaging those who already live in the area, always sensitive to support and encourage, rather than dictate to, the neighbors.

Sarver is optimistic that what’s happening in Fordam will once again make this part of Rockford a community of choice.
“The effects of it should echo out,” she says. “Our hope is this could be a model. If we can be successful here, I think we’ll begin to see things happen in our other neighborhoods nearby.”

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