Rockford’s annual On the Waterfront festival is just the sort of thing I should like—in theory, at least. Held every Labor Day weekend since 1985, On the Waterfront is the largest community event in Rockford and features both local and national musical acts. The entire downtown is closed to all but foot traffic for three days, and local non-profits provide most of the food and drinks, making a tidy sum in the process. In Illinois’ largest small town, such expressions of community solidarity are, sadly, rare.
Still, in nine years in Rockford, we had never attended On the Waterfront, partly because the Richert family reunion is held in Southern Indiana on the Sunday before Labor Day, but mostly because we had always heard—even from people who enjoy it—that the festival is more than a little overwhelming, and certainly not a place for children.
Yet here we are, at 4:30 in the afternoon on the Friday before Labor Day, waiting at the gate closest to the Ethnic Stage, sponsored by—of all organizations—my favorite local Gannett paper. As we enter, the children can barely contain their excitement. “Where do you want to sit?” I ask. “In the front row!” they respond with one voice, and we make our way past the tables and the white plastic lawn chairs to within a few feet of the stage.
Minutes later, they appear in all...