The Rockford Files

A Hard Habit to Break

On Friday, December 18, 2009, some lucky person became the first motorist in over 35 years to travel a two-block stretch of Main Street in Rockford, Illinois.  The ride must have lasted all of 60 seconds—perhaps 90, if he slowed down to view the handful of restaurants and storefronts that had, until a few months before, been visible only on foot.

This is the way the mall ends: not with a crowd, but a Honda.  Since 1975, the two blocks of Main Street between Mulberry on the north and Elm on the south have been a pedestrian mall, visited each year by a dwindling number of shoppers and diners.  Originally, West State Street, which intersects Main in between the two blocks, was closed off as well, but by January 1984, West State was reopened.  The pedestrian mall had failed.

In reality, the mall had failed before the project even began.  This stretch of Rock­ford’s downtown, the Rockford Register Star noted on June 15, 2009, “had been the retail center of the city since the late 1800s when it featured blacksmith, clothing, furniture and shoe stores.”  Postcards and photos from the 1890’s through the 1950’s show a bustling downtown, with buggies, then streetcars, then automobiles stopping to let crowds of shoppers cross the street.

But the decline of downtown retail began in the late 1960’s, and by the time ground was broken for the mall in 1974, the writing...

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