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Travel Musings

Screws and Cheap Tricks in Rockford Illinois

Rockford, Illinois, was once the world’s largest manufacturer of screws, but following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994, most of its manufacturing sector bolted out of town (pardon the pun). According to one estimate, the agreement led to a net lose of 682,900 jobs across the U.S.

Here in Australia, it is of serious concern that our government is secretly negotiating a massive trade deal modelled on NAFTA. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) could see multinational corporations sue our government for making health, environmental and consumer protection laws. Even conservative Prime Minster John Howard thought it was a bad deal for Australia, but Tony “Wrecking Ball” Abbott could be signing it off behind our backs in Singapore next week. You can join the Greens in asking for the text of the deal to be made public.

Back to Rockford, where a recent editorial in the Rock River Times had this to say about the city: “What has been left in the city’s core is a largely undereducated and desperate populace guided by a severely struggling school district and self-interested and largely corrupt political structure amid a backdrop of abandoned and dilapidated buildings — and the largest and most lucrative industry has become the drug trade”. I rolled into its sprawling sea of fast food joints and over-sized supermarkets, to visit my friend Anne who worked for the organisation Vital Signs, who are trying to revitalise the city and make it more sustainable across the triple bottom line.

I discovered the city still had a pulse when Anne took me to GrooveWalk, a small music festival spread across downtown venues. We had a hoot dancing to rockabilly and my highlight was a country cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” by Kelly Steward, the song surviving the genre transplant remarkably well. Kelly says the song was responsible for her first picking up a guitar, because she had a crush on a guy in a band she saw play it in a talent show. Unfortunately that was the last GrooveWalk with the festival being discontinued last year.

The next day we opted for something less energetic and went to the charmingly named Burpee Museum of Natural History. They had an exhibition dedicated entirely to Rockford resident Rick Nielsen, the guitarist from the band Cheap Trick. It was one of the most elaborate things I’ve seen and featured many of his guitars including the famous multi-neck instrument. I couldn’t help but ponder the contrast with the infinitely more modest museum down the road at the former Chess Records studio in Chicago. It was here that Willie Dixon fathered the Chicago Blues genre, producing, arranging, and playing bass on countless songs for the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf.

My time in Rockford was brief. Anne had to head down to LA to help make a movie about a man in a chicken suit, and now lives in the Big Apple. I doubt I will be back, but I’m glad I saw the human spirit surviving in a spot of urban bother.

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