Willie D. Ashford Sr. and Amy Hill remember a time in their west side Rockford neighborhood when working people owned their homes, kids could play outside safely and nobody ever heard gunshots at night. But as gangs and drugs have moved into the neighborhood, it has been beset by violence.

Willie D. Ashford Sr. and Amy Hill remember a time in their west side Rockford neighborhood when working people owned their homes, kids could play outside safely and nobody ever heard gunshots at night.

“It was a quiet neighborhood,” 84-year-old Ashford said in an interview at his home on North Hinkley Avenue. “The man who lived next door was supervisor of the street cleaners.”

There weren’t any gangs or drugs to speak of when Ashford and Hill moved their families to the neighborhood along West State Street more than 40 years ago.

Their neighborhood began to change in the 1970s, and it was ravaged by the violence that accompanied gangs and drugs in the two decades that followed.

The effects of a changing economy, an education system in turmoil and a growing underclass are magnified in the city’s already troubled neighborhoods. The city as a whole is struggling to maintain confidence in an identity that once was taken for granted — that Rockford was a great place to live, work and raise a family.

We draw inspiration from residents such as Ashford and Hill.

Ashford is president of Booker Washington Center’s senior-citizen group and a member of the steering committee for the Weed and Seed neighborhood-improvement program. Hill, 83, is a longtime community activist who also serves on the Weed and Seed committee.

In 1967, Ashford moved here from Nebraska and bought a big house for his family on North Hinkley Avenue. He went to work as a truck driver at Gunite Corp, the oldest manufacturer in the city. Employment peaked at the foundry on Peoples Avenue at 1,100 in the 1970s, but the company, like so many others, was devastated by the recession in the 1980s. The plant employs about 210 and is owned by Accuride Corp. of Evansville, Ind.

Hill, a former Chrysler worker who lives on Mulberry Street, not far from Ashford’s home, saw a shift in the neighborhood as a growing number of young people became involved with gangs and drugs.

“The young people seem to be off base and nobody seems to know what’s going on anymore,” she said. “They have guns and they’re not afraid to use them.”

The extreme violence took everyone by surprise.

“No one could predict the violence,” said William Fitzpatrick, Rockford’s police chief from 1985 to 1997. “One thing that really bothered me was people telling me they had to sleep on the floor because they didn’t feel safe.”

Two incidents that occurred within a block of Ashford’s home illustrate the situation.

In 1993, a member of the Black Gangster Disciples gang shot Rockford Police Officer Sheri Glover (see her profile below) in the head at point-blank range on Hinkley Avenue as she sat in her squad car filling out reports. Glover was critically injured, but she survived. Glover left the force in 1995 to go into religious ministry. Today, she is a fundraiser for Carpenter’s Place, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless people transform their lives.

In 1997, a stray bullet from a gangster’s gun hit and killed 10-year-old Tanya Hooks (see her profile below) as she sat on the sofa watching Disney’s “Dumbo” in the living room of her family’s West State Street home.

“Things weren’t bad until drugs moved in,” Ashford said.

Last year, Winnebago County had 47 deaths from accidental drug overdoses. Of those, 23 people died of cocaine overdoses and 14 took fatal amounts of heroin.

Some autopsies revealed both of those drugs and more.

In contrast, there were no accidental overdoses in 1984, nor in 1985, when the coroner’s office began tracking accidental drug deaths, Coroner Sue Fiduccia said.

There were six fatal overdoses in 1990 and 13 in 2000.

The city was changing on other fronts, as well. In the 1980s, a crippling recession forever altered the city’s manufacturing-based economy. Rockford earned the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment in the nation — 25 percent in November 1982. Many of the locally owned manufacturing companies, including Gunite, were sold to corporations from other countries or other states.

The unemployment rate for Boone and Winnebago counties for March was only 7.9 percent, but has been steadily rising. In March 2007, it stood at 5.9 percent.

Education is an additional key area buffeted by troubling issues. In 1989, activist Ed Wells filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Rockford School District on behalf of the People Who Care, a community group of about 30 members. The 10-year court fight exposed gross inequities between the quality of education being delivered to white students and that delivered to black and Hispanic students. The final bill for what became known as the “deseg suit” was $252 million, including the court-ordered construction of new schools. Some say the district, the city and the region have not recovered from the high taxes and emotional toll of the desegregation case.

Still, newcomers to the city in the 1980s and 1990s were charmed by stories of Rockford’s fantastic park system and told that this was a great place to raise a family.

Few talked then about other parts of the population, including the young professionals any city needs to thrive. Often single or married but without children, they want bike paths, jazz clubs, gourmet restaurants, chic shopping and cutting-edge entertainment. Unless these become a part of the culture, the city will have a difficult time attracting and benefiting from the energy and ideas of this group of future leaders.

The area had powerful representation in state government, most notably by state Rep. Zeke Giorgi, D-Rockford. He and other members of the local legislative delegation, state Rep. John Hallock, R-Rockford, and state Sen. Joyce Holmberg, D-Rockford, made sure Rockford got a fair shake in Springfield during the 1980s.

Giorgi died in 1993, leaving behind three legacies: the completion of Interstate 39, which connected Rockford finally to the rest of “downstate”; the Illinois Lottery; and his reputation as dean of the House.

By contrast, Rockford’s current legislative delegation wields so little influence in Springfield that city and Winnebago County leaders have considered it necessary to hire lobbyists to pass bills important to the local agenda.

Local government structures designed in the mid-19th century have been slow to respond to today’s regional lifestyle, where people often live, work and shop in different communities. Attempts to work together began in the 1970s but went the opposite direction in the 1980s and 1990s. Only now are some local leaders realizing that if the Rockford area is to progress, they’ll have to pool resources and strategies to get the job done.

The landscape of Rockford has changed over three decades, in some ways for better and others for worse. Some would say the Rock River Valley faces challenges that put it at a critical juncture. How area residents and leaders respond to the challenges determines whether the county continues to decline in personal wealth or whether it can attract and retain the jobs and talent to remain a desirable place to live.

Rockford, once known as the “screw capital of the world,” has shed thousands of manufacturing jobs since 1980 thanks to foreign competition, economic slumps and increased productivity. Factory jobs are still a major force of the city’s economy, but lower-paying service sector jobs have diluted the city’s wealth.

Rockford’s per capita income is $28,335 a year, 18 percent lower than the U.S. average of $34,471. Nearly 12 percent of Winnebago County’s population lives in poverty. Crime and blight festers as the city grows poorer.

Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson said he is directing tremendous police resources to Ashford and Hill’s west-side neighborhood, using strategies to eliminate open air drug markets and beefing up the police presence. The chief said the resulting decrease in crime should spark a resurgence in the area.

“Someday, I think it will be a new day in the 1400 block of West State Street,” Epperson said. “We are committed to that neighborhood.”

A few hardy residents, including Ashford and Hill, have refused to pull up stakes and leave their homes. While others around them sold out and moved away, they erected fences, put more locks on doors, installed security systems, bought dogs and made sure to be home before dark. They took measures to feel more secure, and they stayed put.

Ashford, Hill and some of their neighbors got involved in community organizations that work for change.

“We are not trying to find a good neighborhood,” Ashford said. “We are trying to make a good neighborhood.”

Alex Gary, Jeff Kolkey, Isaac Guerrero, Geri Nikolai and Chuck Sweeny contributed to this report.

About Sheri Glover
Age: 47
Occupation: Director of agency advancement for Carpenter’s Place, an agency that helps homeless people build productive lives.
Previous occupations: Patrol officer, Rockford Police Department, 1989-1995. Before that, she served in the U.S. Army. After leaving police work, Glover studied for children’s ministry and worked as a youth pastor.
Background: In the early morning hours of April 14, 1993, Glover, then 32, was shot multiple times and critically wounded as she sat in her patrol car filling out reports. Antonio “Bingo” Craig, a member of the Black Gangster Disciples, was convicted of attempted murder in the case. He is serving a 60-year sentence at Big Muddy Correctional Center. According to Illinois Department of Corrections records, his projected parole date is March 29, 2024.

Tanya Hooks
Age at death: 10
Background: Tanya’s family moved from Carpentersville into the house at 1323 W. State St., just eight days before a stray bullet from a gangster’s gun pierced the living room window the night of May 31, 1997, and struck Tanya in the head as she watched a movie on television. She died the next day. Members of the Vice Lords and Black Gangster Disciples gang exchanged gunfire that night during a party across the street from the family’s home. Tanya was one of two children to be hit by stray gunfire in Rockford within a month that spring and one of five youngsters to be wounded or killed in a violent four-year period in the mid 1990s.

Johnnie Blake, now 29, was convicted in May 1998 of Tanya’s murder and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Serving time at Stateville Correctional Center, Blake has a projected parole date of May 24, 2037. Another defendant in the case, Terrence T. Ruffin, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received a 15-year sentence. He has been paroled.