West Side Black Rockford, IL — Fairgrounds Housing Development Tales & Truths
Imagine, envision, a housing development built in the 1970s, nestled in between four streets. The housing developments are mostly, particularly, full of Black folks. Black folk who traveled to the Midwest from states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. My family, the Sims, we came up from cities in Arkansas like Bluff City, Prescott, and Pine Bluff. I represent multiple generations of Sims who originally landed in this country in Virginia.
Fairgrounds, “The Grounds”, as we like to call it, is, was, a modern day African village. All of the love, caring, concern, leadership and collective living you know African villages stand for, existed right there on the west side of Rockford, Illinois in those multi-level housing projects with a creek and a bridge that runs through a portion of it.
We were proud, are still proud of that gathering of beautiful Black people who made up those developments on Lee Street, Tanner Street, Acorn Street, Jefferson Street, and Underwood Avenue. These are multiple blocks where residents of Fairgrounds built reputations we are known for. Lively, electric, creative, capturing — these are all adjectives I will use to describe those times in the late 70s into the 1980s where we defined our Blackness in Fairgrounds, The Grounds.
As a product of those times, I describe who I am, what I saw, witnessed, experienced in those years my family either lived in Fairgrounds or on some of the streets I mentioned previously.
My family lived in that area from the time I was seven years old through my tenth year of being on this planet. We later came back to the area during my early years in high school. I was a young, Black child whose imagination was impacted heavily by what life in Fairgrounds had to offer — wild teenagers, Black people falling in love, Black music, Black food, the early yet burgeoning hip-hop/b-boy/b-girl dance movement, fly Buicks, Cadillacs, and Pontiacs that were almost as long as a sailboats with the coolest Black women and men driving them all over the west side, the south side, and the west end of Rockford, Illinois.
American Black urban life you would see all over the United States, we had it in Fairgrounds.
I remember when Michael Jackson’s hits “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” came out. Every young person in my ‘hood wanted to be just like Michael Jackson and were glued to the TV screen when those videos came on. Fairgrounds was immensely impacted by the creativity, the musicality of those songs — and Michael’s amazing dance moves. I loved being in The Grounds back then.
Fairgrounds was also immensely impacted by the politics of the day. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. The wickedness you see happening in politics now, the names white folks would call Black peopleor poor people, the huge hurdles to racial, economic, or housing inequity — all of these hurdles — were happening back then. What we are seeing now is nothing new.
Young Black boys and men were heading to jail and prison. The school to prison pipeline was certainly in effect in Fairgrounds. I started to see as a young person Black men heading to jail or doing prison bids. Fairgrounds is exactly what De La Soul described in their groundbreaking song “Stakes Is High” when they said “No matter where we live is called The Projects.”
Through all of this struggle and pain, Fairgrounds was Fairgrounds though. A lot of the Black families on the west side of Rockford are still there, have survived, have thrived. This is the Fairgrounds I know and love. These are the people who helped make me who I am today. They have everything to do with what I have accomplished. I see and feel them in me all the time. We are Fairgrounds. Fairgrounds is us.