Last year was not a good one for Rockford, Illinois. First the New York Times Magazine published a photo and audio tour featuring two-dozen of the city’s residents under the beleaguered banner "Portraits From a Job-Starved City." Then Forbes tapped the community as the 10th most dangerous town in America. Finally, the worst rub: The Daily Show dropped in and made the place a punch line.
This was more than one city could combat with a Chamber of Commerce campaign. And at least one resident thought that all the jabs missed the point about Rockford, anyway. For years, Pablo Korona had been acting as an unofficial champion of the city, arguing with discouraged locals and out-of-town doubters about the value and talent all over his hometown. Rockford just needed to tell its own story better–-both to itself and everyone else. So earlier this year he unveiled a spiffy website full of charming mini web documentaries about the good side of Rockford, gathered for the project Our City, Our Story.
The latest of his 13 episodes is a four-and-a-half minute profile called "Our Curiosity" about the local family-owned company that produced all the gears in the Mars Curiosity Rover. No one was talking about little Rockford’s impressive Space bona fides until this video went viral.
"I felt like all the authenticity of what this city was, was lost in many people trying to put out this polished view," Korona says. City officials had come up with the slogan "Real. Original. Rockford, Illinois." "Usually when you have to state that you’re real, some people maybe start to doubt that." And then there was that other problem with cheery branding campaigns: "Well what happens when you do a Google search?" Korona asks. "You do a Google search on the city here and you’re going to pull up all the negative articles."
Last November Korona quit his job working for a local ad agency—where he sometimes worked on the very same municipal branding campaigns that he felt were not succeeding. Rockford’s low point in the national news coincided with his itch to find his own voice as a video producer. He conceived this project and launched a Kickstarter campaign to begin funding it. Within 48 hours, contributors had doubled his goal of $3,750. That was his first indication, he says, that people in town were eager for such an idea after a year of national bashing.
"The biggest challenge with [the criticism] is feeling like you don't have a voice," says Andrea Mandala, a community supporter of Korona's project. "We need more people to step up and have a voice—not necessarily just to lash out against what they’re saying, but to open everyone’s eyes. Pablo’s opened peoples’ eyes."
Each of Korono's videos, produced with the help of volunteers, focuses on a small scene or single person in the city. There's one about the grandson of a Sicilian tailor in town, another on a Rockford-born historian who changed how the world thinks of ancient civilization, and a third about a special-needs baseball program created by a local mom. These are meant to be stories about character, not stories about economic development or even necessarily business success.
"I was trying to make my own voice happen through this project," Korona says. "It didn’t dawn on me until a little bit ago that the project wasn’t me finding my own voice, it’s me being the voice for others."
One episode tells the story of 29-year-old Joe Goral, who was arrested in his early 20s as part of a major bust of the city’s most notorious graffiti artists. Goral’s arrest was such a big deal that the mayor held a press conference to announce it. Goral went on to spend a month and a half in jail for a felony. Today, however, Goral is a public artist actually invited to paint murals around town. He and his wife own a cupcake catering business. And earlier this year, he accepted a proclamation from the mayor—the same one who heralded his arrest—for his efforts to help organize the local St. Patrick’s Day parade. That video is titled "Handcuffs to Handshakes."
"I think what he saw was almost kind of like a metaphor for the city," Goral says. "How I could turn myself around is kind of how Rockford can turn itself around."
Goral, too, grew up in Rockford and recalled thinking of it as the kind of place where young people vow they want to grow up and move away from. But now it is not, he says, "just some sort of depressing wasteland in the middle of the Midwest," and Korona’s videos have helped to illustrate that.
Korona wants to present the project to three audiences: people in Rockford who he hopes will be glad that they live here; Rockford natives now living elsewhere who he wants to be proud of the town; and outsiders who he envisions may want to come here. He is trying to convey all of this through unique stories, although he acknowledges that Rockford’s situation is not that different from many communities across the country that have lost industrial jobs and some of their old confidence. "That’s why it’s not called ‘Rockford’s Story,’" he says. "Our City, Our Story could be done in any city, in any place that needs to kind of reassert itself as it where it stands and what its self-image is."
In fact, he envisions that this project could become something bigger than Rockford, a model for promoting cities elsewhere. Plenty of municipalities are finding a new, more creative voice on the Internet. But Korona has built not just a catchy website; he has built something that channels the emotional appeal of documentaries into a format that can go viral.
People all over town have embraced the project, although the more traditional municipal marketing apparatus has been slower to come around. Korona recalls one meeting with an economic development official in town, whose work he wanted to assist with Our City, Our Story. The official told him his stories were too gritty, not polished enough to work in an economic development campaign. The city was looking for stories to help convince people with college degrees to move to town, and how was a video about a tailor’s grandson going to do that? His videos, Korona was told, were too much like StoryCorps on NPR.
"That was a punch in the gut," Korona says. "I stopped and I said, ‘who listens to NPR? The people you’re trying to bring here!'"