Elbert Jordan, who founded Lives at Levings in 1986, is congratulated Friday, May 31, 2024, during a ceremony unveiling the new Levings Unity Pavilion at Levings Park in southwest Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — In 1971, Elbert Jordan returned from military service and bought a small ranch home on Montague Street at the gateway to Levings Park.

For more than 50 years now — especially in a stretch from the mid-80s to early 2000s — Jordan has been among the biggest advocates for his corner of southwest Rockford.

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When potholes littered the street in 1997, he gathered petitions to push then-mayor Charles Box to fix the road. When he saw Levings Park wasn’t getting the attention it deserved, he called on then-Rockford Park District Executive Director Webbs Norman to meet him at the park and learn about what needed to be done. And when he saw kids in the area without enough to do in 1986, he started a makeshift talent show that 38 years later has become a proving grounds for local musicians to start their careers.

“I’m not the type of guy who’s just going to accept something to look or be any kind of way. I’ve got standards, man, I’ve got standards,” Jordan said. “You have to speak up sometimes for how you feel about yourself and how you feel about your neighborhood.”

This summer, the 76-year-old Rockford resident and military veteran will be recognized not only for speaking up, but for putting his words into action to improve his neighborhood and local park.

The road that Jordan pushed to get fixed 27 years ago is set to be renamed in his honor.

“That’s the type of person that we want to recognize: the regular individual out in the community who comes forward and does something to help impact our community in many different ways,” said Alderwoman Gina Meeks, who is sponsoring a proposal to rename a stretch of Montague Street after Jordan.

Elbert Jordan, who created the idea for Live at Levings in 1986, reacts with Steve Hanserd of Too Deep, which has often performed at Levings, to the unveiling of the design for a new concert venue on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, at Levings Park in Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

Meeks, who represents the city’s 12th Ward, has her own history with the Live at Levings talent shows that Jordan started in 1986. Meeks has made a side-career out of singing and performing locally, but she got her start at Levings Park. She said many local artists did the same, and that’s one reason why Jordan is considered an icon in the community.

“He helped cultivate a collective of people who have gone on to do great things, and people who have remained in this community as local musicians,” Meeks said.

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Aldermen are allowed to sponsor one honorary road name change per year. Meeks is using hers for Jordan. The full City Council will need to vote and sign off on the change, which would rename the roadway SFC Elbert Ray Jordan Way on Montague Street from Montague Road to South Johnston Avenue, where Levings Park begins.

The matter goes before the Code & Regulation Committee on Monday and before the full council the following week.

The request was put before aldermen by Beverly King, a friend who met Jordan through a barbecue shop called Dem Bones he ran in the 1970s at Rockton Avenue and Cherry Street.

She said Jordan deserves the honor to cement his legacy of neighborhood advocacy, including starting Live at Levings.

Last week, a major part of Jordan’s vision for the park came to fruition nearly four decades later. The Rockford Park District unveiled the new Levings Unity Pavilion outdoor concert venue on Friday, with multiple public officials throwing credit to Jordan for his vision and advocacy for the stage.

The stage was paid for and built by Hard Rock Casino Rockford and Ringland-Johnson Construction.

Jordan came to the event with a piece of paper from Nov. 14, 1986. On it was a master plan he and Norman had sketched out for the park, but item No. 32 on that list was left unchecked. It called for a stage.

He finally crossed it off on Friday.

“He had to endure,” Alderwoman Gabrielle Torina said. “That was a 40-year process that he stuck with. I appreciate that he never gave up.”

Two days after the unveiling ceremony, Levings Park welcomed some 4,000 people for the first Lives at Levings showcase of the season.

Elbert Jordan displays a master plan from 1986 that called for a stage at Levings Park. He crossed that item off the list on Friday, May 31, 2024, after the stage was unveiled in southwest Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

Jordan founded Live at Levings in 1986 as a way to give kids something to do in his neighborhood. He would often reward performers with prizes such as basketballs and baseball bats. It started on a small stage made of wooden boards before eventually running from the park district’s Showmobile. Jordan and ran the series until 2003. It’s now orchestrated by musician Harlan Jefferson.

Torina said it has become known as a must-visit stage for up-and-coming performers. Crowds there greet you with energy and encouragement.

“It’s a spirit of positivity that I feel like was really established by Mr. Jordan,” she said. “There’s  just an energy there that you really can’t find any place else.”

Torina, who represents the 5th Ward where the park is located, could not sponsor the road name change because she had already used her endorsement for John Briggs Way, a portion of Court Street in south Rockford renamed for the city’s first Black hotel owner. But the proposal comes forward with her support, too.

“It’s easy to identify issues and needs in our community, but he stepped up and said, hey, not only do I want to advocate for this but I’ll do the work to make it happen,” Torina said.

That work is something Jordan looked at as a kind of third job. He spent 30 years working with Chrysler, now Stellantis, and 25 years as a U.S. Army Reservist before retiring at age 49. Those jobs were done in addition to his volunteer work for 17 years at Levings.

“I did 30 years for my family at Chrysler. I did 25 years for my country, and I did 17 years for my community,” Jordan said.

Jordan still lives in that Montague Street home where he raised his family after returning home from the military. He spends much of his day as a full-time caretaker for his wife, Jenetta. But he still takes pride in keeping his neighborhood looking good.

Years ago, Jordan made a big push to clean up trash along the street and around the park before a parade rolled through. In fact, you’d often see him cleaning up around his home. Now, he says that effort has been picked up by his neighbors, too.

“They see me out there cleaning up, now they try to do it before I do,” he said. “They don’t want me to get ahead of them. I like that.”

This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at khaas@rockrivercurrent.com or follow him on X at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas and Threads @thekevinhaas

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