They sat at their computers in long rows, cubicle after cubicle, designing some of the most sophisticated machine tools in the world.

Entire industries depended on their steel creations to make parts as precise as the wings of passenger jets and the silent propellers on submarines.

"There were 1,200 engineers," said Tino Oldani, the native of Italy who runs what's left of this city's landmark Ingersoll Machine Tools Inc. Today, his operation employs just 60 engineers.

Ingersoll is not what it used to be, and neither is this city of 152,452--Illinois' third largest after Chicago and Aurora. Shaken by a hostile economy, let down by its leading employers, coming in last on national surveys for job creation and quality of life, Rockford has become a poster child for the lost glory of American manufacturing.

From integrating its schools to joining the global economy, it has paid a steep price for resisting change.

Now parochial Rockford wants to rejoin the wider world. It has picked a dynamic 36-year-old trial lawyer as its new mayor, breaking with the past to elect an independent who believes Rockford has a future in connecting to Chicago and other economic partners well beyond the familiar horizon of nearby Cherry Valley and Belvidere.

The mission, according to Mayor Larry Morrissey: "Putting us back on the map."

Morrissey is making the long-dismissed notion of commuter rail service to Chicago a top priority, while a recently appointed aviation czar is bringing in new passengers and cargo to the underutilized Greater Rockford Airport. Rockford's schools, police and economic-development campaign all will be under new administrations as of this year.

Yet coming together to reclaim lost ground goes against longstanding tradition. Both the community and Ingersoll, one of its defining companies, have long resisted collective action in the name of progress. And it is by no means clear that new leadership can unite this splintered city--or that anyone outside Rockford would even notice if it started moving in unison again after all these years.

The problems intensifed when heavy industry tanked more than two decades ago. Rockford and Ingersoll sat tight, betting the smokestacks would stage a comeback. When government aid and public contracts offered the potential for relief, Rockford and Ingersoll turned away in distrust. When discrimination in schools and workplaces became a scandal, Rockford and Ingersoll fought self-defeating battles against reform.

Airport boss Robert O'Brien is still smarting about Rockford's decision to kiss off one of the world's leading air shows, allowing the Experimental Aircraft Association to relocate years ago.

From choosing a site for I-90 that is nowhere near downtown to fighting Chicago in the state legislature, "There are all kinds of examples where Rockford has gone its own way, and picked the wrong way," O'Brien lamented.

Same goes for Ingersoll, according to Jenny Gaylord Lorch, whose roughly 7 percent stake in her family's business is now almost worthless. Under the autocratic rule of her uncle Edson Gaylord, Ingersoll "kept doing exactly the same thing for years," she said. "They wouldn't change."

The isolationism has spawned big problems in a little city. With drugs being dealt openly, abandoned cars left to rot in his yard and police ignoring his regular phone calls, Gerald Kavonius is feeling desperate. Three years after he moved here from suburban Lombard to take advantage of low, low housing prices, "I'm still struggling," the retired warehouse worker said. "These people are poor out here."

Across the Midwest, the citizens of old industrial towns like Rockford, Detroit and Milwaukee have suffered as bedrock employers cut back in the face of low-cost global competition. Each community is struggling to find a credible response, and in Rockford, new civic leadership has raised considerable expectations.

After beating the Democratic incumbent in a landslide this spring, the earnest Morrissey has come to embody all of his beleaguered community's hopes for the future--better jobs, of course, but also a downtown river walk, high-quality retail presence, lower crime rates, improved education, smoother highways and real estate development along the lines of his own experience:

Not long after moving back to town from Chicago, Morrissey bought an 1860s Victorian for $14,000, gutted it with the support of a federal tax credit and locked in his downtown property taxes at pre-improvement levels. Now the home's a showcase, just a few blocks from his office at City Hall. "That's how we sell Rockford," he declared.

Once upon a time, Rockford sold itself. In the late 1940s, Life Magazine called it "as nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be." For years, it served as a test-market town, blessedly average in a prosperous time.

It developed a highly competent blue-collar workforce, their wages providing an enviable standard of living. The elite Gaylord, Sundstrand and Atwood families set a conservative, patriarchal tone. Top employers minded their businesses and counted on government to leave them alone.