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A View from Metro East                                                    

The past is prologue
in East St. Louis

Patrick E. Gauen

The community remains an
enigma to Illinoisans, who
know it only through its poverty,
corrupt past and outsized crime rate


Those who know the history might wonder if things would have been different were East St. Louis named Illinois Town.

That was the other choice on the ballot in 1861, when a question still remained of whether this city or St. Louis would dominate the Mississippi River near the confluences of the Missouri and Illinois.

News accounts suggested rampant vote fraud when the name was chosen. I presume the cash to buy the election came from shrewd Missouri interests to seal the town's subservient fate. Do you know an "east" or "west" or "north" or "south" anywhere that superceded its namesake?

It comes to mind because East St. Louis is once again in the news, this time with an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit demanding that the failing school system be fixed.

The suit came weeks after the state appointed its own financial oversight panel for the beleaguered schools, in the mold of the East St. Louis Financial Advisory Authority, which shepherded city government toward newfound solvency.

Outside rescues aren't new here. The feds took direct control of the public housing years ago.

But East St. Louis remains an enigma to most Illinoisans, who know it only through its poverty, corrupt past, outsized crime rate and historical ability to deliver Democratic votes.

It is the product of a schizophrenic history, wavering from dramatic highs to desolate lows.

Cheap coal propelled East St. Louis into an early industrial center, with a dream location where railroads converged near the nation's population center.

East St. Louis and its environs produced an array of products, from aluminum to zinc. Packing plants processed pork and beef. The stockyards sold horses and mules to armies around the world.

But industry was grimy, unionists were militant and train crossings turned the streets into a hopeless maze of dead ends. Manufacturing slid some before World War II, and abruptly after. Population peaked at 83,000 in 1945; it's half that now.

By 1917, the city was essentially broke, its workers unpaid and its bonding power shot. This was to be a recurring story.

Also that year, industry's use of a burgeoning black population as strikebreakers helped kindle a white-led riot that stood as the nation's deadliest racial conflict until Los Angeles, 1992. Officially the toll was 47, unofficially more.

East St. Louis was a city of distinct neighborhoods and good people white and black who were torn apart by the social explosions of the 1960s. Eventually, virtually all the whites left.

Illicit gambling and prostitution conducted into the 1960s by a lingering branch of Al Capone's gangsters came to include drug dealing too, in streets now plied by Disciples and Vice Lords.

Money alone could not fix the growing mess as millions upon millions of federal dollars proved, flowing through East St. Louis like a sieve in the 1960s and '70s.

But things seem to have bounced back off the bottom recently, with a convergence of factors:

State loans eased creditors off the municipal back, while no-nonsense overseers led by former Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville President Earl Lazerson demanded and got spending reforms.

Insurance executive H.C. Milford, the defeated Republican supervisor of St. Louis County, agreed to be the East St. Louis development advisor, building a credibility bridge tolure wary riverboat casino investors.

Proceeds from the Casino Queen

42/June 1995/Illinois Issues

have nearly doubled the revenue available to city government and provided a beachhead for more development, affirming the legislative premise that a floating casino would help turn this city around.

Mayor Gordon Bush's polished and positive manner fostered growing public confidence.

East St. Louis remains
heavily Democratic, and
thus politically unappealing
in a Republican era

U.S. Chief Judge William D. Stiehl ordered a convicted New York bond house to pay $7 million into a civic improvement fund as part of the penalty for a fraudulent development scheme.

But the city's troubles are far from fixed:

The schools, among the nation's worst, are a disaster. Casino revenue does little to help the property tax base, from which education draws its sustenance.

Unemployment and drugs are rampant. The murder rate is down but still incredible, with at least one out of every thousand of the residents slain each year.

Much of the infrastructure and housing are crumbling.

Democrats and minorities have lost clout in the legislature. Despite Mayor Bush's alignment with Gov. Jim Edgar, the community remains heavily Democratic, and thus politically unappealing in a GOP era.

Except for the Casino Queen, a federal courthouse addition, a supermarket and a medical annex to St. Mary's, there has been little commercial growth in many years.

Finally, there is the stigma of the city's name. One of the community's first problems, it is guaranteed to linger as one of the last. No matter that the words say "East St. Louis." Too many people, unfortunately, still read them as meaning "Beyond Hope." *

Patrick E. Gauen covers Illinois politics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

June 1995/Illinois Issues/43

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