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All-but-Dead City : E. St. Louis: Hope Amid Hopelessness

September 15, 1986|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — The once-mighty Obear-Nester Glass Co., where proud workers used to turn out bottles by the millions, has become just another dead factory in this all-but-dead city--quiet and smoke-dirty, with the sad and seedy look of unused structures everywhere.

As a final indignity, the soaring roof of what used to be called "the glass house" now shelters a vagrant flock of pigeons and a 12-foot-high trash heap, on which eight young men labor for a few dollars an hour to extract waste paper fit for recycling.

"East St. Louis," says Abb Rhodes, a friendly, wiry man of 63 who runs the recycling business, "is just not like it used to be."

It sure isn't.

It Had Verve

When I lived here during the 1950s and '60s, East St. Louis was a blue-collar showplace, the premier city in southern Illinois. It had verve. It swaggered. It boasted of its railroads, its steel mills, its stockyards--and its glass factory.

"If you can't make it in East St. Louis," people used to say, "you can't make it anywhere."

We used to complain about the ubiquitous freight trains; they seemed to block every other intersection. But we knew they signified money.

Scotia's Fine Foods served great soul food--I still remember the fried shrimp and fish. Drive-in movies were the rage. There were even a couple of hotels--the Broadview and a Holiday Inn.

In 1959, Look magazine named East St. Louis one of its 11 "All-America" cities for its good government and general progressiveness. A big fancy sign on St. Clair Avenue trumpeted its success.

All-American Failure

Now, it is an all-American failure, its heavy industry a shambles, its shops boarded up or protected by iron bars, its population depleted. East St. Louis makes most depressed factory towns look like Beverly Hills. It is a metaphor for cities in decay, a laboratory for an urban environment so sick that sociologists and city planners swarm over it constantly.

It was never rich, but now it is beyond impoverished. Among the three poorest cities in all the nation, it had a per-capita income of $4,997 in 1983, far below Los Angeles ($10,654) and even Newark ($5,897). Two-thirds of its residents are on some form of public assistance.

"The bottom fell out of that place," says a Census Bureau official in Washington.

But hope didn't. Those who are still here insist that one day soon people with money will move in to take advantage of the housing stock and the proximity to the Mississippi River. Like survivors in an exotic urban game, they seem proud to have stuck it out and just a little disdainful of those, like me, who left.

"We're planting seeds in this area," says Ed Buchanan, now a fledgling building contractor with whom I used to drink beer, eat barbecue and sell insurance. "We know there's going to be a harvest. Every person who has money is investing in East St. Louis."

Others stay for a more elemental reason: It's home, and you don't desert it. "I'm not going anywhere else because you can't run away," says Mamie Jennings, an old friend of my family who says she is "not old enough for Medicare and not young enough for men to care." She insists that "East St. Louis can come back whenever the people want to see it come back."

Even when it was prospering, East St. Louis was a dirty town, grimed by the coal burned in houses and factories. But like many old industrial cities, it wore its soot like a badge of productivity. We're working, the city shouted. We're making things, and we're making money.

And it always had crime: petty gangs that battled in the streets and professional gangs that controlled the slot machines from smoky back rooms. We used to say, only half kidding, that East St. Louis was where people came when they got run out of Chicago, 300 miles north. East St. Louis was bad when bad was cool.

The grime is still here, and the crime. But the swagger is gone, at least for the time being. So is liveliness. In its place is an eerie quiet. If you stop your car in the middle of the day on State Street, minutes may pass before another car goes by. Few East St. Louisans brag anymore. Not even about jazz great Miles Davis having grown up here.

Most Whites Are Gone

Gone too are many of the people. In 1960 East St. Louis was home to 81,000 people, including 45,000 whites. Now the total population is around 50,000, and only 1,500 are white.

Some here blame that fact for the city's problems. Some who remain here argue that state, county and federal officials ignore cities dominated by people of color. "Many of us hate to believe that we are in a community of black folks and can't make a living," says Ben Phillips Sr., 59, owner of Ebony Insurance Agency.

Clearly, many folks here are not making a living. Overall unemployment runs about twice the national average, and a lot of those classified as employed have only part-time work, or at best hold low-paying service jobs.

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