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[Governing Challenges in East St. Louis]

Gordon D Bush Political Ad Mar 30, 1995

Zak Kilhoffer
Honors English 112
Dr. Patterson and Dr. Collins

East St. Louis, with its mile upon mile of utterly meaningless streets and mean houses, with something extraordinarily brutal and even threatening in the air, is the most perfect example... of what happens under absentee ownership.
-Sherwood Anderson (Barnes 223)

East St. Louis is the inner city without an outer city, but it wasn't always so. East St. Louis was once an All-American city, containing booming stockyards, factories and railroads. The city rose with its industries, and began its dramatic decline once the industries left. The city government was entirely ineffective at preventing the city's decline or coping with its losses because it depended so heavily on the industries that moved away. With few exceptions, the only successful businesses today are related to vice. Casino Queen is the only significant business the city managed to attract in recent decades. Hundreds of burned out and collapsed buildings plunder property value, but remain standing regardless. Garbage piles the size of houses occupy vacant lots. Pot holes the size of people line many streets. Broken glass, litter, and urban overgrowth are everywhere. Along one road by the Christian Activity Center are 1950's government housing projects and tiny shacks of decaying wafer-wood. Children of 2 or 3 years walk down the sidewalk alone, passing young and old people aimlessly standing outside their apartments watching passersby. Sewage regularly backs up into these streets, yards, and homes (Kozol 10). The school system produces some of the lowest standardized test scores in the country. The police department puts up a valiant effort from time to time, but fails to control the widespread lawlessness, violence, and drug abuse. Judging by the state of the city, the East St. Louis city government is a failure. The most significant reason is that a huge portion of the tax base departed around the Civil Rights Movement. The government was left penniless and powerless in industry's wake.

Granted, East St. Louis' city government has been corrupt for most of its history. Newspaper publisher James Kirk testified before a congressional investigative committee, "We had such corruption, such maladministration, such robbery of the city treasury, such wholesale plundering, such crimes and vice and theft and utter disregard of the public interest that you would think the community would rise up in rebellion" (225 Barnes). Many would argue that this corruption is the principle cause for the government's failure to maintain a reasonable standard of living and generally provide for its city. It seems an obvious conclusion, but history disproves it.

As many East St. Louis residents would claim, life was good under some of its most corrupt governments. For example, Bill Nunes, an East St. Louis native and historian, claims that the time of gangster Frank "Buster" Wortman was a time of great prosperity. Nunes says that citizens enjoyed low taxes, high wages, plentiful jobs, great schools and ample public parks at the same time the East St. Louis politicians and policemen were selling out to vicious bootleggers (Nunes Interview). In fact, during East St. Louis' most abundant period between the 1940's and 1950's, the government was no less corrupt than in 1920, when East St. Louis had been the second poorest city in the country (Boyle 1). The conclusion is that corruption doesn't necessarily prevent the East St. Louis government from maintaining public works and a high standard of living. It is more than possible for a government to survive, thrive, and garner high approval ratings even if its actions aren't strictly legal or ethical.

Corruption, in some meaningful ways, may have even helped the city, at least for the short term. Lower taxes and laxer building codes than neighboring St. Louis, as well as the prospect of profitable back-room dealings with the local government, drew an abundance of businesses to East St. Louis. Most of these businesses were the dirty, polluting type -- but they were businesses nonetheless, and provided the city with jobs and tax money. Historian Andrew Theising wrote, "Every major city needs a workbench, a trash heap, a washbasin; some kind of repository for slaughterhouses, smokestacks, rail yards... St. Louis needs East St. Louis" (Theising 8). Given the abundance of factory workers seeking repose after long days of manual labor, East St. Louis acted not only as workbench to St. Louis, but its vice district as well.

In 1916, for example, 43% of East St. Louis' total income came from saloon licenses. St. Louis' was 4%, by comparison (Barnes 227). East St. Louis had numerous illegal casinos, slot rooms, saloons, and brothels from whom police officers took bribes. Police would shut down illegal businesses to give the impression of crackdowns, only to let them reopen later. The police department's bribe money was absolutely crucial to the city's funding, as the money went towards public projects as well as supplemented the police officer's low salaries (Barnes 227). The city government depended on the funding from industry and vice almost exclusively. Indeed, even the vice businesses of East St. Louis depended on industry for the customer based that factory workers composed (Theising 188). Thus, the entire city's well-being depended on the cogs of industry. This dependance would prove pernicious the moment industry relocated, but for the first half of the 1900's, it drove the city to prominence.

East St. Louis accrued considerable wealth in the 1930's to 1950's thanks to its unique laissez faire model and proximity to St. Louis, especially with the industrial boom of World War II. It had the most railroads of any city in the world and the second largest stockyards. It produced more aluminum ore than anywhere else in the United States (Kozol 22). Its exports were competitive with any other industrial city. The city government, in its corrupt dealings with bootleggers and corporate interests, clearly succeeded in creating an atmosphere where anybody could get a job and earn decent money (Nunes Interview). The promise of jobs brought tens of thousands of people into East St. Louis since its conception. Each person contributed to the city government individually, simply by paying property taxes and funding local businesses with their earnings. The tax base that employers and employees created allowed the government to fund projects like the Mary E. Brown Community Center, as well as adequately outfit the local police department, city maintenance crews, and other vehicles of public welfare. Industry indirectly drove East St. Louis, by giving so many tax paying consumers a reason to live in the city. Unfortunately the bubble was doomed to burst, for deindustrialization would strike with a vengeance as white flight and other factors jammed the cogs of the city.

The population of East St. Louis peaked in 1945 at 80,000, two-thirds white and one-third black. By 1971, the population had fallen to 50,000. The demographics had almost perfectly inverted, becoming one-third white and two-thirds black (Kozol 23). The economy had quickly plunged from its high standing and into increasingly desperate waters with fewer middle class whites to contribute to the community. The overall population continued to fall and the white population continued to shrink disproportionately fast. As of 2006, the population is 29,448, and virtually 100% black (East St. Louis). Between 1945 and 1971, several different factors contributed to white flight, and thus disinvestment, in the city.

Bill Nunes spoke about the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950's and 1960's, saying that with it came higher incidents of black-on-white violence. Nunes explicitly stated that blacks much more frequently assaulted white boys, and some went so far as to harass and grope white girls at his high school (Nunes Interview). Whether or not the increase in black-on-white violence is true, Nunes' testimony seems to demonstrate a strong perception that blacks threatened whites during and immediately after the Civil Rights Movement. Adding to the whites' fears were black protests in the latter half of the 1960's.

Many civil rights protests of the time period took a newly militant approach. East St. Louis blacks, for example, locked hands and prevented customers from entering a bank which had violated Illinois trespass laws. Similarly, protestors blockaded a soft drink plant and prevented loaded trucks from leaving (Rudwick 7). At the same time as these disruptive protests, black gangs like the War Lords and 29th Street Stompers began operating in the city more openly, increasing incidents of petty theft, vandalism, and random acts of violence (Nunes & Theising 1). The combination of these events meant the fear of violence became a strong "push" force for East St. Louisans. During and after the civil rights movement, middle and upper-middle class whites who could feasibly flee the city generally did so, taking their businesses, investments, and money with them. White flight contributed greatly to the dissolution of industry in East St. Louis, but it isn't the whole story.

The industrial flight began due to a number of factors independent of demographics. Highways in the United States improved significantly, reducing the importance of a factory's location. Thus, the proximity of East St. Louis to St. Louis became a non-factor for businesses. In addition, labor unions of the time were particularly strong in Illinois, incentivizing corporations to move their operations out of the state. Companies initially constructed factories in East St. Louis because of its profitability at the end of the 19th century (Theising 193). Over time, the above factors made East St. Louis less profitable. The factories relocated once again, often into the state of Mississippi or other locations where taxes, land, and labor stayed cheap (Theising 193).

In the mid-1950's, deindustrialization became increasingly obvious. The Aluminum Ore Company cut 1500 of its original 2000 jobs. In 1959, Armour and Company shut down the slaughterhouse in National City, leaving 1400 people unemployed. Swift and Company followed suit, closing their slaughterhouse and cutting another 600 jobs. In the 1960's, the other major employers around East St. Louis continued the trend, eliminating thousands more jobs. The National Stockyards, The American Zinc Company, Norfolk and Western Railroad, and Darling Fertilizer all reduced their workforce substantially or entirely (Theising 193). All in all, the East St. Louis area lost up to 45,000 jobs between WWII and 1969 (Theising 196). With so many jobs relocating, East St. Louis experienced an unemployment rate around 21%, compared to a national average of 4.9% (Sorentino & Moy 1). The formerly employed East St. Louisans either left the city or struggled to survive in relative poverty.

The unemployment rate demonstrates just how drastically deindustrialization hit East St. Louisans, but it doesn't show the disrepair it caused on city governance. According to Made in USA, "The abandoned government was left without the resources it had depended on since its creation" (197). The deindustrialization of East St. Louis affected the city government in two important ways. Without industry, the city government yielded less-than-adequate tax revenue. With less tax revenue, the government lost a significant amount of its power to benefit the community, as expenditure for the public good plummeted. Secondly, the industrial flight left a vacuum in the city. Without steady jobs, more and more people turned to crime. As of 2006, East St. Louis has the highest murder rate in the nation by a substantial margin. Other crime rates including rape, robbery, and assault are all exponentially higher than the national average (East St. Louis). With so many jobless people leaving, empty houses appeared everywhere and property values dropped drastically. The city government lacks the funds to deal with decaying vacant buildings, even now. Thus, industry's fall both increased the city government's number of problems and crippled its ability to deal with the problems. Industry clearly propped up the city, and without industry, the city gradually became the shell of a community it is today.

Although the city government can't claim many victories, East St. Louis Representative Eddie Jackson tells a different story. When asked what the local government is doing to help East St. Louis, Representative Jackson says he is hopeful for a program to redevelop abandoned buildings. The plan is to train unemployed East St. Louisans to tear out the deteriorated parts of buildings that aren't useful anymore and renovate the buildings using "green technologies" (Jackson Interview) Representative Jackson didn't specify whether builders would outfit homes with solar panels, geothermal power units, or simply efficient electrical and plumbing installations, nor did he comment on when this will be enacted. Given how expensive and involved his green proposition sounds, it seems questionable that it will ever come into fruition. The Illinois State Government would probably be the actor to fund the effort, and they are currently 13 billion dollars in debt and reluctant to increase spending. At present, the United States Federal Government is no better equipped to handle the burden (Tom Holbrook Interview).

At a more concrete level, Representative Jackson reports that city workers began developing the riverfront. They installed a sizable playground and cleaned up the garbage and clutter of the area. In line with his economic goals, Representative Jackson is lobbying the Illinois House of Representatives to change Illinois Highway 70 structure for the betterment of East St. Louis. The plan is to include an exit at the riverfront leading to the playground area, and eventually a destinations spot with shops, restaurants, and hotels (Representative Jackson Interview). Again, the state and federal government's monetary issues could stand in the way of instituting such a plan. This is especially problematic since the industry fled the city, as the East St. Louis city government cannot fund very much on its own.

The East St. Louis government clearly lost its ability to govern effectively after the tax base fled the city. Even as the government was thoroughly corrupt in the mid 20th century, it maintained a high standard of living for its citizens because industry remained. The lack of tax dollars linked with industry is the crucial element which destroyed effective governance. How the government deals with the issues of funding and corruption will determine whether the city dies altogether, maintains its plight, or miraculously, despite all the odds, manages to recover. A new oversight board from the state or national government would be a great start. Only when the city government is transparent and accountable will corruption end. Increasing tax funds, on the other hand, will be much more difficult. The city would have to make itself attractive to businesses and middle class families once more, capitalize on its riverfront location overlooking the Arch, and most importantly, fight to tax the factories all around it. The cities of Alorton, Sauget, National City, and others bordering East St. Louis have few (if any) people living in them. They are little more than tax-free zones for toxic, corporate endeavors by the likes of Monsanto, Cerro Copper, Big River Zinc, and Aluminum Ore (16 Kozol). East St. Louis should annex and tax these pseudo-cities and the remaining factories to stand a fighting chance. The same factories which destroyed East St. Louis' air and soil quality can pay to repair its foundations. The additional income these factory-cities provide could be the catalyst East St. Louis needs to bring back businesses (disappointingly, Representative Jackson said he didn't think annexation can be done, but didn't offer a reason why).

Ultimately, corruption and lack of tax funds are both fixable problems, but East St. Louis will have a rough ride ahead of it. Corrupt politicians and corporate officials have gotten their way in the city since the very beginning. Because corruption in the city government and lack of legitimate businesses in the city feed each other, intervention programs must address each problem simultaneously. Without state or federal assistance, the city's government will likely stay ineffective at all of its efforts. East St. Louis can be fixed, but its politicians must root out the original problems first.

Works Cited

Barnes, Harper. Never Been a Time. New York, Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.
Bill Nunes. Personal Interview. February 17, 2009.
Boyle, Suzanne. "Black presence great in metro-east." Published October 15, 2008 in the Belleville News Democrat.
East St. Louis Quickfacts from US Census Bureau. Retrieved May 1, 2009 from http://
Kozol, Jonathan. "Life on the Mississippi: East St. Louis, Illinois." From Savage Inequalities: Children in America's SchoolsNY: Harper Perennial, 1991.
Nunes, Bill and Andrew Theising. "Economic Collapse and the Struggle for a New Identity: 1965-Present." Retrieved May 1, 2009 from
Rudwick, Elliott. "Fifty Years of Race Relations in East St. Louis: The Breaking Down of White Supremacy." Midcontinent American Studies Journal. 6. 1, 1965: 3-15.
Sorrentino, Constance & Joyanna Moy. Unemployment in G7 Countries. The Editors Desk, June 2002. Retrieved May 1 from
State Representative Eddie Lee Jackson (D-East St. Louis). Personal Interview. April 22, 2009.
State Representative Thomas Holbrook (D-Belleville). Personal Interview. April 22, 2009.
Theising, Andrew. Made in USA: The Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town. St. Louis, Virginia Publishing. 2003.

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