An All-American City
The overwhelmingly African American population of East St. Louis has been blamed for the city’s rampant poverty and social ills. What if failed public policy was the real cause, and may soon decimate other cities?
East St. Louis was once an All-American City. With good jobs, thriving business, successful schools, and close-knit neighborhoods, it earned that title in 1960.
Today, when Jennifer Hamer drives into the city, she can’t help but notice the broken streetlights, backed-up sewer systems, and burned-out buildings that mark East St. Louis’s decline to a reputedly dangerous and crime-ridden place. But Hamer, a University of Illinois sociology professor, believes that the people here are not so different from those in the rest of the country. She sees the city as a model of how working people with generally mainstream American values cope under depressed economic conditions.
In fact, Hamer might argue, East St. Louis could still be called an All-American City, because what’s happened there is a symptom of what’s being repeated in cities across the United States. Far from being exclusively an African American problem, she says, her recent study shows that life in East St. Louis reveals how people abandoned in a post-industrial world survive the changes.
“This is not [just] about East St. Louis,” says Hamer, who has studied the city extensively. “This is what happens to a population when the state walks away. This is happening to all of America, when the state decides it’s more important to invest in corporate America than people.”
Hamer says the social contract between government and working families, where their taxes helped provide protections such as Social Security, workplace safety regulations, unemployment protection, and welfare, has been eroding since the 1970s. She sees corporations get tax breaks while services for individuals have been cut back.
In the early part of the 20th century, East St. Louis was becoming a major industrial giant, with the nation’s second largest rail center. Home to firms such as Armour Company, National Stockyards, and Aluminum Ore Corp., the world’s largest aluminum processing center, it was a draw for people looking for work, particularly immigrants and black families moving out of the South.
It was a booming time. Residents frequented lively nightclubs or they could stroll down Collinsville Avenue and take in a movie at the Majestic Theatre, a downtown landmark with its Moorish-style architecture, marble lobby, and three-tiered balcony.
In 1960, Look magazine and National Municipal League called East St. Louis an All-American City, but in reality the city’s fortunes had by then reversed. Its population was in decline from its peak of more than 82,000 in 1950, and major employers were leaving in search of non-union labor and lower taxes to the south and west. White residents followed the exodus—the city lost almost half its population between 1960 and 1990.
When the manufacturing plants closed, other businesses followed. The same year East St. Louis was named an All-American City, the Majestic closed.
Those left behind were the poorest, primarily black, residents, with the fewest means to move in search of new jobs. The options for black workers were also limited by racial discrimination, as they couldn’t get work or housing in suburban areas.
With fewer residents paying taxes, the city could not support services and maintain infrastructure. Property values fell, and the city borrowed money to meet its operating costs. The situation became so dire in 1985 that East St. Louis became the first city to have its public housing managed directly from Washington, D.C.
In 1990, the state took over control of the city’s budget, leaving local officials without the authority to spend money on police protection, fire trucks, maintaining streets and sewers, or demolishing dilapidated buildings.
The burden on working people increased as the city lost jobs, residents, and tax revenue, and taxes were increased to pay public debts. Although they were paying more taxes, residents received fewer services. Schools, parks, and libraries suffered. Swimming pools, concession stands, and tennis courts vanished.
“It’s harder to live in East St. Louis,” says lifelong resident Sharon Ward, 52. “They make it almost impossible for you to be a homeowner. You’re paying higher taxes because there’s no tax base. The few homeowners that are here are having to take the brunt of the burden to keep things afloat.”
The trend disintegrated daily life. Ward remembers walking to school as a child and playing on the playground with friends. Her parents owned their home, and she helped her mother in their vegetable garden. Church was central to the family, and so was education.
“At that time, everybody on our street, we knew,” she says. “Everybody on our street, we would play with their kids, and they knew our parents. We could go back and forth to their homes.”
Today, however, Prince Gerry, an unemployed father of an 11-year-old son, walks his boy to and from school every day to protect him from bullies. Josh Cowan instructed his son how to act if stopped by police—don’t move unless they say to, always carry ID, don’t be alone, and stay away from white women. Resident Arnie Miller worries about his children finding a used hypodermic needle on the ground, or someone trying to get them to try crack.
Manufacturing jobs have been replaced by relatively low-paying service jobs. Many people must look outside city limits for employment. Most average a half-hour commute, often on public transportation, for jobs that pay minimum wage. Resident Jarvis Miles, for example, commutes four hours a day for a job at McDonald’s.
In response to the poor conditions, residents do what they must to make ends meet, Hamer says. That could include working more than one job or putting off retirement—she’s seen 73-year-olds cleaning homes. They’ve also resorted to hustling, which could mean anything from odd jobs to crime.
Many residents told Hamer they didn’t aspire to illegal activity, but “dirty” hustles such as drugs, theft, and prostitution offered far more money than they earned at a minimum-wage job. Others opted for a “clean” hustle, which isn’t illegal but brings in extra money, such as cutting grass, hauling trash in their pickup, sewing, or cutting hair.
“You do your minimum-wage job from nine to five or whatever, and then you make your real money after hours,” resident Stacy Lee told Hamer. “That’s the way you have to do it and, hopefully, nobody’ll be the wiser.”
The clean hustles, Hamer adds, also tended to meet a legitimate need in the community.
David Roediger, a U of I professor of history and African American studies, says this story is not unique to East St. Louis. Similar population losses are happening in places such as St. Louis and Detroit, he says.
“There are a lot of parts of cities where that same thing is happening, so I think it speaks to national realities, not just these cities,” Roediger says. “The question is whether, as a society, the U.S. is just willing to see these places abandoned and think they are different than the whole rest of the nation.”
The solution to these problems, Hamer says, would require a restructuring of the social contract so government is investing in working people, not corporations. Rather than offer tax incentives to businesses, the government should guarantee a living wage job, transportation, and a quality education for all citizens and pay for it by taxing corporations more.
She says industries succeed because the cities where they are located provide workers and infrastructure, and they, in turn, should support the community through taxes. She would like to see industry tied to a community so that if it left, it would have to compensate the community financially for the loss of jobs.
Whether increasing the tax burden on corporations and their formal obligations to local communities would slow the outflow of jobs outside the U.S., or even to other areas within the country, is open to debate. However, to Hamer, it’s about social responsibility.
“They’re not radical ideas. They’re reasonable ideas,” Hamer says. “As wealthy as the United States is, no one should have to go without.”
By Jodi Heckel