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The Town that Time Forgot

Posted By Lorin Kline, Mar 30, 2009

I can't remember what question we asked her, but I remember exactly what she said.  Jackee is a wonderful woman who works at a homeless service organization in East St. Louis and was willing to answer any and all of our questions.  Plainly and simply, in response to our curiosities about the way East St. Louis is, Jackee told us that East St. Louis was the town that time forgot.  The more time we spent there, the more the truth and significance of that statement settled in for me.

The need in East St. Louis is so striking to the naked eye that it is truly unbelievable that the whole seems to have gone forgotten.  What was once a bustling city, the center of the railroad and meat packing industries, is now falling apart.  The town is covered in garbage.  The roads are in such poor condition, it is almost impossible to move over them.  Traffic lights don't work, grocery stores and other businesses are abandoned.  The similarities to what I saw on last year's trip to Gulfport, Mississippi are striking - condemned house after condemned house, abandoned building after abandoned building, all perpetually sitting  patiently and waiting to be taken care of, all the while becoming more and more dilapidated, no matter how slow help is to come.  There's one big difference though.  There was no hurricane here.  Rather than being a victim of natural disaster, this community is just a victim of society.  And because it wasn't hit by some heart-wrenching and highly public disaster, people aren't showing up to help.  People aren't donating money or time.  There is no rebuilding.  There is no coming together and rising up again.  I thought I was shocked in Mississippi to see that so little rebuilding had been done in 3 years since the hurricane.  In East St. Louis, many of the larger buildings were abandoned in the 1970s.  They still sit as giant unaddressed problems in physical form.  It really is a town that has been forgotten.

While the help that East St. Louis needs is quite physically apparent, the issues facing they city run far beyond physical boundaries.  We began our trip at one of the only legal service providers in East St. Louis, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation.  The incredible attorneys there attempted to describe East St. Louis's plight to us.  The government is endlessly corrupt (Later in the week we noticed that throughout the city, every once in a while a beautiful home would come towering up out of sea of condemned homes.  We were later told that these homes belong to corrupt politicians who must have local addresses in order to run for office).  Their organization was able to take down one extremely corrupt and destructive man known as Swampdog Bones, but the corruption runs too deep to be easily eradicated.  The local Housing Authority was taken over by HUD because it was so poorly run it was falling apart.  The local School District had to be taken over by the state because it was so poorly run and falling apart.  A giant lake of sewage plagued East St. Louis residents and the city refused to address it until they faced litigation.  The problems go on and on and on.  While these issues are interesting and tragic all at the same time, what really matters is why these problems aren't being addressed.

I asked the attorneys we worked with why they believe East St. Louis has tried for so many years to lift itself up by its bootstraps, but has always failed.  And why it remains so ignored and unaided.  They said simply that the problem is that there is no good part of town.  This became all too apparent all too quickly.  Without a good part of town bringing revenue to the city, and without a good part of town bringing people to the city, nothing ever changes.

I lived in St. Louis, right across the river, for 4 years.  I even ventured into East St. Louis on a few isolated occasions to do volunteer work.  I spent those 4 years doing all that I could to become and remain socially aware.  And it spite of it all, everything we saw during a trip shocked me.  Even the most community minded and socially active individuals, just one town and a 15 minute car ride away, have no idea what is going on in East St. Louis.  That is truly striking.  And upsetting.  It is hard to imagine that any place could become so forgotten.  It breaks my heart.

The worst part of a forgotten city, is all of the people that fall victim to the slip of consciousness.  As much as East St. Louis may at first glance resemble a ghost town, it is still filled with people who are struggling every bit as much as the city itself.  Over the course of the trip, I was touched by so many of them.  So many of their stories are so touching, they are worth being told.  We met a homeless man named Randy.  He has lost several of his toes to frost bite, but continues to be trapped in the cycle of homelessness.  He spends all of his days picking up trash around City Hall and all over downtown without any thanks, pay, or appreciation.  Rather than be thanked for this work, he continues to be persecuted by city officials.  We found him sleeping on a sidewalk near a bank, and we were actually nearly nit by debris flying off of the building next door.  Randy picked up, bagged, and disposed of all of the debris that landed on him while he slept.  A kinder man would be harder to come by.  We met another man named Jerry.  He lost his wife unexpectedly to cancer and how lives in an abandoned building while he struggles to get through the mourning process.  Cancer and respiratory problems are quite widespread in the city, as a matter of fact.  Many people live in asbestos-ridden condemned buildings and the city finds itself down wind from a number of chemical plants and factories on the other side of the river.  Not to mention the fact that sanitation is clear problem in the city and it has been somewhat of an dumping ground.  It is home to an disproportionate amount of CERCLA sites.  The many environmental hazards are taking their toll on the citizens of East St. Louis.  We didn't meet a single person that didn't look physically haggard by the conditions.  We met another woman who had lifted herself up out of homelessness, was working, and was turning things around.  She had a rough life, including being shot in an incidence of gang violence and losing an eye, but she was persevering and overcoming.  Not long after leaving the streets however, she too discovered that she had an aggressive form of cancer.  It was so overwhelming, she ended back on the streets where we found her.  I could go on and on about the people we met or heard about.  Their stories are terrible to hear, but should be heard.  Maybe we can allow a condemned piece of real estate or a corrupt bit of political infrastructure to slip our mind, but how can we forget the people that suffer as a result?  They are the reason it is time to stop forgetting, time to wake up, and time to answer the call to help.

During one particular day on our trip, we spent most of our time working with children.  We taught street law in a couple of different local high schools, and we played with young children at an afterschool program in the East St. Louis housing projects.  Thinking about the experience of a child always gives an interesting perspective.  Hearing from the very young children in the projects, especially, for me makes the issues facing East St. Louis seem even more pressing.  These children were as young as 5, but knew more about drugs and guns and gangs than I will probably ever know.  While we were at the program some police officers came to speak to the children about bullying and answer any questions they had.  Hearing the things they were worried about, and hearing the lessons they need to learn was saddening.  It also made me realize that we have got a whole lot to learn.  Poverty issues are incredibly complex, run incredibly deep, and in one short week we can't even begin to address them.

Though the tangible accomplishments we made during our time in East St. Louis may have been small, I still believe the trip was important.  We refused to forgot the place that everyone else did.  And it is my hope that we inspired some hope in the people we met and let them know that everyone has not forgotten, that there are people who are willing to help, and that compassion does exist.  It is just one step, but I think we all grew from the experience.  The people we met, both those in need of help and those who were helping, moved all of us in different ways and inspired us to continuing fighting the fight and answering the call to serve.  While volunteering at a thrift shop and soup kitchen, we met a remarkable man who gave up his career ambitions to devote his time to helping.  He taught us that you should choose a few special words and live by them.  His words included FORGIVENESS - EMPATHY - COMPASSION, and he did truly embody those qualities.  He inspired me as well, to decide what qualities are important to me and then live by them.  And I choose to remember the forgotten.  And to ask others to do the same.

Please learn what you can about East St. Louis, and other forgotten places, and choose not to forget that there are always people who need and deserve our help.