ST. LOUIS TO EAST ST. LOUIS
What a difference a day makes.
There’s a concept in human thinking called confirmation bias – you see what you expect to see.
I crossed the river into East St. Louis this morning and ran down Collinsville Avenue and expectations were confirmed. This once vibrant city is now a modern-day ruin with empty storefronts, abandoned buildings, overgrown lots where businesses and houses once stood. Despair and hopelessness. People told us we shouldn’t come here.
It’s Labor Day 2019 – hot and sunny. I ran the Eads Bridge over the Great River into East St. Louis. Down Collinsville Avenue for the hand-off to Victoria at MLK Drive. She ran to the Washington Park neighborhood to meet our hosts, Reginald Petty and Edna Patterson-Petty. Bob Gill pulled up at the curb as we arrived and welcomed us to ESL.
Bob grew up here – around 67th and State (if I remember correctly). He’s a friend of Reggie and Edna. He cares greatly and gives back to his hometown in many ways, including writing and photography for I Am East St. Louis, The Magazine . He walked us to the door and introduced us to our hosts.
Reginald is a seasoned civil rights leader, activist, educator, author, historian and former Peace Corp director and proud East St. Louis native. At 83 years old, he is as energized about his work as someone a half-century younger.
Edna is an accomplished artist and art therapist of national and international acclaim. Her home alone is a testament to her creativity — nearly every surface has become a mosaic or mural turning what would be a staid wall or porcelain sink into a bejeweled shrine.
Her advocacy and commitment to ESL is far beyond what we’ve seen along the river.
We gathered at the dining room table with Reggie and Bob, covering a comprehensive history of this place – mound builders at Cahokia, early settlements, railroads, riots of 1917, rise of industry, all-American City status, loss of industry, white flight, loss of the black middle class, government mismanagement (and corruption), infrastructure decline, and the current state of the city.
Reggie sent us a large packet of information several weeks earlier and I’m glad we took time to do our homework – there are so many stories here.
Next up was a tour of the city. The four of us piled into Bob’s hatchback and set off to see ESL through the eyes of Reggie and Bob – a couple of kids who grew up here and still love this place today. We crisscrossed the city, passing sites of cultural and historic significance – but also sites of personal significance to our gracious tour guides.
And churches – lots of churches . . . As we made our rounds, it was clear that families and friends were getting together to celebrate Labor Day. Back yards, front yards, porches and parks were full of activity. Grills smoking, music playing, coolers out and people gathered.
We stopped at the annual Pollock Town reunion/picnic in Reggie’s old neighborhood. The park was alive and the feeling of community was very strong. All generations are represented. Many of these folks are from the neighborhood, some live nearby and some returned from far away (California!) to reunite with their community. The food looked sooo good . . . but we couldn’t stay for long.
We continued our tour, with a final stop at the Majestic Theater on Collinsville Avenue. The building and façade are incredible, and equally impressive were the mural on the east wall and Edna’s mosaic work on the flower planters. It’s still a work in progress, but beautiful even so.
We arrived back at our temporary home in Washington Park. It’s been a full day and it feels good to kick back on the sofa.
Maybe we’ll get some rest? In walks Eugene Redmond . . .
Eugene is the Poet Laureate for East St. Louis – he has been since 1976. He’s a renowned author, nationally and internationally recognized for his work in African American and Multi-Cultural literature.
Today he showed off his skills as tour guide, driving us around town to see his special places. Along the way, we learned of his lifelong work in Civil Rights and the Black Arts Movement. It’s an impressive body of work.
Most importantly, Eugene shared his personal life with us. We visited the sites of two childhood homes and took an illegal drive over the railroad tracks, past the floodwall and down to the river side.
These are the three places where he wants his ashes placed for his final rest. His daughter, Treasure, has been given explicit instructions to carry this out.
And speaking of Treasure . . . our final stop on the tour was at her home in nearby Fairview Heights. She and her kids (Ramses and Yaa) had prepared a meal for some friends and were waiting for their arrival. In walks Eugene and a couple of weary Mississippi River travelers . . . Treasure generously offered us dinner and took time to share her story. She’s an amazing talent and a gracious host to unexpected guests. We enjoyed blackened hot dogs and took a fun group selfie (Mr. Stripes, the pet lizard, did not participate).
The sun had set by the time Eugene delivered us home to Edna and Reggie’s place.
East St. Louis has suffered a series of body blows over the years. There are places in town where the infrastructure situation seems hopeless. There are still wounds from events that happened a century ago. There are negative perceptions about this community that create barriers for future investment.
There are also 26,000 ordinary and extraordinary people here who make this place their home.
When I ran down Lincoln Avenue the next day on my way out of town, my expectations were confirmed.
There were young kids and their mothers gathered at the bus stop, folks on their way to work, people calling out “good morning” as I passed, a high-five from a crossing guard, and a lady who ran with me for half a block while her friends roared with laughter. Laughter and hopefulness.
What a difference a day makes.