A Day's Work

Search this site:

The Commonspace

Mar 2005 / a day's work :: email this story to a friend

East St. Louis Rhapsody
By Mary Lisa Penilla

As with most thirty-somethings, "What do you do for a living?" is the question that inevitably surfaces when I'm meeting people for the first time. I could say, "I'm a nurse" or, "I work in public health," but these answers rarely satisfy. So I lay it out from the start: "I work in public health at the East St. Louis health department." I've come to anticipate the look of intrigue, surprise or, dare I say, shock, that then quickly spreads over my new acquaintance's face. The person almost invariably raises an eyebrow, takes a moment to absorb what's just been heard, nods his/her head, then says slowly, as if discerningly, "That must be very challenging/rewarding/difficult." Sometimes I just hear, "Woooooowwwwwww."

When I first started this work five and a half years ago, it annoyed me to hear this response. I wondered, was it code for something more sinister? Flattering words veiling racial or socio-economic biases based on little if any actual experience with East St. Louis? Let's face it: most St. Louisans to whom I speak have never been to "the East Side," save for the purchase of underage liquor or a trip to one its notorious strip joints.

East St. Louis Exits I backed off after awhile. After all, the East Side has at times earned its reputation by way of soaring crime statistics, gross morbidity figures and legendary political scandals. It has also often suffered at the hands of a media too quick to report the negative to the exclusion of the positive sides of life there. Either way, St. Louisans have settled for many "obvious" reasons to think ill of East St. Louis and the East Side generally, while lacking any personal connection to either.

Of course it is a mistake to write off our closest urban neighbor as though the statistics or media told the whole story. Further, it is wrong to think that city so very different than our own. That's right: St. Louis shares more than the banks of the Mighty Miss' with East St. Louis and its neighbors. Before you balk at the proposition, take a look at some of the similarities I see:

People — real, live, breathing human beings — make their homes in East St. Louis and do so by choice and with pride.

First, it is helpful to recognize that people, not statistics, live in East St. Louis. That said, it is erroneously believed that people who live in East St. Louis do so because they have no other choice. As with any urban area that has experienced decline - St. Louis should come to mind here - that is true for some, perhaps many. But there are plenty of others who choose to live here.

Why would one choose to live in East St. Louis? you might ask. Why does anyone choose to live in their community? Family, sense of community. As in other small communities, people in East St. Louis know each other. It is not uncommon to walk into my workplace and hear clients and staff, many of whom hail from the community, easily mixing conversation with business: "Girl, how's your momma?" or simply, "It's been awhile," in the midst of scheduling an appointment or taking a blood pressure. This genuine familiarity with and caring for people is typical of the community, and echoes in places of business, worship and on the streets. It also extends beyond those who live there to others who are open to and appreciative of what the community offers. By contrast, it is defensive towards those who would heap only criticism on it. Sound familiar, St. Louis?

There are signs of hope that the city can and will renew itself.

This may come as a surprise to St. Louisans who have heard over the years about so many "bad things" that happen in East St. Louis. Remember when trash wasn't picked up because the city was bankrupt? Surely you've heard about the political struggles that stymie action. There was even a shadowside to the glorious moment when President Bill Clinton visited the city in the '90s: the stop was part of his Poorest Cities in America tour. But hope, as we in St. Louis know all too well, is not only about the circumstances that exist today. To paraphrase social activist Jim Wallis, hope is about seeing the evidence, and then watching it change. Signs of hope in East St. Louis include improved infrastructure, declining crime rates, improved schools, active local coalitions and increasing commercial activity. There is hope that more will follow.

On his prescribed response to social disintegration Jim Wallis writes, "Biblical hope comes from having a vision of the future that enables us to live even now in its promise. It means bringing the future into the present with power and authority." A people of great faith and hope, committed East St. Louisans — like residents of St. Louis — are working to bring to fruition their own vision of the future.

East St. Louis is a unique community with its own strengths and challenges.

With a population of 31,542, the entire city of East St. Louis is comparable in size to the combined population of the four largest neighborhoods around the city of St. Louis' Tower Grove Park. I note this comparison since we in St. Louis tend to lump East St. Louis and its sister villages of Washington Park, Brooklyn, Alorton, Sauget, Cahokia and Centreville into one, calling it "the East Side." Yet as those of us who live in our various Tower Grove neighborhoods well know, there is a distinct flavor and history to individual communities — even to those not divided by municipal boundaries — and residents of each can best express the differences not discerned by the casual observer. Imagine, then, the diversity within East St. Louis and its neighborhoods, let alone among the various municipalities!

So, for example, when you bring to mind East St. Louis, you might imagine strip clubs, when actually you've confused it with other East Side communities. When you think of East St. Louis, think of its heroes: Miles Davis, Katherine Dunham or Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to name a few. Associate East St. Louis with its history of founding as Illinoistown, well known in the early 1900s for its thriving industries of stockyards and slaughterhouses, and as the last stop along the railroad lines south from Chicago, before bridges spanned the Mississippi River. You would have to think as well of East St. Louis' 1917 legacy of race riots that resulted in the brutal killing by angry white mobs of between 39 and several hundred African-Americans, a number unconfirmed due to incomplete coroner's records and the grisly nature of the slayings.

Of today's East St. Louis, you might bring to mind strong and active networks of churches, community organizations and health clinics; a growing 25th Street commercial development center; and new and renewed schools striving to greater heights in education, led by new leadership with focused vision. The other East Side communities feature a mix of their own; all deserve a closer look to discover their distinct traits — much as I believe we would say about our own city's unique community offerings.

These are but a few of the characteristics of East St. Louis that merit pause, and that bear a striking resemblance to St. Louis. I share this that you might not see the Mississippi as so wide a divide between us, that you might even take a closer look at what we share in common. If we ever hope to operate as a true bi-state metropolitan region, we have to get to know each other, and stop assuming we already do. As with everything, it starts with people and communities. Leave the statistics to the statisticians.

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2005 The Commonspace