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In America's Heartland

These are hard times, and the struggle for American working-class men and women to maintain dignity, work, and family life is a national one. Nowhere is this struggle sharper than in America's heartland and especially in East St. Louis, Illinois.

Located on the southwestern edge of Illinois, East St. Louis is part of the larger St. Louis, Missouri, metropolitan area. Five hours from Chicago and almost four hours from Indianapolis, East St. Louis-once a thriving industrial suburb-now leads as an example of how economic disinvestment sours a community and the lives within it. This is a city that reluctantly claims the highest unemployment, poverty, and high school dropout rates in the region.

Ninety-nine percent of the population is African American. Working-age youth and adults work as nurses, teacher's aides, shop clerks, cashiers, housekeepers, maids, janitors, barbers, truck drivers, and lawn-care specialists, among many other working-class occupations. Mothers and fathers commute by bus, train, and mostly older-model vehicles out of the city to work each day. Still, among those sixteen years old and older, almost 50 percent do not participate in the labor force, and of the 50 percent actively participating, about 10 percent are officially unemployed. Thirty-three percent of families and 56 percent of youth below the age of eighteen live below the poverty level of income.

The majority of children in East St. Louis receive their education in a district where schools are now infamous for poor plumbing, dated labs and books, and poor retention rates. Bricks fall from the older buildings onto play areas below. Parents seek out the pitifully few outlets of family recreation and entertainment that exist. Residents must protect themselves and their loved ones from compound pollutants and toxins that fill the air, water, and ground soil. Fire-gutted and decaying buildings sit alongside more livable working-class quarters, and broken stoplights sometimes dangle precariously above tattered city streets. A smattering of more upscale and middle-class homes and vehicles sit here and there-but these only give nuance to a clearly devastated city.

Instinctively, the above description might be transposed with that of an impoverished community or neighborhood located in the inner core of one of America's large cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Detroit. Social scientists and popular media tell us that black people in these urban center spaces experience high rates of joblessness, poverty, tenuous labor, households headed by single mothers, dangerous streets filled with crime and violence, low academic achievement, gang activity, poor health, and dilapidated apartments and houses. We have all seen these characteristics of urban spaces popularized on television and in film-so much so that the public generally accepts that inner-city spaces are marginal to mainstream society. Contemporary African Americans are broadly understood as a monolithic population concentrated in the distressed cores of metropolitan areas.

East St. Louis, however, is not in the inner core of a metropolitan area. It is in the suburbs of America's heartland. This makes for a sociological brew that the nation as a whole and its policy makers would rather not confront. Yet confront it we must. The problems of places like East St. Louis keep deepening and getting more combustible. Even more pointedly, those problems are a lot more similar to those on the sunnier side of suburbia than we might think.


On a warm autumn day, my mother and I take a nostalgic journey together. Between 1996 and 2003, I spent many days, weeks, and months in this area, getting to know the people and the communities and collecting data for this study. But for Mom, the story is really personal: this region was once her home. She was born and raised in the smaller St. Louis suburb of Edwardsville, fifteen miles northeast of East St. Louis. Like many black women of her generation, she joined the army after high school. She later married, had children, and eventually settled in Texas. She returns to her hometown several times a year to visit and maintain ties to kin.

On this day, she and I are headed for the Red Door, a tavern located on the northern outskirts of East St. Louis. It is a small shop, off the Twenty-fifth Street exit of Interstate Highway 64-visible only if you know where to look and what to look for. Surrounded by empty lots and a few older homes, it is the only commercial enterprise on the block. Here, according to my mother, they prepare some of the area's best barbecued pig snoots (skin cut from the snout of a pig)-firm and crispy, smothered in a tangy orange-red sauce that marinates through the single slice of plain white bread that serves as a small platter for the meat. The memories of the soul-touching aroma is reason alone for this visit.

Our drive is otherwise uneventful. Forty years earlier, in my mother's youth, streetcar tracks stretched from East St. Louis into the surrounding smaller communities. People flocked to its downtown streets to shop for the latest styles of clothing, shoes, household furnishings, and entertainment. Sometimes they strolled the streets just to be seen in their Sunday best. Sears, the famous Majestic Theater, and Siedel's, among other institutions, peppered the downtown area. Today, Collinsville Avenue, historically one of the city's major thoroughfares, represents only a tiny fraction of what this business and shopping district used to be. In between vacant shops are the stores similar to those found in inner-city areas. African Americans who live here and in nearby communities often get hair service at Shear Magic and at Rodney's Barber and Beauty Salon, among the avenue's shops. Black women, who are unable to find their beauty products in predominantly white neighborhood stores, usually can locate them at Ace Beauty Supply, Illinois Wig and Fashions, or Collins Wig Shop. Or they may get their hair styled at the beauty school, two miles down on State Street. Collinsville Avenue also still boasts the presence of a few nightclubs and bars, such as Faces and Blackman's Terrace Cocktails and Steaks. And although one would be hard pressed to locate upscale furnishings for purchase in this city, discount stores such as Value Plus and Fay Furniture and Pawn sell beds, sofas, and other new and used wares for the home. In addition, other age-old "intimate" services survive on this city street and in the neighboring black towns of Brooklyn and Washington Park.

Visitors to East St. Louis are sure to notice closed storefronts. Many empty buildings are simply boarded up. Fire and other elements have left other structures to lapse into a dangerous state. According to some residents, the city officers are not doing their job. One, Elmer Middleton, noted, "They ain't doing what they was supposed to do, what they was elected for." As evidence, some residents say city officials do not demand that property owners maintain buildings and land. Others explain it in a different way: the city cannot afford to pursue absentee landlords or the cost of razing the many buildings and cleaning the lots that threaten the safety of city residents. Asked about these complaints, a city official admitted, "There is something to just about all of that."

My mother and I are staggered by the visual evidence of the disrepair of the streets; little sign remains of the industry that once placed the city on regional, national, and international maps. I avoid pothole after pothole, only to find another straight ahead. Most of the streets we pass do not have sidewalks, though many are quite wide. A few cars are parked in front of the 1940s-style, single-family brick homes. Most look as if they were once quite stately, and from a distance many still appear handsome in the shadows of the trees. Upon closer look, one can see that the roofs are discolored, and bricks are missing from porches and outer walls. An eyesore, yes-but forsaken lots also serve a purpose. These spaces offer a convenient resting place for old red bricks, concrete cinder blocks, tires, broken bottles, and miscellaneous other debris.

Yet this is not the complete picture. In almost any direction from the center of East St. Louis are blocks of well-maintained homes and yards, where the financed new cars of occupants soak up the warm sun in paved and edged driveways and where, on weekends, homeowners can be seen trimming hedges, planting gardens, and raking leaves in the fall. But many of these homes, though well kept, need repairs. Even new homes, such as those in the South End, are shoddy and overpriced, leaving the owners with high mortgage rates and property taxes and with costly feuds with developers and bankers-who profit regardless.

One of the newest housing developments is in the Emerson Park area. Homes here are offered for lease only. The housing was funded by a collective of investors whose interests seem to lie in pushing the "St. Louis, Missouri," agenda for East St. Louis, Illinois: discussion of sports stadiums and development of the Mississippi riverfront. Riverfront development, though, is controlled not by East St. Louis but by the Southwestern Illinois Development Association, a regional agency, run by mostly affluent whites, with the power of eminent domain. The upshot is that those leasing new homes in Emerson Park pay substantial rents but can never hope to own the houses into which they sink their monthly wages. Some residents believe that this is so the property can be easily transformed to fit the long-term plans of state and regionally sponsored developers and contractors. Either way, it is a money-making resource for the outside, mostly white developers and construction companies.

Unlike larger cities with significant concentrations of poor and unemployed, the downtown streets are not interspersed with panhandlers, amateur musicians, and street artists. Some families with accumulated wealth and extra money to spend reside here, but they tend not to spend much time in the city's downtown area. There is also little to attract the wandering tourist with spare change in his pocket. There is almost none of the public-space interaction between residents and outsiders that you might find on the sidewalks of New York or on State Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

The lack of racial diversity is discernible. What was once a majority white population is now almost 100 percent African American. Shops and restaurants in New York's Harlem attract racially and ethnically diverse visitors. Not true of those in East St. Louis. Other than the Casino Queen, a gambling facility located directly across the river from the St. Louis Arch, few businesses attract white consumers. They and others from outside East St. Louis are usually workers who arrive and depart by private car. On weekday mornings, they go right from car to office building, venturing out of their offices only to pick up lunch at Sandy's barbecue, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Wendy's.

My mother and I notice that no graffiti exists on derelict properties except for occasional spray-painted "keep out" warnings. Though it is Friday and school is out for the day, only a few children are playing in their yards. Three young men look under the open hood of a car. Their T-shirts are grimy. Cans of Stag beer rest on the nearby porch wall.

Mom and I take the long route back to the highway-through the city and east. At the riverfront is the Casino Queen. This gamblers' haven brings in millions annually, yet somehow the riches have bypassed East St. Louis. If this is "trickle-down" economics, it isn't working.

The sights bring back a flood of memories for my mother: mothers and fathers, their children in tow, going in and out of stores; young lovers strolling down the sidewalks, the live music of Ike and Tina Turner flowing from the nightclubs; and she and her friends riding the streetcar for fifteen miles for the excitement of it all. But even her imagination cannot cloak the burned building that jaggedly edges the downtown skyline or disguise the tall weeds that grow ferociously in the empty lots behind the empty shops. It cannot regenerate the stockyards, chain stores, and factories that once made this a city dominated by blue-collar workers and families. It cannot conceal the poverty that seems to sit on every other doorstep, waiting for time to shoo it away.


George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisors apparently didn't have the same view. In February 2007, the council's Economic Report of the President assured us all that America's heartland, as well as the rest of the U.S. economy, "continues to exhibit robust growth, with a strong labor market and moderate inflation ... supported by rapid productivity growth that makes our economy one of the most dynamic and resilient in the world." To be sure, in recent decades, central cities have witnessed increases in employment and have been less likely than in the past to be burdened with simultaneous population loss and increasing poverty. Suburban spaces are also part of the boom. Overall, these spaces are growing at much faster rates than central cities in terms of household income, business growth and development, falling rates of unemployment, and digital access.

Such rosy reports-which followed one after another right up to the moment of the near-universal collapse of financial markets in 2008-denied that immense fissures persist in the national economy. According to The State of the Cities 2000, a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, most of America's cities are participating in the "new economy," but a 1999 report focused on the string of small northeastern cities that have been left behind. A 2006 Brookings Institution report found that from 1999 to 2005, poverty rates increased in eighteen of twenty metropolitan areas in the South and the Midwest. Scholars have noted pockets of poverty elsewhere, as well. The suburban poor outnumber "their city counterparts by at least 1 million," according to the Brookings study.

The first-ring and former industrial suburbs are doing worst of all. These are often the cities in between booming residential suburbs and recovering central cities and betwixt large cities and small communities. These are mostly working-class suburbs that once served as America's centers for industry and transportation. East St. Louis and Granite City, Illinois, Benton Harbor, Michigan, and even larger places like Gary, Indiana, and Flint, Michigan, have all lost industry and population and consequently suffer eroding tax bases. These have become showcases of midwestern decay. These are also the places where African Americans originally moved to escape the socioeconomic harshness of the South and the low quality of life in impoverished central cities.

Today, America is experiencing a demographic transformation. According to William Frey, of the Brookings Institution, "In 2000, 43 percent of blacks in major metropolitan areas lived in the suburbs, but that share increased rapidly to more than 50 percent by 2008." No longer confined to the poorest parts of central cities, they are also now concentrated in the poorest suburbs in surrounding metropolitan areas.

Despite their growing numbers, we know very little about what life is like for poor workers and families in general beyond the central city limits, let alone for those of color. We know even less about the circumstances of suburban life and its meaning for African American residents in places as hard hit as East St. Louis. How do they define their responsibilities as workers, parents, kin, and community citizens? How do they negotiate their lives and the lives of loved ones in these other urban spaces? Answering these questions is the mission of this book.


Albert Haynes, sixty-five, could relate to my mother's nostalgia. "It didn't used to be this way," Haynes said in reference to the decaying buildings and streets. "There used to be stores everywhere. We used to go play in the park. We would ask Mama for a nickel to go to the show. We used to go fishing in the lake. I remember those days. Things were good then."

Taverns, stores, schools, churches, industry, and government all make up the atmosphere of a city. But its character is not accidental. It evolves and transforms over time. Its consistent transformation is the product of interactions among the city's residents, political entities, industry, and culture, as well as of regional and national trends.

Despite its residential population, the city of East St. Louis actually was not designed with the capacity to serve residential men, women, and their families. Rather, it was established as an industrial suburb, with proximity to St. Louis on the other side of the Mississippi, and was developed to promote and protect particular industrial interests. As one researcher argues, every major city needs a workbench, a trash heap, a washbasin, some kind of repository for the unattractive, yet essential, elements of urban life, such as the slaughterhouses, smokestacks, rail yards, and those who make them work. Philadelphia needed Camden, Chicago needed Gary, and St. Louis needed East St. Louis, conveniently located anywhere outside the city limits.

Initially incorporated in 1859 under the name Illinoistown, East St. Louis has survived many transitions over the last 150 years. In 1888, Illinoistown merged with the adjacent East St. Louistown and was reincorporated as East St. Louis. The prime location, untapped natural resources, and available labor helped the city thrive as both a commercial and an industrial center. East St. Louis has always capitalized upon its location for the transportation of goods. Early in the nineteenth century, the first ferry station was built in this area, allowing ferryboats and barges to use the Mississippi River. By the time the Eads Bridge was opened in 1874 and the Merchant's Bridge was opened in 1889, linking East St. Louis to the Missouri side, the city had established itself as a major transportation center. This accompanied the nation's demand for raw materials.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this region of Illinois, overall, was an appealing site for industry attempting to escape the high costs of doing business in the central city of St. Louis. The East St. Louis government operated primarily to protect investment and industry. Industries exerted an influence on city operations (especially by encouraging corruption, skewing urban development and land use, and altering demographics). This vast manufacturing activity provided thousands of job opportunities. The city attracted immense numbers of racial minorities and ethnic immigrants. In addition to southern Europeans, Croatian, Czech, Polish, and other eastern Europeans settled there, a majority in the north end's Goose Hill.

The black experience in this part of Illinois is historically significant. A small population of African Americans has lived in the area since the birth of East St. Louis. America's first all-black town, Brooklyn, Illinois, shares a border with the city. It is one of a hundred or so communities organized by black Americans between the early 1800s to the mid-1900s and is one of a few that survive today. At the turn of the twentieth century, when most African American men remained part of the agricultural economy, most of those in this growing industrial and transportation center worked on the railroads and docks and in the stockyards, mines, and other industries offering low wages and requiring heavy labor.

In East St. Louis the First Colored Baptist Church was founded in 1863. Lincoln School for Coloreds was built in 1886 on Sixth and St. Louis; for years, it was called Lincoln PolyTech. Education here centered on practical skills advocated by Booker T. Washington, such as piano tuning, band and orchestral instrumentation, carpentry, masonry, plastering, plumbing, electricity, cooking, and sewing. However, the majority of African Americans arrived after the turn of the century. Their inability to earn a decent living and their children's lack of access to education in the South motivated many to move into the Midwest. Black migrants were encouraged to settle in the area by industries, which viewed them as a source of cheap labor. Industries hired African Americans to do the work that whites refused to perform. Even this horrid labor was often better than what they had left behind, but it also meant these new midwesterners would encounter new forms of racial tension.


Among the first stream-of-consciousness responses to the prompt "East St. Louis" is "corrupt political machine" and "vice capital." These aspects of the city, too, have a deep legacy.

Noting that the primary purpose of a place like East St. Louis is to provide a political climate and regulatory freedoms that maximize the profits of industry, Andrew Theising wrote, "Industrial suburbs condone corruption and vice for purposes of profitability. By keeping everyone in the process happy, a measure of stability exists that ensures profitability of industry." Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that corruption was pervasive. In the 1800s, a political machine created by elected leaders enabled them to merge personal prosperity with public gains. City mismanagement, nepotism, prostitution, gambling, and other forms of lawlessness were hallmarks of that period. The surge in the black population was a net benefit to the Republicans, the party of Lincoln.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, as the population of African Americans began to swell (along with those of southern and eastern European ethnic groups), World War I-related industries boosted employment, and more workers migrated to the East St. Louis area. The labor force of both whites and blacks was augmented by industrial expansion, though whites were more likely to be hired than blacks. Eastern Europeans were the most represented group in the National Stockyards. American Zinc, in neighboring Fairmont, recruited workers directly from Mexico. Aluminum Ore openly advertised in southern newspapers for black workers to replace striking white employees. These tactics kept wages low for industry owners by pitting one group of workers against another. According to Elliot Rudwick, management maintained consistently large black proportions in their labor for two reasons: "Race differences among the employees decreased the possibility of unionization, and Negroes did not object to performing low-paying, dirty, unpleasant tasks involved in fertilizer manufacturing and hog-killing."

In April 1917, black strikebreakers helped defeat the union effort at Aluminum Ore, and three months later that led to one of the deadliest race riots in American history. White mobs, instigated by a few political leaders and hopefuls, attacked black men, women, and children. Forty-seven blacks and eight whites were killed. In the aftermath, many black families fled East St. Louis. Nonetheless, many remained, and still others continued to migrate into its borders. Besides contributing to the low wages of a competing and diverse labor force, the labor manipulations of the manufacturers prevented the development of a pronounced middle class.

The emergence of organized crime in the twentieth century only exacerbated this element of city life. Thriving industries remained passive in response to illegal practices so long as they did not interfere with the industries' profits, and by 1920, East St. Louis was a major industrial center. Industries planted within and outside city limits produced a vast array of products for the nation's growing industrial manufacturing economy: acid, aluminum, barium, barrels, beer, boxes, bricks, brass, cans, castings, cereal, coal, creosoted timbers, dairy products, electrical supplies, elevators, farm equipment, feeds, fertilizer, fittings, flour, foundries, fruits, gas, glass, grin, heavy chemicals, ice, iron, lead, lumber, machine tools, meats, oil, ore, paint and paint pigments, rail equipment, roofing materials, rubber, soap, steel, shoes, syrup, textiles, tools, utilities, valves, vegetables, wood, white lead, yearlings, and zinc.

Often referred to as the "Pittsburgh of the West," the city had twenty-two railroad terminals and was the nation's second largest rail center. The expansive coal mines of southern Illinois shipped their product using the vast railway system, thus distinguishing East St. Louis from most other urban areas: it had the cheapest coal in the world. It was also the third largest primary grain market and second only to Chicago as a hog market. In 1921, Aluminum Ore, which employed twenty-five hundred men, was the world's largest aluminum-processing center. The city also led the nation in the production of roofing materials, baking powder, and paint pigments.

East St. Louis was a city on the move. A 1921 state report rated its schools the best in Illinois. But prosperity did not spread the benefits equally. Relative to other demographic groups, African Americans endured higher rates of infant mortality, tuberculosis, and other forms of morbidity. Black men toiled at the stockyards and on the railroads, while black women supplemented family diets by raising chickens, ducks, and pigs and tending small gardens on tiny dirt lots. Many also performed domestic work, cleaning the homes of the city's white residents. But during this period of great racial tension, they were forced to return to their neighborhoods by dusk.

And despite the presence of growing labor unions and abundant manufacturing, East St. Louis was the second poorest city of its size in the nation. Annual income per household was only about 24 percent of the average for the state of Illinois. The better-quality schools, open to white children, were closed to a black student body. The largest companies reaping the benefits of residential labor and the development of the city infrastructure were located just outside the city border in order to avoid taxes. Many of these companies even set up their own captive local governments.

The Great Depression hit East St. Louis particularly hard before the industrial demands of World War II sparked a resurgence. By 1947, the population topped seventy-five thousand. Many African Americans were beginning to move solidly into the working class by moving into jobs previously held by white ethnics and by accessing government positions, but many others, left behind by the boom, lingered in poverty.

In 1943, the development of the federally funded, need-based John Robinson Homes project began-ironically, the same year that stores and their profits were expanding. Sears department store moved into a larger and more magnificent building. A new bowling alley opened. In 1960, the city received the All-American City Award from Look magazine and the National Municipal League, and a new shopping mall opened. The next year, local businesses employed sixty thousand workers and paid $125 million in wages.

But trouble loomed. Population was declining from its peak of 82,295 in the 1950 census. In 1959, Armour Company relocated, and fourteen hundred jobs were lost. Between 1950 and 1964, eight other major industries and employers of African Americans left the area: Aluminum Ore, Walwarth Valve, American Steel, Eagle-Picher Lean, Key Boiler, American Brake and Shoe, American Asphalt, and Excelsior Tool and Machine. Fifty-five miles of railway existed in the city, but the national trend of conversion from coal to gas as a fuel source drastically cut rail traffic. The Majestic Theater closed its doors after thirty-two years, and a new federally funded housing project, the Orr-Weathers Homes, was built to house the increasing number of low-income families in the area. White workers and families left the city for predominantly white towns on the periphery, such as Belleville, Sauget, and Fairview Heights, abandoning the debt and mismanagement that they had helped to infuse into the fabric of East St. Louis.

Popular arguments mostly place blame for the economic and social decline of urban areas on the black and brown populations who generally live there. But the more accurate explanation is the migration of industry, heavy traffic, declining capital stock, and a concentration of low-income persons, all of which generate a need for higher municipal expenditures. For East St. Louis, these problems reared collectively in the 1950s, prior to their appearance in many other locales.

To address the fiscal crisis, the city instituted a strict budgeting system in the next decade, creating a deputy comptroller position to help implement internal efficiency and general control measures and tighter civil-service requirements for city jobs. Yet the crisis worsened. Other stopgap measures included new taxes on retail sales and utilities and on automobiles by requiring municipal auto registration fees, which just compounded the economic demands on working residents while failing to produce adequate additional public revenue. Still another creative, but failed, revenue enhancer was judgment-funding bonds. Payments on the judgment bonds were made out of a special property-tax fund. Over time, staggeringly higher proportions of property-tax revenues were used to service the ever-increasing debt.

By 1970, almost half of the manufacturing jobs had disappeared. Five years later, more than half of the collected property taxes paid for local borrowing. But the use of property taxes as a source of stable funds was declining. Up until the late 1960s, the city had been responsible for collecting taxes that were extended to the county, with uneven results. The valuation of city property began to fall steadily in 1960. In addition to losing other tax revenues from the ongoing industrial flight, East St. Louis saw a significant portion of its land taken off the tax rolls thanks to excessive highway construction within its borders.

An African American majority emerged. In 1960, the city was 55 percent white and 45 percent African American. By 1970, the black percentage had grown to 69. Whites were down to 4 percent in 1980 and 2 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, the total population plummeted from 82,000 in 1960 to 41,000 in 1990. Today, East St. Louis is the city with the highest percentage of African Americans in the nation but has a population of just under 30,000.

Just when many black Americans were gaining a foothold in the city's working class, core industries were well into the process of abandoning it. The losses overwhelmed basic municipal services to the point that the city could not afford regular trash pickup, plumbing repairs in public schools, or the demolition of abandoned structures.


In just about every way, the history of East St. Louis varies significantly from the mythical suburbia of our literature and consciousness: just as poor areas of central cities have been cast as the primary living space for African Americans, suburbs have been perceived as white, middle-class, socioeconomically mobile, and affluent, homogenous residential retreats. These spaces were understood to offer these families respite from the harshness of city life-its dangerous streets and criminal kind, its loud noises and dense populations, its unpredictability, lack of personal space, pollution, and, yes, its dark racial element. Relative to suburban life in other nations of the Western world, American suburbs are said to be distinct in their reliance on the private automobile, the separation of daily activities into nuclear units, the upward mobility of residents, and the physical division that they provide between work and leisure time.

Perhaps the most damaging of the suburban myths, with respect to blacks, were those of the "pathology" of African American family culture and its corollary, a supposedly poor work ethic. The early history of blacks in East St. Louis confirms just the opposite. The family-and sometimes only the family, with a broad definition encompassing the extended family of cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents-is what ensured their survival in brutal conditions. And when it came to ingenuity and long hours, African Americans, by working several jobs and maximizing scarce resources, took a back seat to no other ethnic group.

Edith Taylor, ninety-two years old when I interviewed her, recalled how everyone in her family worked and harvested what was then farmland. Another elderly resident, Ida Fay, who also grew up on a family farm, explained, "But it wasn't enough, so my father worked, too." That is, her father worked as a full-time packinghouse employee while her mother managed the farm. The demands of the farm meant that the children were enlisted to pull weeds, till the soil, plant the seeds, and chop crops during harvest. After toiling at this monotonous work for years after school, another local resident, Oliver Fay, promised himself at a young age, "If I ever get grown, I'm not going to chop nobody's garden ever again."

Parents also demanded that children go to school and seek paid employment. "Otherwise we couldn't survive," Edith Taylor said. Consequently, she and her sibling also worked for wages in a local nut factory. To say the least, such anecdotes refute the notion that this was a culture deficient in work ethic. But such anecdotes fall into the historical cracks of the predominant suburban narrative marked by race and class.

Proletarian pluck and bootstrapping through education are major themes of recent revisionists, who have shown that in the early part of the twentieth century, suburbs attracted not just the white middle class but the white working class as well. The latter reluctantly followed industry and jobs, leaving behind cherished inner-city neighborhoods, neighbors, and extended kin. Somehow, the black working class gets omitted from that narrative. The appeal of owning a home and being surrounded by green grass, trees, quiet, and other similar things was not confined to a single group. Nor were a strong work ethic, a commitment to family, and a belief in the value of a good education.

East St. Louis native Clarisse James recalled that her father worked for Saint Louis Fixture, building cabinets for the growing number of department stores, businesses, and homes in this Midwest region. He also worked as a handyman, fixing roofs or basement-floor leaks. According to his wife, he began working at age ten with his father, "doing carpentry and acquiring some knowledge of building." Eventually, he built a new home for his wife and children on a piece of land inherited from his mother. With determination and patience, he constructed the house over a period of years, bringing spare lumber, nails, and roofing materials from the different construction sites where he worked and bargaining for discounts on the purchase of bricks and indoor fixtures. After school and on weekends, the children painted, carried lumber and bricks, and performed other tasks. His brother-in-law and uncle also participated in the project.

Once the family took residence, Clarisse James's mother spent mornings and afternoons "closing off" the back porch with wood posts and screening. "I wanted to use the porch like an extra room, so the children could sleep out in the summertime where it was so nice and cool," she explained. Her oldest daughter recalled coming home from school and seeing "Mama up on that stool with nails between her teeth and a hammer in her apron pocket." Such stories not only describe a culture with a dedication to the concept of work. They also capture that culture's specific ingenuity at assembling from scratch improved housing stock, its reliance on the skills developed in trades and in childhood, and its characteristic of communal participation by extended family members.


The 1979 election of Mayor Carl Officer, who for many offered a glimmer of hope, instead became a benchmark of the decline of East St. Louis. Officer appeared to have a chance to turn the city around and prioritize its needs. After all, he had come from a family of modest means: the Officers owned and operated a successful funeral home in the city, and they were well-known, respected, and trusted members of the community. Unlike past candidates, Officer was not beholden to the political machine of the Democratic Party.

But optimists underestimated the depth of the problems. East St. Louis was approximately $180 million in debt, and the same characteristics that had helped Officer win the election would prove to be barriers to his ability to network with politicians and legislators who could assist the city. When the debt further ballooned, state policy makers blamed the black mayor, who never hesitated to place blame on the white institutions and power structure that created and maintained a system of inequality for this predominantly black place. The Officer administration was accused of mismanaging money and federal grants, and with East St. Louis on the verge of bankruptcy, the city became the first to have its public housing managed directly from Washington, D.C. Consequently, mostly white policy makers, some of whom were angered by Officer's public charges of racism, assumed effective control.

In 1990, Governor James R. Thompson placed the city in receivership, establishing the East St. Louis Financial Advisory Authority (FAA) under the Illinois Financially Distressed City Law. The FAA had the power to approve or reject the city's budgets, financial plans, new projects, and major purchases, among other powers. Failure to comply with FAA requirements could lead to the removal of the city's spending authority. The FAA, for example, rejected the Officer administration's attempt to use casino payments to the city to invest in infrastructure. The white gubernatorial appointees on the board demanded that the funds be used to pay down debt to outside entities.

Civil rights was a casualty of receivership, as residents lost representation. Corruption lingered, especially in the form of nepotism, with high-paying jobs and contracts consistently going to elected officials' relatives and friends. Among the more prominent scandals during my time in the city, in September 2004 Mayor Officer argued that the political opposition had set fire to his campaign headquarters, the site where he had continued to hold meetings with supporters. In 2006, four residents, including Democratic Party leader Charles Powell Jr., were found guilty of participating in a vote-buying scheme to get Democrats elected during the November 2004 election. Beer, medicine, cigarettes, and cash were provided to those who cast a Democratic ballot. In 2005, Kelvin Ellis, the former East St. Louis director of regulatory affairs, pled guilty to evading more than forty thousand dollars in federal taxes involving money he primarily earned from his previous city employment.

The fallout of these political woes benefits only outside commercial interests. In 2005, Schnuck's, one of two local grocery store chains, threatened to close its East St. Louis location, citing high rent and declining profits. In response, the city council agreed to pay a private developer $1.8 million to help buy and renovate the supermarket building, for which Schnuck's got a $1-a-year lease for five years. City administrators also considered a bond issue to create a similar deal for the expansion and renovation of the Casino Queen.

The largest city in southwest Illinois, East St. Louis was also one of the nation's largest concentrations of poor at the time of this writing. About 40 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Nearly half of residents age eighteen and older had not completed high school. . Fifty-six percent of East St. Louis individuals and families had annual incomes of less than twenty-five thousand dollars compared with 13.5 percent of individuals and families in the United States in general. Over half of the population depended on some form of government assistance .


The goal of this study is to recast classic notions of the nature of American suburbs. These classic views are, at best, nostalgic, and they miss essential aspects of the African American experience there. Moving forward, what we need to understand is that suburban life has never been one of splendor for blacks.

We confront the problem not just as the first black president makes his mark but also as leading black intellectuals assess the comparative importance of structural explanations for black poverty versus the conventional "culture of poverty" thesis. Even the estimable William Julius Wilson struggles with this problem; in so doing, I believe, he downplays the key ingredient of this mix of structural explanations and conventional thesis. In his latest book, More Than Just Race: Being Poor and Black in the Inner City, Wilson reemphasizes his familiar theme that black America is really divided into two populations: poor inner-city residents and those who have escaped to the "middle suburbs." For black America (or America in general), it seems, race, poverty, and place primarily matter in urban settings, where structural inequities disproportionately affect minority populations. That notion is unassailable. However, Wilson misguidedly suggests that blacks contribute to or reinforce their own poor conditions of life by taking on unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors.

If the price that African Americans are paying for the ascension of the first president from their ranks includes a denial of the full extent of the legacy of racism in the persistence of black poverty, then that price is too steep.


Changing demographics and socioeconomic problems demand that we push aside outdated and inaccurate notions of suburbia. Suburbs are increasingly racially diverse, and first-ring and former industrial suburbs are experiencing crime, high school incompletion, and poor health at rates similar to many inner-city neighborhoods. The bedrock historical truth about East St. Louis is that, in many ways, it contradicts the American suburban ideal. Black people were never fully absorbed into the nation's cities or its suburbs. They were simply never fully absorbed into the paid labor force-particularly in jobs that paid living wages or provided for ideal "suburban-like" lives. In truth there was no golden age for black America. Andrew Theising summarizes the historical reality of East St. Louis: by the 1960s, over half of the city was black; about half of black families were surviving on annual incomes considerably less than the county average; a third of working-age adults were unemployed; blacks were not being integrated into union labor, nor did they find opportunities that would provide family wages and benefits. These trends have changed little in the decades since-for black urbanites or suburbanites.

Still, the old-timers, like my mother, wax nostalgic. While vividly recalling parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents being out of work, looking for work, complaining about low pay and high prices, mistreatment by employers, and the lack of opportunities-just as many do today-they also recount other elements in scarce supply today: good times, happiness, and family. They remember children laughing, playing; women cooking, cleaning, tending gardens; and men at least having a fighting chance at jobs that demanded hard work and offered dignity.

"My daddy worked for Armour," said Alberta Cline. "Papa worked for the railroad for as long as I can remember," reported Marie Scott. This is also the East St. Louis described by white former residents. A former student of mine, Elmer Lynne, put it this way: "My daddy had a job. My uncle had a job. They really all of them did work. They would walk to work together. They would come home together. They would play cards on Friday nights. Drink beer together. That's how they enjoyed themselves. We children, that's all we saw was men going to work, our fathers going to work, coming home, resting, getting up. Going back to work. They were always tired, but that's what work was supposed to be back then."

For older black residents, the transition of East St. Louis from predominantly white to majority black corresponded with their increased local and national political influence and power and with a better standard of living and more buying power. According to seventy-eight-year-old Ohana James, "Back in the 1960s and 1970s I think it was coming along. You had black people in high places. We had black doctors and politicians. We had people that owned their own businesses. We had theaters and black-owned grocery stores. We had families that lived in the big houses-I know you've seen them. I mean mansions on Virginia Place. If we had a few pennies, then we could buy penny candy and bubble gum and pop. These are things that you can't do today with a few pennies."

Big names once called East St. Louis home: Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner, Jackie Joyner. People observed themselves or others moving up the economic ladder. They remembered working parents starting in a one-bedroom house and transitioning into larger accommodations as the family grew and the household income increased. Eighty-two-year-old Marian Mason talked of her parents' ascent: "Daddy started out on the railroad. Then somebody told him or somehow he got this job working over at the steel plant. I think, it seemed he preferred that, because he worked inside and he could get better pay.... Mama stayed home and took care of the house, the family. Daddy worked, and she stayed home until we was all in high school."

The full truth is not so romantic: East St. Louis could be harsh for many families. In the South End in the 1920s and {apos}'30s, the yards in which children frolicked had no grass; the streets on which parents marched to work were muddy. Morning, noon, and night, the stench of pollution from factory smokestacks and of death and manure from the stockyards sifted through the battered wooden lean-tos that many of the newest black immigrants called home. The stench of aerial smog and other by-products of Aluminum Ore, packinghouses, fertilizer plants, and paint manufacturers permeated the air. The raucous clackety-clack of moving railroad cars shattered the peace. Just as in the larger cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit, homes for black families were largely the small and rundown ones abandoned by whites as they ascended the socioeconomic ladder. The gainfully employed found locations slightly farther away from manufacturers than the shacks of the poorest-but still, the properties sat at the edges of an industrially exploited landscape.

Olive Colter, ninety, moved from Mississippi to this area of the city in the 1930s. She remembered, "It was like living in the country.... To me, this city ain't never been beautiful." She qualified this by adding, "Now if you lived where most of them Caucasians lived then, some of them they lived real nice. But for us people, you know, brown skin, we was pretty much living right where I am now, in this part of town [Rush City/South End], and it has just never been pretty."

Whatever is either positive or negative about East St. Louis, past or present, is in the eye of the beholder. Popular images of a crime-ridden city, with prostitution, welfare queens, and lazy out-of-work men paint only part of the picture, for the city has produced many success stories, such as poet Eugene Redmond and the Hudlin Brothers filmmakers. The Officer family, whose funeral home has long been a staple of the city's commerce, and many others have achieved economic and social stability.

But certain grim facts of the contemporary plight are undeniable-not just the statistics about employment and income, but also the surrounding evidence of a deteriorating quality of life. For many East St. Louis households, something as basic as buying groceries can no longer be taken for granted. Construction of 40 percent of the city predates 1940, which contributed to some of the highest lead-poisoning rates in the region and to the designation of the city as a national "Brownfields" site-one of sixteen hazardous environments targeted for a monumental cleanup.

With schools quite literally crumbling, young people are not preparing for college or planning for the prosperous careers that could follow. And with few entertainment or recreational businesses or sustained public cultural-arts programs, the task of parenting is unimaginably hard.

Theorists of the culture of poverty cite poor work ethics and morals and maintain that these traits carry across generations. Acting on this theory, recent changes in welfare policy concentrated on removing the poor from welfare rolls and forcing them into low-wage labor. The assumed dark color of welfare recipients and the assumption that these populations are dispensable burdens to the mainstream add up to the system that Kenneth J. Neubeck and Noel A. Cazenave have labeled "welfare racism."

The reality is that black families negotiate their activities in the context of a severely depressed environment. While social scientists and the media have begun to acknowledge the poor state of inner-city living, they have yet to make the connections to the past experiences of the middle classes in today's supposedly more tranquil suburbs.

The ways in which the history of East St. Louis deviates from the image of suburbia in our literature and consciousness are striking and instructive. Whether in inner cities or in suburbs, the African Americans who flocked from the South to the Midwest, like the white ethnic groups of the early twentieth century, sought gainful employment, access to education, and safe homes. But in East St. Louis, the erstwhile "All-American City," many blacks, unlike many white ethnics, have yet to find these things. What's more, in an age of environmental crisis and jarring economic transformation, even those inclined to write off the human fallout of industrial suburbs have an interest in understanding them. Casual employment, the crumbling of infrastructure, and the breakdown of community aren't threatening just the margins of suburbia. They are threatening the core of its idyllic vision.