Introduction

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INTRODUCTION

 

This book is a general overview. It was never intended to be a definitive history of East St. Louis. Nor is it a scholarly tome full of academic footnotes and annotations. Little time was spent haunting the dusty archives of libraries and historical societies. This does not mean that my committee and I have not paid attention to detail. We have painstakingly assembled a "popular history" from a myriad of sources. This has been documented by the inclusion of a comprehensive bibliography. Genealogy buffs will be disappointed by the lack of an index. Sorry! We simply did not have the time or wherewithal to tackle this daunting task. Hopefully, this work will prove useful for others who are interested in doing more in-depth research on some particular subject or aspect of the city's past.

We wish to express our gratitude and heartfelt thanks to those who sent photographs, contributed artwork, wrote articles, sent summaries of their recollections, and helped to verify information. Some pictures were excluded simply due to lack of space. My deepest regret to anyone who sent me a precious memory that did not get included in the book.

We have tried to be accurate. Yet we know from past experience that it is impossible to do a work of this scope without mistakes. We apologize for any errors of fact or names inadvertently omitted or misspelled.

Certain obvious photos are missing. Many were purposely excluded because they have been featured in one of the other four books: Coming of Age in East St. Louis, East St. Louis Trivia Calendar, East St. Louis Remembered, or the Postcard Book. We searched in vain for shots of Hannigan's, the Squawk Box, Robert Hall's and other popular places on State Street.

I have tried to keep the tone and ambiance of this book similar to that of my others - upbeat and nostalgic. A primary goal was to help preserve the historical record of a great city, washed by the banks of the mighty Mississippi, that became the Crossroads of America. It is important that we do this before memories fade and everything recedes into sepia-toned myth.

Uncovering tidbits of information was fascinating. When a photo was found of a business or factory that we didn't know existed, we were as happy as any archaeologist who ever unearthed a dinosaur bone. As work progressed, it became clear that the story of the city was a rich tapestry, woven with the lives of those simple folk who migrated here from all over the globe to earn a living and to make a life for their families. The fabric's texture and color were enriched by those who started businesses, founded religious and civic groups, or planted industries which helped the city rise to an industrial preeminence that was awesome to behold.

As material was gathered and assembled, it became obvious that East St. Louis was perhaps the most complex small city in America. The place was full of contradictions. Good and bad were juxtaposed. Politicians were corrupt and manipulative, but were respected members of the community; gangsterism was pervasive - yet most remember it as safer than most communities and relatively free of crime; saloons and nightclubs dotted the landscape, while churches of all denominations flourished; white residents generally prospered with good-paying jobs, but the black community - largely confined to the south end - suffered from discrimination and treatment as second class citizens.

It would be naive to assume that the city's history is linear or straightforward. Native East St. Louisans know in their bones that its story is less about grand, inexorable forces, and more about common men and women who had to work hard just to survive and earn a decent living. It's about people who made real decisions in real time. Most non-residents have a distorted image of what the city was, seen through the filtered perspective of a news media obsessed with sensationalism and engorged with political correctness. Accordingly, the perception most outsiders have is a simplistic, one-sided facade, generally lacking in understanding and insight.

The Reverend W. C. Bitting said in 1918: "A city is more than an assemblage of buildings with streets between them. It ha a soul, and an atmosphere, and a social significance." East St. Louis was like an incredible meteor that brightly streaked across the heavens and caused the world to gasp at its brilliance. It may never again match that prominence, but better to have tasted greatness and glory once, than never to have stepped from the shadows of obscurity. Between the pages of this book, we have attempted to capture the human drama of old East St. Louis - its essence, nuances, and vagaries that made it a dynamic microcosm of industrial America. It's about the ecstasy (Pittsburgh of the West) and agony (1917 riot, white flight) of a place that experienced supreme triumph and heartbreaking defeat. Its about floods, devastating fires, tumult, political intrigue and setbacks. But it's also about friendships, good times, incremental victories, growth and renewal.

East St. Louis ... that happy home for immigrants; that level plot of fertile bottom land; that dwelling place of railroads-, that locus of business and industry - a marvelous town that will forever occupy a place in our hearts - we, your proud sons and daughters, salute you and honor your memory. May Lady Fate, that mythological figure of antiquity who toys with the ebb and flow of history. smile once again on your destiny. May you someday rise from your ashes, like the ancient mystical Phoenix, and once again become a commercial colossus and hub of activity. My hat is off to current residents who are struggling to make it so.

The real grandeur of that busy, bustling place is forever locked in the memory of those who lived there. They remember its

essential goodness and learned to appreciate its incredible vitality, its lively night life, its beautiful park system, its dynamic synergy, its reputation for jobs, and the lively ethnic mix that made it one of the most fascinating places on earth. Memory has an eminent place in our lives. Memory serves as a bridge between generations. Through memory, we shape our character .. forge relationships, and write our mental autobiographies. Without it, we are hollow persons. It was Ronald Reagan who once said: "If we forget where we came from, how will we know where we are going?" I lived in East St. Louis during the glory years, and I'll always remember!

Bill Nunes
5 Mark Trail
Glen Carbon, Illinois, 62034
(618) 288-5185,

 

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