Economic Collapse

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Economic Collapse and the Struggle for a New Identity: 1965-Present

by Bill Nunes and Andrew Theising, Ph. D.


At the mid-point of the 1960s the baby boom was over. East St. Louis's population was starting to decline for the first time ever. There were stiff some very proud moments to be had (especially in high school state sports championships), but it was clear that the city was forever changed.

By the 1960s, more affluent middle class blacks and whites began to move to outlying areas on the bluffs or to St.Louis and St. Louis county. The civil rights movement exploded onto the scene in 1964. Blacks began to move from their previously confined districts in the south end as the leadership sought to integrate every neighborhood. When the national drug culture of the 1970s infected East St. Louis, accompanied by mindless violence and gang wars, white flight began to accelerate. This was coupled with increasing numbers of blacks moving in from the south looking for employment opportunities. East St. Louis was the first major railroad stop "up north" and as jobs dried up in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, people from the south just stayed here and didn't go further north. By 1990 East St. Louis became the "blackest" city of comparable size in America. The tax base dropped from $164 million in 1969 to $38 million in 1982. Population dwindled from 85,000 to 35,000 and the numbers continue to deteriorate. East St. Louis was designated as a "distressed" area with most of its residents on relief

Those who were thrown out of work due to plant closings were mostly unskilled or semi-skilled workers. The national economy was moving from an industrial base to service orientation with emphasis on computers and communication skills. Factory workers, in what came to be known as the "rust belt," became an anachronism. As more and more people left, so did the jobs, so did the stores, so did the night life. East St. Louis was like a campfire. The light didn't disappear suddenly, but rather faded gradually into glowing embers. These embers are still hot, but produce a much different energy than an open flame.

Voters in the city made some rather significant decisions in the 1970s. In 1971 voters elected East St. Louis's first black mayor - James Williams. He seemed to have some good ideas for the city, but very few resources to carry them out. In 1972 voters ended the commission form of government which the city had adopted in 1919 and reverted back to the mayor-council form. The change took place in 1975. William Mason was elected in 1975, but he too found the cupboard bare and was destined to become a one-termer. In 1979, voters elected what one national magazine touted as the country's youngest mayor. Carl Officer was elected on his 27th birthday and would serve for 12 years.

East St. Louis in the 1970s and 1980s struggled greatly, much as it did in the 1870s and 1880s. The city was broken and life there was difficult. The news media visited the city many times, giving East St. Louis a national reputation as a city in deep trouble (similar to its reputation a century earlier). Unemployment reached 2 1 % - the city which escaped such high unemployment rates in the 1930s found them in the 1970s.

The 1990s offered a more hopeful outlook for East St. Louis. In 1990 the State of Illinois placed the city's finances under the control of an oversight panel created by Governor James Thompson. Painful as this was for the city, the panel added much-needed stability. A considerable amount of the city's $40 million debt was forgiven, the Illinois state police bolstered the local force and donated equipment, bills were being paid on time, and an economic advisor from St. Louis was now on staff in the mayor's office. It showed that there were people who cared about what happened in East St. Louis.

Private investment returned to East St. Louis at levels unseen for decades. The Casino Queen brought new life to the vacant riverfront. It created a multi-million dollar visitors center and plans are underway for a casino hotel (the first major hotel development in East St. Louis since the 1960s). Private investors paid for the construction of the world's tallest fountain, which operates daily on Front Street. Plans are in the works for other development on the old "Island" area, and new stores and banks are looking for land on which to build. East St. Louis is again drawing the attention of investors here and elsewhere.

There are other signs that East St. Louis's flame is starting to bum brighter. The MetroLink light rail system has two stops in East St. Louis, with more already under construction. This has helped to end the city's feeling of isolation. The city is considering annexation for the first time in years, looking to take in the planned industrial park on the National Stock Yards site. "Brownfields" - contaminated industrial sites which dot the East St. Louis area - are being cleaned up and redeveloped. An unprecedented partnership with the University of Illinois is making neighborhoods stronger.

Where will East St. Louis be in the 21st century? A hundred years ago, it was on the verge of greatness. Perhaps this will be the case again. The current mayor, Gordon Bush, seems to be taking it in the right direction. Signs of hope and promise are certainly there, but this journey for a new identity continues to be a struggle.

 Click here to read about some events from this period


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