Nostalgia Years

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The Connors and Fields Nostalgia Years: 1945-1965

by Bill Nunes and Andrew Theising, Ph. D.

 

The word which probably best describes people's memories of East St. Louis during these memorable times is "entertainment." Theaters, gambling parlors, restaurants, night clubs, and sports were close to everyone's heart and many people (from both sides of the river) came to East St. Louis to enjoy themselves. There was bowling (at a dozen establishments), boating on Pittsburg Lake, playing the horses at Cahokia and Fairmount, wrestling at the Social Center, boxing at the Knights of Columbus, baseball at Jones Park, movies at eleven theaters, dancing at the Broadview Hotel, golf and horseback riding at Grand Marais, and shopping on "The Avenue." Taxes were low, utility rates minimal, jobs plentiful, and streets were safe - probably safer than they had ever been before or since. It was a city that never slept The stores and shops in the downtown area bustled around the clock - it was a great place to five.

Long serving political leaders emerged about this time. Mel Price was finishing his first of what would be an amazing 22 terms in office. John Connors presented President Truman with a key to the city when he campaigned here in 1948. Alvin Fields won in 1951, a reign that would last two decades. At this same time, John English left city government after 20 years, as did Joe Ganschinietz.

Names in the national news passed through the area. Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman made campaign stops in 1948, as did John Kennedy in 1960. Lyndon Johnson came by in the mid-60s to promote his "Great Society" programs. An aspiring senator named Estes Kefauver came to St. Louis to investigate organized crime in 1950. There was a lot of testimony about Buster Wortman and other figures from the East Side underworld, and some familiar political faces on the witness stand. The televised hearings captivated audiences across the metropolitan area.

The city had many reasons to be proud. Despite the fact that the place was losing its geographic advantage and some businesses were relocating elsewhere, jobs were still plentiful. Wartime production had again proven to be good to the East St. Louis economy, and the post-war reconversion also helped. Population was once again on the rise. The 1950 census reported a total of 82,295; some people felt that the population grew well into the late 1950s and that the unofficial number was closer to 90,000.

It was back-to-back celebration, beginning in 1960. East St. Louis received the prestigious "All American City" designation by the National Municipal League and Look magazine. Journal leaders Eugene Dorsey and Rube Yelvington were credited with spearheading the designation campaign. It led to various events and contests, capped off with a memorable parade down State Street attended by thousands. East St. Louis had hardly caught its breath when the next major event occurred. The city threw a wonderful party in 1961 to celebrate its centennial. Men sported beards and women wore bonnets and long dresses. It was a gay time for all.

Though few could see it coming, there were storm clouds on the horizon. The times - they were a' changing. Soldiers came home from World War II or Korea and were lured away from a city they had known for generations. The "baby boom" took place in suburban homes. Factories began searching for an environment and working conditions which East St. Louis could not offer. There were 55 miles of railroad tracks within the city limits, but much of transportation business was being taken over by airlines and the trucking industry. Who would have thought that a day would come when the railroads didn't lead the way? Between 1950 and 1964 nine major industries left the area and located elsewhere in order to build new facilities, get closer to sources of supply, and for other economic reasons. The city was one of the most unionized in the country and less organized places in the sun belt seemed more attractive. Many factories were hopelessly out of date. Interstate highways began to cut through neighborhoods which were once

friendly, familiar places. The turmoil of the civil rights movement made its appearance on the national and local scene. It was a time of great transition, and the decisions which were made were not made lightly.

Another factor that seemed harmless at the time was the conversion throughout the country from coal to natural gas and oil for fuel, a move led by St. Louis which was enshrouded by factory smoke. A majority of the trains that came into East St. Louis had hopper cars that were loaded with soft bituminous coal from the mines of southern Illinois.

Yet on the surface, all seemed well. Holiday Inn built a new facility with a swimming pool on Broadway. Nei& Housing complexes were under construction in the south end. Jones Park had a brand new concrete-bottomed swimming pool. Rosemont Church of Christ, Washington Park Church of God, Agudas Achim, Edgemont Bible, and many other churches built new places of worship for their growing congregations. The federal government was offering funds that would make urban renewal a possibility. And just across the river, the construction of Busch Stadium, Poplar Street Bridge and the new Jefferson Memorial Arch was seen as proof positive that the whole metropolitan area was in a golden age.

 Click here to read about some events from this period

 

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