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The ghosts of a city that was, tell a story of the city that is

 

The story of life is the story of death. The new must be born, but it is born of the old who then must die to let the new take hold and grow - and beget its young, and die. This is the story of life, whether of a family or a community.

We must bury our dead, let go, and give the past eternal rest. We must welcome the newborn, the young who can adapt, can find new ways, new roads, new opportunities, new successes. East St. Louis lost its heavy industry, lost it before the white flight; scores of thousands of jobs in industries in the city and on its outskirts that were the economic backbone of the area, and provided the good-paying jobs for the spending that kept retail shopping in East St. Louis; created a tax base for government.

East St. Louis has never finished with its past, has never buried its dead. And its aging loins have not given birth to new ways, to the new jobs of an economy based on communications, computers and the exchange of knowledge.

The shells of the dead city halls, police station and fire house surround the new city hall, biding it, casting their shadow on its beauty, their broken windows and shabby appearance shouting the message of a city. in distress, a message that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the very seat of government cannot shake clear of its crumbling past, what attraction can it offer to prospective enterprise or prospective residents? And when in desperation it adds to the tax burdens of businesses it would attract, it seems to be shooing away any geese that might lay golden eggs.

The ghosts of the past are evident in abandoned cars, trashed vacant lots, burned out buildings, so many garbage bags, so many piles of trash, of broken glass and old carpet and even old sofas and chairs. The ghosts are so common that after awhile you no longer see them.

And even the schools, burning their trash in dumpsters that do not get emptied, in need of paint and maintenance, tell a sad tale in a period when most men and women, to get jobs in the information age, need the skills that are acquired in the classroom rather than in an apprenticeship.

The derelict business buildings and houses that still stand tell of a city that cannot make it; the boarded up "government property" buildings tell of families with government loans who could not

make it; of housing projects that failed because the people who ran them were selfish opportunists. These are stories of defeat, sad stories, depressing stories, frightening stories ... buildings vacant, buildings gutted, crumbling; threatening, dangerous buildings potentially housing threatening, dangerous people. And in the streets the children, the hope of the city, play.

In Loisel Village and Loisel Hills and Hilltop, where homes worth over $100,000, even a quarter of a million, can be found, yards are manicured, shrubs trimmed, wrought iron ornate. The wrought iron decorates special security storm doors whose beauty fails quite to obscure their utilitarian function. Here residents with good jobs have been able to accumulate a modicum of affluence, and try to live in an appropriate lifestyle. But they constantly must protect what they have.

The backs of the buildings of the largely decrepit Loisel Shopping Center, adjacent to the fine homes of Loisel Village, are spray painted with the signatures of gangs: The Crips, and the names of the Crips X'ed out. The symbols of the Disciples predominate. The names of gangs are evident in the housing projects downtown, and the vacant, stripped, Orr-Weathers high-rises, where such phrases as "Kill Cops" have been added.

In the less affluent area, iron bars or even heavy wire mesh replace ornamental iron. In the worst areas, the poorest families still must buy and hang doors of steel bars to protect what little they have, and barefoot babes playing in back yards talk to their moms in the kitchen through the bars.

In the areas of typical middle-class Archie Bunker type homes, there are many chain link fences as well as barred doors and lots of yard lights. Throughout the city, churches have seen it necessary to surround their own parking lots with chain link fences.

Every few blocks you will find a liquor store or tavern, and just as frequently, a church. And on Sunday morning, in every part of town you will see people in their Sunday best on street corners waiting for a neighbor to give them a ride, or cruising down the street in clean, shiny cars, going to church; and at the same hour, here and there, a man with a bottle in a paper sack, swigging as he walks.

Are they both symbols of a search for hope?

 

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