Leonard Johnston

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When You're Fighting for Survival,

Beauty Takes a Back Seat


If you visit Jones Park, you'll find the toilets locked and portable outhouses in their place. They've turned the water off - the Park District cannot afford the sewage treatment fees charged by American Bottoms Sewer District.

There is no water in Jones Park Pool for two reasons: the pool leaks. It leaks through the bottom. It leaks through the sidewalls. And if it didn't leak, it would take 600,000 gallons of water to fill. And each hot day, the district would have to add 50,000 to 75,000 gallons for evaporation, and the overfill necessary for the skimmers to work. And it would have to pay sewage fees for the evaporated water, because the treatment charge is based on water metered in, not out.

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It would take a million dollars to renovate Jones Park pool, Leonard Johnston, park district superintendent, said. It was built in 1958 - the same year as the Lincoln Park pool, back in the days of segregation. The Jones Park pool was bigger. Five years ago there was $700,000 spent on Lincoln Park pool in repairs - from a grant. It evaporates perhaps 30,000 gallons of water a day. There has not been a grant to fix Jones Park pool. If there were, the district couldn't afford the water.

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Johnston has been with the district 10 years, and says his job is a frustrating one. A citizens beautification group headed by Francell Morgan volunteered to plant flowers in the park. They died, for lack of water. and maintenance. With so many people out of work, he sought to enlist volunteers to work in the park. But he said he guessed they were more concerned with the basics of survival; when you are fighting to live, "beauty takes a back seat,"

This year the Park District budget is $249,000. Sixty per cent of the budget is fixed costs. Twenty years ago the budget was $500,000. Decreasing property assessments have brought the revenues down, at the same time costs have skyrocketed.

In all candor, he said, all the district can hope to do is keep the grass cut below knee height at Jones Park, the diamonds cut so the high school, little league and an adult baseball league can play, and a couple of tennis courts in shape, and water in the Lincoln Park pool.

With the cooperation of the Department of Conservation, from an Urban parks fund the district got $300,000 to dredge the lagoon and the department stocked it with fish, including rainbow trout, but two years ago it filled with philominous algae, apparently brought in on the feet of a bird.

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It grows in the sun, and because the lagoon was shallow and the sun reached the bottom, it filled the lagoon. Last year over the winter the district used a grant to deepen the lagoon by three or four feet to an average depth of six feet, on the advice of the department, thinking the sun couldn't reach that deep, but it didn't work. The only chemical that will keep the algae out also will kill the fish. It isn't very pretty, but as he said, when you are fighting for survival, beauty takes a back seat.

Lincoln park has its pool. But the Mary Martin Community Center is a dilapidated shell. The park is, at best, austere.

The district used to get grants to provide summer recreation programs, track and field events, youth baseball, tennis tournaments, in the parks, but there are no recreation grants anymore.

The newest park, Jackie Joyner Park in Denverside, was given to the city by Jackie Joyner-Kersee in 1985, after her spectacular showing at the 1984 Olympics. It is near where she grew up at 1433 Piggott Ave. But the district has given up other parks: Bluff View, 22 acres in the Signal Hill area, abandoned in the late '70s; Oak Park, at 51st at Summit, given to a group, perhaps the American Legion, before Johnston was superintendent; Washington park, at 50th and Audubon, given to the Washington Park Volunteer Firemen (but East St. Louis Park District still cuts the grass for the ball diamond and picnic shelters), one in Goose Hill, taken over in part by the East St. Louis Housing Authority, one sacrificed in Alorton to the Bond Avenue overpass.

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Equipment in Alta Sita and other parks is broken, swings are without seats, teeterboards without boards, tennis courts without nets, with grass growing in the cracks in the courts.

Jimmy Connors learned his backhand at Jones Park, and his feet danced on the acclaimed clay tennis courts, now gone, while his father collected tolls on the Veterans Bridge. East St. Louis is not likely to produce any new tennis stars on the courts that are left.

The park district is not coextensive with the city limits, it reached out into other municipal jurisdictions. It is tax supported with an elected Board of Park Commissioners.

The seats in the concrete stadium at the once lighted softball diamond in Jones Park are empty now. There have been no games there since 1986. The softball players are "over the hill," Johnston said. The park district started charging $50 a game for lights -- their actual cost -- and the teams decided they did not want to play that badly. So the lights, like the water, were turned off.

Click here to take a photo tour of East St. Louis's parks

Johnston has no major plans. He is hanging on, doing the best he can, fighting for survival--and when you are fighting for survival...




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