Philip Cohn

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To Rebuild a City, Look to the People

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"You can't just label it down there and up here, you've got to say 'It's all us, what can we do? Side A can't fight side B. This isn't the Civil War. Side A and Side B hove both got to come off their horses and forget that the white man thinks like this and the black man thinks like that, and one's out to get the other, and say 'These are our people down there that are suffering, and we've got to get our heads together and do something, or you're going to keep hating me and I'll keep hating you and they're going to keep suffering" - Phil Cohn comments on residents "on the hill" talking about the "up here" whites and "down there" black East St. Louisans.


Philip Cohn, 28, is energetic, articulate, self confident, the third generation in a real estate family that has done well renting and selling houses to the poor who couldn't otherwise finance a home.

The Post-Dispatch in May, 1990, reported that Philip and his father Arnold were among the two families that are the largest owners of private property in East St. Louis, with 523 parcels valued by the assessor's office at a total market value of $1.65 million - an average of $3,154.88 per property. The other father-son team is Edwin Sieron and his son John.

Arnold Cohn is turning the business over to his son, who wants to add a new emphasis on commercial properties. He has had some success in renting commercial properties and has sold two office buildings to investment groups, one involving European and New York interests, and another to other investors. Both. buildings are occupied by doctors, lawyers and accountants.

Cohn said frankly that he is in East St. Louis to make a living doing what his father and his grandfather have done for 60 years, buy, rent and sell homes, but on the other hand he does care about East St. Louis and God willing, he would give what he could to programs to help the people of the city, especially educational programs. He does not look forward to the "dawning of a new era," not to say he would not welcome it nor be willing to make a contribution to it, but that he can't look to that for his business future.

However, Philip has some frank and different ideas on the needs of East St. Louis.

Asked, for instance, what help be thought would come for the city from the expansion of the Jefferson Memorial to the Illinois shore, Metro Link, riverboat gambling and Scott Joint Use, he said they might help, but "You're sort of building your house on a foundation of toothpicks. You need a sturdier foundation. You need the people. Those things are not going to teach people to care, teach them to read and write, help them get jobs -they might help them get a job, but not help them keep a job. I'm proud they're coming in, they show people care, but that's only half of it."

So what would help more?

"You're not going to do anything without money and you are not going to get money without being a diplomat with the governor and other politicians willing to give a helping hand."

Be a diplomat, get government support, and start all kinds of programs, especially with adults, have classes for them, out in the neighborhoods, class after class, "educate people and I think you can turn them around," he said. "I didn't say it would be easy. We've got ourselves in a mess here in East St. Louis and it is going to be difficult; but that's why we've got to work on it."

We need leaders, he said, to go to businesses, industries, and say "Let's get my people working," bring them into East St. Louis. Give tax abatements, free parking lots, police protection, whatever it takes, as long as they are willing to hire X number of East St. Louisans, Cohn said. Use the money to upgrade the police department, but then you've got to erase illiteracy. You've got to take those kids and teach them. "If there's anything I could do to help, I'd be happy to."

Cohn said the city has leadership, but that leadership needs to take a look in the right direction. "Fighting isn't going to help anything. You've got to fight for what you believe in, there are exceptions, but you can't fight with people who want to come in and help you, call them racist."

Some things have changed over the last decade.

"The attitude of people has settled down, they've grown older and calmer, and they realize the only thing they have is each other; in many ways they cling to each other. You come in here (at McDonald's, where we were talking over lunch) and you see everybody be friendly with everybody else. I think they've learned from their mistakes, they don't want to shoot any more."

"East St. Louis has been symbolized perhaps by a bottle in a paper sack, and the proliferation of liquor stores and churches: Comment?" we asked.

"Churches are going to do a lot more good than the bottle." In the last 10 years, he said there has been a swing toward religion among the people he deals with; people who have been on alcohol, uncaring, dishonest, now are God-fearing. "It has changed them; they work harder, you don't have to chase them down to see why they didn't finish a job, they're chasing you and saying 'Come look at it, I'm finished."'

But don't look for political leadership necessarily from the churches. A political leader 11 must be a politician, but also a businessman. Maybe the church or even the streets can provide a leader, but just being honest isn't enough. Carl is a politician; I don't know what kind of businessman he is."

On leadership, Philip continued "Every summer for the last 23 years I have been going to a summer camp volunteering to help kids. I always said to myself when my time comes to step out and let somebody else take over I would, because the camp, or any institution, is larger than one individual, no matter how big that individual is in that institution. East St. Louis needs somebody who realizes that East St. Louis is bigger than that one individual, and you just cannot make all the decisions on how it is going to help you instead of how it will affect the majority."

His business philosophy: "I'm not foolish enough to think that one 28-year-old person can do everything on his own. What you've got to do is learn as much as you can from everybody then assess the situation and do what you have to do."

"My father's generation ... they were never sure where their next dollar was coming from," be said. While he has to work bard and keep tight controls, still, as one employee puts it, "Whether we make the deal or not, we'll still eat at McDonald's."

I've got 60 years experience behind me," Philip said. "I have a better chance than they (his father and grandfather) did." And he has enough security to perhaps care a little more about the people.

In his business, he has learned that East St. Louis is a rare animal. The people have their own attitudes. They don't seem to feel that their house payments are as important as a lot of other things -- things that would surprise you. Some do, a lot don't. So Cohn makes thousands of calls a year himself to collect payments. He sees a lot of cases where fathers are illiterate, spend their time drinking, playing cards... "It's got to have an effect on the next generation," he observes.

But many East St. Louis families have been on welfare for two or three generations. They don't have work habits.

"That's right, and it will be four or five or six generations if we don't do something about it, get some programs in here, not steal the money, piss it away," Cohn said

Cohn would have people on public aid - three fourths of the population - form work squads and clean up the city for their aid checks. He said his company takes people off the street and teaches them to paint properties. The good ones he keeps. Some leave to go to work for others, to go into the painting business. He recalls the proverb, give a man a fish and feed his hunger today, teach him to fish and feed his hunger forever.

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People need to learn to care about their city, be taught to take pride in it. It's morale.

Cohn is close to the people in his houses, and he is irritated when people in Belleville talk about things "down there."

"Tell them to come to my office and go to 50 houses with me every month, see how people are living. They don't have enough to pay their gas bills, kids are sleeping on couches with roaches crawling on everything. I don't feel like I'm up there and they're here - I'm here, it's a fact, I am with these people, whether they like it or not, I am and I live it. I may go home to a house (in Belleville) where there are no roaches and my air conditioner works, but the fact is the people here don't know better, and I can't in good conscience turn away from that and not do anything about it if I am able to."

"You can't just label it down there and up here, you've got to say 'It's all us, what can we do?' Side A can't fight side B. This isn't the Civil War. Side Aand Side B have both got to come off their horses and forget that the white man thinks like this and the black man thinks like that, and one's out to get the other, and say 'These are our people "down there" that are suffering, and we've got to get our heads together and do something, or you're going to keep hating me and I'll keep hating you and they're going to keep suffering.




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