Observations

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Observations

 

It's an open secret how to turn East St. Louis around.

Everybody knows. Everybody.

 

It's an open secret. Everybody knows what must be done to turn East St. Louis around.

Everybody knows.

Asked the question, everybody agrees.

East St. Louis's problems are everybody's problems. They are the problems of the city, of the county, of the state, of the nation. And they are strikingly common in inner-cities across the nation.

Everybody agrees.

But we fight about bailouts, and paybacks, and most of all we fight about the black egos and white greed, black indolence and the white conspiracy, and black and white racism.

Yes, especially racism.

Problems of unemployment, of hunger, of hopelessness, of ignorance, of fear, of lawlessness and of the fight for self respect - all the problems that walk hand in hand with poverty and become so enchained with poverty that to try to pull one from the mire you must pull all - these the human problems go unresolved while we argue about race and prestige and priorities.

Prejudice is old fashioned. Prejudice is illegal. Prejudice is out of date. We accept the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal...

But now the cry is "racist." We hear it in East St. Louis, and across the nation.

Nationwide, it doesn't mean prejudice in the old sense, it means favoring race, putting race first, of thinking black or thinking white, putting one's race first rather than condemning the other, per se.

So we have black television programs, and black theater, and black caucuses in congress and the legislature - and there even are those who think we must have black East St. Louis. And they are black. They want that black city, control of that black city, even if they must pay the price of enchaining the people with the unemployment, the hunger, the hopelessness, the ignorance, the fear of lawlessness, that all walk hand in hand with the poverty of the city.

To some black East St. Louisans, the only blacks that count are those who have retreated to the ghetto, who have dug in in East St. Louis and drawn in the black city limits around them, cloaking them, giving them the brotherhood of race. When the county hires blacks, for instance, from Lebanon or Mascoutah or Belleville, they don't count, they don't constitute integration in the work force because those are white blacks.

And in O'Fallon, and Fairview Heights, and in some parts of Belleville not too gripped by fear, there is a twisted racism that sees itself as white, including the black colonels from Scott who live next door, the black state troopers, the black school teachers, the black doctors and nurses, the blacks at McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, they all are white to some whites because they live on the hill or work on the hill. Those who live in East St. Louis are black because they live in East St. Louis. Of those who live on the hill, whites can say "Some of my best friends are black."

And some whites can claim black friends from East St. Louis, who are "different" from the others.

And if this sounds stupid, it is. But it is the reality of much of the thinking that stands between the problems of East St. Louis and their solutions.

When can we approach a problem as a people problem rather than a racial problem? Some say never. If never, then we must learn to find a solution so that this preoccupation with something called racism will not destroy opportunity for all of us.

Tom Wobbe of the Southwestern Illinois Metropolitan and Regional Planning Commission stands in a meeting room of 7 West in Trenton and talks about the need for a downtown beautification program. You are what you are perceived to be, he says. "Beauty is good business. Image becomes reality."

We all know that, Tom. We can remember when sports teams were required to wear crew cuts and dress jackets. They acted as they looked, and became credits to their schools. We have seen the book "Dress for Success." Cities, too, need to dress for success.

So who is doing what about the appearance of East St. Louis?

Drive down the streets of East St. Louis, and you will see ample evidence of pride. You will find trimmed lawns, flower beds, flowers in pots on the front steps and the porch railings. You will be impressed that so many families do care about the quality and appearance of their homes. You will have a warm feeling toward them. Already these are "different." You have never seen their faces, but you know they are "all right," despite, or perhaps partly because of, the wrought iron bars on their doors and windows.

But what about the city as a whole, the burnouts, the piles of old tires and rubbish in dead-end streets, the old sofas and TV sets rotting in vacant lots? What do they say about East St. Louis? What do they make you think about the people who live in. these neighborhoods?

We are told in the preceding pages that Jerry Costello, as County Board chairman, with the cooperation of the Operating Engineers Union, offered to send county graders and backhoes and bulldozers and trucks to East St. Louis to help clean up vacant lots, level burnouts and abandoned houses, but nothing ever happened.

We are told the county offered to hire up to 500 youths in East St. Louis in a carbon copy of St. Louis's Operation Brightside. Nothing happened.

We are told that in a snowstorm, the county offered to clear East St. Louis streets, and was told by Mayor Carl Officer that if the equipment came into the city, it would be confiscated and never seen again.

If these instances are true, who is racist? Who is putting race above the needs of the people - all the people? For the problems of East St. Louis are the problems of us all. All taxpayers in St. Clair County pay more in county taxes because East St. Louis is able to pay less. All of us suffer the lack of business, the lack of jobs, because the reputation of East St. Louis frightens away employers from locations 10, 20,30 miles or so from East St. Louis. Whether the reputation is true or false is irrelevant, it is there, it is effective. It costs us all.

State's Atty. John Baricevic says the most confirmed white bigot should be able to see the importance of solving the problems of East St. Louis.

But racism - our fear of black East St. Louisans, fed by the press and especially the television stations -denies the whites (whether their skin be black or brown or white or green) who live above the bluffs the cultural and social benefits that would come from the riverfront of a normal community.

But everybody knows that. Everybody.

We on the hill talk about them in the American Bottoms.

Will they just go away? Can we ignore the problems of East St, Louis and wait for the black flight to vacate the land, to leave only the weak, the old, the very ignorant? Is doing nothing an answer?

Nobody really believes that. But while we argue about causes and effects, about their motives and what they are trying to do to us, we do ignore those problems, and the black flight continues.

Is there a great white conspiracy to suck the blacks out of East St. Louis with Section 8 housing on the hill, by keeping East St. Louis as a municipality on its financial knees, by denying normal services, by not prosecuting black crime when the victims are black, and at the same time by being too hard on black criminals when victims are white? Is there a great conspiracy to take East St. Louis away from the blacks so the whites can move back and take over the prime location across from the Arch and in the center of the nation? These all are charges. There are people who believe them. But there is not one fact, one iota of evidence that there is such a conspiracy, says State's Atty. Baricevic.

Yet while we argue, while we exchange charges, while we accuse and deny, the black flight continues, and the white monied interests look longingly at the opportunity to make a buck, and the Post-Dispatch writes exposes about white speculators and land buyers - including among those whites the black professionals who could live next door in Fairview Heights or O'Fallon or Belleville or maybe even Powder Mill Woods.

The very thing the East St. Louis blacks fear as the white conspiracy could come to pass, not because it is a conspiracy, which we know is not true, but because the bickering and arguing wastes time and the people who could make a difference in East St. Louis, who don't want to walk hand in band chained to the friends of poverty, move out.

Not all East St. Louisans are poverty-stricken. Not all are uneducated. Not all are ignorant. Not all lack taste. This image of East St. Louis is unfair. And it is untrue.

There are thousands of East St. Louisans who are affluent - affluent enough to pay tax rates four times the average rate above the bluffs for nice homes. Affluent enough to pay high "pool" insurance rates because companies will not write regular policies in East St. Louis. Affluent enough to pay exorbitant insurance rates on their automobiles because they live in East St. Louis. Affluent enough to add expensive ornamental iron to doors and windows as protection against burglars, chain link fences and deadbolt locks, and to provide a place to lock up yard tools. It is expensive to live in a poor city.

Yet, as we have shown you, there are countless homes that evidence pride of their owners in flower pots on the steps, flower beds in the yards, manicured shrubs and lawns, fresh paint and sometimes novel and attractive decorative treatments.

To be affluent, they hold down good jobs, many in St. Louis.

They furnish their homes tastefully with fine furniture, oil paintings, decorating schemes that reflect the magazines they read, decor that would make many of the readers envious, as they did me.

They are not a people apart. They are Americans with American appreciation of culture and American pride in their homes.

Unfortunately, some tell us they avoid politics and politicians, the very system and people who must be made responsive to bring about a significant difference in East St. Louis.

Economics is color blind. Investors look at bottom lines, at the rate of return on investments. White Americans own companies, buy stock, wheel and deal. But more and more, so do black investors, and their dollars are just as acceptable in the marketplace. The only color the financial marketplace is aware of is green. The money men may be good neighbors, they may be good employers, but in the free enterprise society, they are out to make a buck.

There are some who think that is bad.

There are some - nations of them - who have just decided that free enterprise, open markets, profit, are not all that bad. Walls have fallen, fences have been torn down, and a global economy born.

Yet there are some who would rather cry out against the profit motives of investors than join in the competitive society and make a buck.

Yet East St. Louis needs nothing more than the economic climate for investors to make that buck, for the investors to establish businesses and industries that pay taxes and provide jobs. The fact that the owner makes a dollar does not make the comer supermarket a company store; that he provides jobs for blacks does not make this a plantation economy. Blacks are moving up the ladder in business and industry, are holding responsible positions -but they can't move up until they get in, are hired.

Philip Cohn, with perception far beyond his 28 years, a product perhaps of his close association with many of the poorest of East St. Louis residents, says to try to build an economy without attacking the problems of illiteracy and ignorance is to build a house on a foundation of toothpicks.

Earl Lazerson, president of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, says it more analytically, but he says every student in the East St. Louis schools must be guaranteed the best education possible.

Without education, the jobs created by business and industrial development in East St. Louis will go to outsiders who are better equipped to handle them.

Young Cohn would have incentives offered to business and industry tied to the hiring of East St. Louis residents, including training them to hold the jobs if necessary.

We understand the riverboat gambling bid contained just such promises.

The East St. Louis junior college can certainly fit into such a plan, tailoring training to specific jobs under contract.

But the jobs and the training will not come if we fight "white" money and insist on the black brothers running everything.

On the other hand, whites must trust black leadership.

How can it do that?

Elmo Bush, whose brain cruises at high speed, says we have to sit down together and talk and talk and talk, and agree that when we disagree we'll come back tomorrow and talk some more, until we not only understand one another but build confidences.

"All those blacks want is money throwed at their problems, with no strings attached." How many times have you white brothers heard that? How many times have you white brothers said that? (C'mon, black brothers, if you can have a black brotherhood of man, why not a white brotherhood too?)

Yet the black brothers to a man say that while they do not want whites taking control from them, they do not object to audits, to fiscal controls, to reports on government funds.

State's Atty. and probable future County Board Chairman John Baricevic says that the state and federal governments have had the opportunity to stop misuse of federal funds, that they have refused to conduct the audits they are required by law to do. He cites the alleged misuse of state motor fuel tax money and says that if that had been stopped when the first dollar was misapplied, the recent fund freeze halting badly needed road work would never have happened.

Elmo Bush says that first "misappropriation" was to provide site services for the State Community College, and that the state applauded the use as a way to get the junior college program started, almost 20 years ago. Now the state is saying that was wrong.

Who is "the state?"

Who in state worries about principles when expediency is around?

All of which is history. It is a waste of time to talk about it. Instead we need to talk about the now and the tomorrow, and talk, and talk, and talk, as Elmo says, until we can agree and understand one another about audits and fiscal responsibility.

Bob Vancil, consultant financial expert who is planning East St. Louis tax increment financing programs, says that he has seen many municipal governments and that measured for fiscal responsibility, East St. Louis is not much worse nor better than most others, but in East St. Louis the financial resources are so thin that the results of any mismanagement are dramatic.

Everybody agrees that East St. Louis cannot bootstrap its problems. U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello says that Gov. Jim Thompson himself could not provide city services any more than does Mayor Carl Officer without financial resources. Everybody knows that.

Any solution requires the cooperation, the working together, of the city, county, state and federal governments. Everybody says that. Everybody knows that.

No solution to any one problem in East St. Louis will work without jobs. Township Supervisor Will McGaughy says confidently that there are only 20 or 30 really bad criminals in East St. Louis, and everybody knows who they are. The rest of the crime is by hangers-on, punks. Most of these mothers' sons could be straightened out if there were jobs, but without a future, without hope, they sink...

And his son breaks in: "Sucked back into the whirlpool."

He means the whirlpool of drug abuse, of usually petty crime, or serious crime, to support that drug habit.

The No. 1 problem in East St. Louis is the need for jobs.

Well, not everybody agrees on that. State Rep. Wyvetter Younge and County Board Chairman Francis Touchette agree that you can't treat one problem at a time, you have to treat them all at once, and Wyvetter puts it, "It is as simple, and as difficult as that." If people are to work, they must have skills, and they must know bow to work.

There are two and three generations of relief recipients in East St. Louis, of men and women who have never worked, never held a job.

"Yes," says Phil Cohn, and there will be four and five if we don't do something about it."

Everybody knows that.

Let's move on more quickly.

 

East St. Louis needs:

 
  1. Jobs.
  2. Quality education, broad for today's youngsters, market oriented for the older workers, and all coupled somehow with training in living skills that builds personal pride.
  3. Business and industry to create thosejobs and to provide a tax base, an income for the city.
  4. Fiscal credibility to give the assurances necessary to bring in those businesses and industries.
  5. Quality city services, especially fire and police.
  6. An improved infrastructure: streets, sewers, water supply, utilities.
  7. A massive city cleanup campaign.
  8. Supportive financial programs with an emphasis on rehabilitation, through the banks or from new sources.


It is hard to say any of these things should come first. The need for all is critical. The remedies are as intertwined as the problems.

Many, if not most, believe that East St. Louis' future lies in riverfront development; that what happens here will ripple across the city.

Not many think riverboat gambling in itself will be an answer to fiscal problems. But most believe it will help the city economically, especially, says U.S. Sen. Alan J. Dixon, if it brings accompanying developments including restaurants, nice bars, gift shops. An amusement park also is proposed.

Most think an extension of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to the East St. Louis riverfront could trigger major investments if and a big "if"--the city could demonstrate fiscal integrity and provide city services including especially police protection to reassure visitors.

And many think that light rail, definitely on its way, could give this whole effort a major boost, especially if the city could concentrate development efforts on the station areas at Fifth Street and Missouri Avenue to provide the perception of safety and, Heaven help us, beauty!

Put all three together with the state program to loan the city money to restore city services and to refinance its debts, and some very intelligent use of Tax Increment Financing incentives, and bring in the schools and junior college, and get everybody working together, concentrating on the programs instead of worrying about who or what race gets the credit, and East St. Louis could enjoy the greatest success in its history.

Oversimplification? No, we didn't say it would be easy, or simple.

There is truth that in adversity there is opportunity, and wise is the man - or city - who can see it and take full advantage of it.

No city in America has more opportunity right now than East St. Louis.

The spotlight of the nation has been focused on its problems by television.

The attention and power of the state has been turned to address the city's problems.

Dreams long regarded as just fantasies are coming true: light rail, the national park, a regional airport, and now a gambling boat with millions in revenues.

A powerful politically astute team in congress dedicated to solving problems at home can do more than any we have had in the past.

If we can:

1. Use the energies wasted in blaming and claiming, turn them into planning and working;

2. Learn to communicate;

3. Put need above race;

4. Do it..

We can cash in on opportunity.

If we continue to quarrel, blame, play to the crowd, invite criticism, worry about racial implications, we can retard progress and make the black community's worst fears come true.

East St. Louis has a powerful young leader in Carl Officer, and the politicians say he is looking at four more years. He is quick, intelligent, charismatic, and flippant. He plays to the applause of the oppressed who have found a spokesman to put white power in its place. It's fun. You can see whitey turn red with anger. But often it closes the door to opportunity. Opportunity can knock more than once, but not forever.

If someone can help Officer harness his intellect and charisma with a vision, and a plan to make that vision come true, and if he focuses on those goals and uses his resources without concern for race, he can see East St. Louis turn around, and go down in history as the greatest mayor the city has ever had.

Or perhaps the problem is one of execution of his will. Over and over we have heard that Officer has agreed to programs, but then nothing has happened, the ball has been dropped. He praised the president of a bank for offering to have sidewalks, the city's responsibility, repaired at the bank's expense. The bank agreed to pay the check, within certain limits and with approval of the contractor. Nothing ever happened? Why?

Perhaps city manager government that can provide a vertical follow-through for Officer's and the council's plans. Perhaps city manager government will be voted in with Officer's re-election, as he and Rep. Wyvetter Younge want. Perhaps there will be a search until a fully qualified man is found. And perhaps with that support Officer will be free to dream a dream, to draft a plan and make it happen.

On the other hand, if he fights cooperation and wants to cut his own way through the jungle. If he rejects the paths leading toward his goal, cries racism every time he is frustrated rather than seeking a solution, he can commit the city to years of painful distress. He can bring about the loss of any hope for East St. Louis or for the blacks here who deserve an opportunity to participate in a sound economy, deserve jobs, deserve education, deserve a future.

Everybody knows that.

 

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