[ Update ]

Ms. Ceola Davis and Emerson Park Development Corporation Receive Regional Awards

by Kenneth M. Reardon, Ph.D.
Associate Professor in Urban and Regional Planning

Ms. Ceola Davis, a long-time East St. Louis activist and Community Outreach Worker from the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood Center, received the "Gateway Lifetime Achievement Award" from the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council at a luncheon held at the Marriott Hotel in downtown St. Louis on Thursday, November 18, 1999. Ms. Davis was selected for this prestigious award that "recognizes and honors individual contribution and achievement to the lifetime of service to the public" in recognition of her thirty years of selfless service to the residents of East St. Louis.

Mr. Davis first became active in East St. Louis civic affairs during the early years of the civil rights movement as a member of the NAACP's Youth Council. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ms. Davis worked with local residents and social service providers to fight for improved benefits and services for women and children served by the Illinois Public Aid (IPA) and Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). During this period, Ms. Davis was instrumental in helping the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) organize local residents to travel to Springfield and Washington to lobby for needed improvements in these two important social welfare programs.

In the mid-1980s, Ms. Davis worked with a small group of senior citizens and unemployed youth to establish the Emerson Park Development Corporation (EPDC) to provide needed leadership to neighborhood stabilization and community revitalization on the city's Northside. Under Ms. Davis's leadership, EPDC carried out a neighborhood-wide clean-up of illegal dumping sites in Emerson Park, created a Christmas and street tree farm, painted and completed needed exterior repairs for thirty low-income elderly homeowners, and constructed eight single-family homes in Emerson Park and Olivette Park in cooperation with East St. Louis's Faith-Based Housing Program.

In the early 1990s, Ms. Davis led a successful community-based initiative to re-align the proposed Metrolink Light Rail line to pass through several of the city's poorest neighborhoods in order to generate transit-oriented investment and development in these areas. This effort prompted local and regional officials to alter the proposed route to pass through Emerson Park which encouraged the McCormack-Baron Corporation to enter into a cooperative relationship with EPDC to construct more than $29 million in new affordable housing near the proposed rail station near 15th Street.

In addition to these organizing efforts on behalf of the city's poorest residents, Ms. Davis provided individual outreach, case management and advocacy services to Emerson Park residents as a Community Outreach Worker for the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House for nearly thirty years. During the last three decades, Ms. Davis has been a daily presence on the streets and in the alleys of Emerson Park, as her Outreach Worker role, helping local residents address the critical unemployment, housing, and safety problems confronting low-income East St. Louis families. "For more than thirty years, when a local family's home burned down, a child needed transportation to a medical specialist, or a senior citizen required home care the person the person local residents most frequently called for assistance has been Ms. Ceola Davis," said one Emerson Park leader.

More than a dozen local leaders and University of Illinois officials attended the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council awards presentation to see Ms. Davis receive this "Gateway Lifetime Achievement Award". Ms. Davis accepted her award on behalf of the residents of East St. Louis and spoke eloquently about her neighbors' decade-long campaign to stabilize and revitalize the Emerson Park neighborhood. Ms. Davis ended her remarks by asking the four hundred civic leaders attending the East-West Gateway's awards luncheon, "What will our lives be worth, if we do nothing to rescue our babies from the scourge of grinding poverty. So, lets get to work". In typical fashion, Ms. Davis was seen leaving Thursday's luncheon lobbying local and regional transportation officials regarding the need for a new traffic light on the corner or 15th Street and Baugh Avenue where several local school-age children had been recently injured in traffic accidents. Mayor Deborah Powell and the members of the East St. Louis City Council added their congratulations to Ms. Davis in the form of an official city proclamation citing her long and distinguished career of service to the people of East St. Louis. Local residents expressed their appreciation to Ms. Davis in the form of a dozen red roses and a copy of Fannie Lou Hamer's biograghy.

The Emerson Park Development Corporation was also recognized by the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council at Thursday's luncheon. EPDC received the Council's coveted "Community Initiative Award" that "honors the outstanding efforts of community-based organizations and non-profit groups working with government at the grassroots level to improve the quality of life within their communities". EPDC was selected for this award based upon their success in promoting neighborhood-based, resident-led, community development in Emerson Park. Mr. Richard Suttles, EPDC's President, accepted this award on behalf of his organization's members, leaders and staff who are currently working on the final phase of a new comprehensive community development plan for their area which is currently under consideration by the East St. Louis City Planning Commission.

EPDC, with the assistance of Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, Catholic Urban Programs, the Faith-based Family Housing Initiative, the Neighborhood Law Center, and the East St. Louis Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center, has been in the forefront of efforts to revitalize the Emerson Park Neighborhood. EPDC has created new "vest-pocket" playgrounds on the city's Northside, rehabilitated seven single-family homes, constructed eight new houses, and carried out numerous open space improvement projects with funds provided by the East St. Louis Community Development Block Grant Program, Urban Resources Partnership Program and Regional Housing Alliance. During the coming year, EPDC will be operating a construction trades training program under the Federal YouthBuild Program and planning a charter school with school leavers below the age of 21 years. EPDC was selected for the Community Initiative Award in recognition of both the innovative nature of their community development projects and the degree to which they involve local residents as active members of the planning process.

Last modified: 22 November 1999, Deanna Koenigs