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Down on the River

by Kenneth Reardon

A group of University of Illinois students is making waves in East St. Louis.

My first visit to East St. Louis, just about 10 years ago, was a shock. I had just been hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My assignment was to teach courses in neighborhood revitalization, community development, and social planning--and to coordinate a new outreach program in East St. Louis, a depressed town of 43,000 just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Entering the city in the summer of 1990, it was hard to understand how East St. Louis, designated an All-American City in 1959 by the National Municipal League could become so ravaged in just thirty years. Nearly 40 percent of the city's land was either vacant or unattended and 30 percent of its building stock was abandoned.

Most of the street and traffic signs, and many of the manhole covers, had been stolen, making local travel confusing and dangerous. Street lights and traffic signals were out because, I learned, the city was delinquent in payment of its utility bills. A strong smell of smoke permeated the air as residents and businessmen were forced to burn their garbage following the termination of municipal trash collection.

I thought I was ready. After all, I had completed a Ph.D. thesis on local economic development and had worked as a community organizer and neighborhood planner in several of the most distressed communities of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. But these experiences were poor preparation for a city that had been devastated by decades of suburbanization, deindustrialization and disinvestment.

Meeting of minds

The outreach program was the idea of state representative Wyvetter Younge, a Democrat who represented East St. Louis. She had challenged the university to demonstrate its commitment to urban public service by establishing a community development assistance project in the city.

However, I soon learned that many local leaders and city officials were uninterested in establishing a partnership with the university. They saw our initiative as one more example of university researchers seeking to secure grants to collect more data describing the decline of urban communities.

One man had a different view. Bill Kreeb, who had recently been named executive director of a 100-year-old settlement house, the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, in the Emerson Park neighborhood where 65 percent of the families lived in poverty. Bill believed my students could offer useful technical assistance to the newly formed Emerson Park Development Corporation (EPDC).

It was through Kreeb that I met one of East St. Louis's most remarkable leaders, a woman who changed my view of the city. Ceola Davis has been a community outreach worker at the neighborhood house for nearly 30 years, struggling to improve day care services, educational opportunities, and job training programs available to Emerson Park residents. One of her early organizing efforts was to mobilize a crew of unemployed men and local youth to tear down three abandoned buildings, sell the recyclable materials, and use the funds to construct a vest-pocket park.

"The last thing we need," she said at our first meeting, "is another university person coming to East St. Louis to tell us what any sixth grader here already knows." At our second meeting, Miss Davis indicated that she and EPDC might consider working with us-- provided we agreed to the following guidelines, which my students and I came to refer to as the "Ceola Accords."

First, Emerson Park residents, rather than representatives of the University of Illinois, would determine the issues to be addressed by the partnership. Second, local residents and civic leaders would be actively involved at each step in the planning process. Third, the university would have to agree to a six-month probationary period--and a minimum five-year commitment if it passed. The probationary period was seen as necessary, Miss Davis later said, because of the professorate's great skill in "talkin' the talk" and frequent inability to "walk the walk."

Fourth, the group asked for help in gaining access to regional donors who might support future community-building activities, and for legal assistance to create a 501c3 organization.

Down to work

When I returned to campus, I presented the community's demands to my department head, Professor Lew Hopkins, AICP who quickly agreed to the entire list.

That fall, 11 students enrolled in my neighborhood planning workshop, which was designed to help the EPDC's leaders create a five-year plan. Our first activity was to develop a detailed demographic and housing profile based on census data, building department information, and resident interviews.

The profile looked good to us. But, at the students' presentation in early October, a man stood up and asked why they had failed to compare Emerson Park to the region's suburban ring communities. By omitting this comparison, he said, we had missed an important opportunity to highlight the region's increasingly uneven development pattern. It was a point well taken, and I suggested to my students that they follow up.

During the next few weeks, residents and students paired off to conduct land use, building conditions, site maintenance and infrastructure repair surveys. The teams also knocked on the doors of the neighborhood's 800 homes to ask what their occupants thought about current conditions and future development opportunities. The large number of residents who invited them into their living rooms and kitchens to discuss their neighborhood's strengths and weaknesses surprised the students.

The most memorable of these interviews lasted four hours and involved two of the neighborhood's oldest residents. In order to understand the neighborhood, they said, the team had to learn about the history of African American settlement in Emerson Park. They proceeded to tell it all. Then the 80-year-old couple walked our student back to the neighborhood house in the dark to make sure he returned home safely.

During many interviews, the students heard stories that caused them to critically reflect on their assumptions regarding race and class in America. One of the most powerful of these stories described a successful three-year-struggle waged by residents of the Nectar Street public housing complex to eliminate illegal drug sales from one of their buildings, referred to as "The Pharmacy."

Let's go!

There was lots of enthusiasm when the students presented the Emerson Park Neighborhood Improvement Plan to 125 residents, neighborhood leaders and elected officials in the winter of 1990. The residents agreed with the plan's recommendations for crime prevention, housing rehabilitation, job generation, youth development and environmental cleanup--56 proposals in all.

The East St. Louis Housing Authority responded quickly to the plan when it announced the rehabilitation of a 40-unit complex near the neighborhood house. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois showed his support for the plan by launching a major drug enforcement initiative. Finally, the American Institute of Certified Planners named the plan the "Best Student Project" of 1991.

Our excitement regarding the plan was quickly tested when more than a dozen local, county, and regional funding agencies rejected requests to fund elements of the plan. Once again, Ceola Davis came to the rescue, organizing more than 150 volunteers, including many UIUC students, to remove illegally dumped trash from vacant lots.

To encourage the county highway department to haul away the trash, Miss Davis instructed the volunteers to place their bags in neat lines on both sides of Ninth Street, which is a county road. Soon after, a local television crew showed up to do a story on the "trash-in." Called by Miss Davis? We'll never know. Within hours, county crews appeared to remove the debris from Emerson Park.

A lot of the students' work was hands-on. In the spring of 1992, for example, they raised funds to rent power washing equipment to clean the aluminum siding on a number of houses in the neighborhood. In another project, with paint donated by the university's Office of Maintenance and Buildings, they repainted the trim and porches of a dozen houses.

The enthusiasm generated by projects like this produced our first major source of funding. In early 1992, the Illinois State Treasurer provided seed money for a revolving loan fund for residential rehab projects. The money was to come from the interest on $5 million in state tax funds deposited in an East St. Louis bank. Through the State Treasurer's "linked deposit" program, community-based planning and development groups, such as EPDC, could use the difference in the interest rates offered by local lenders and those demanded by the state to capitalize its loan fund. This differential, which the State Treasurer called "the float," provided $75,000 over a three-year period for local residential rehab projects.

By the end of the year 1994, the development corporation, assisted by UIUC architecture, landscape architecture and urban and regional planning students, had completed major repairs on some two dozen homes in Emerson Park.

As word of the partnership's effectiveness spread, the city of East St. Louis invited the development corporation to apply for $200,000 in Federal HOME funds. Planning students worked with EPDC's leaders to identify houses in need of significant work while our architecture students prepared as-built drawings and drew up work programs listing the improvements needed to bring each structure into compliance with local building codes. With our students' help, the development corporation used the HOME grant to complete major renovations on seven more Emerson Park houses.

All aboard

It was once again Ceola Davis who in 1995 alerted us to a great opportunity. Ceola had learned of the state and federal government plans to construct a light rail line connecting St. Louis' Lambert International Airport with the St. Clair County Airport in Illinois. The proposed line had great economic development potential for East St. Louis, and particularly Emerson Park.

The development corporation asked us to work with them to identify a route that would stimulate maximum investment in the city's most distressed neighborhoods. They also asked us to assist them in securing public funds to buy strategically located parcels near the rail line's proposed stations to provide them with maximum leverage in negotiating with potential developers.

We responded by designing a route along a state-owned rail right-of-way, which ran through Emerson Park and three other low-income neighborhoods. University staff also helped EPDC secure state funding for land assembly near the proposed Emerson Park light rail station. The developer who signed on to work with the corporation was Richard Baron, President of the McCormick-Baron Company from St. Louis. He agreed to create 225 units of new rental housing, 70 units of new single-family homes, and several community facilities, including an advanced computing center for area youth.

The McCormick-Baron Company is also a co-sponsor, with the university and the carpenters' union, of a construction training program designed to help East St. Louis youth find jobs with the new project. The Federal government has supported this effort with a $1 million YouthBuild Grant which EPDC received in 1999.

Family ties

When I arrived at the U. of I. in 1990, only about 10 percent of the planning students specialized in housing and community development. Today, more than 25 percent of our graduating students choose to work for community-based planning organizations serving low-income urban communities such as Emerson Park.

One of these is Cathy Klump, who is now the Director of the East St. Louis Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center. Cathy received her undergraduate and graduate planning degrees from UIUC in 1996 and 1998.

Another former student is Vickie Forby, who is now the executive director of the Emerson Park Development Corporation. Vickie participated in our East St. Louis neighborhood planning workshop in 1991.

Another former student is Don Johnson, who was recently selected one of the nation's most promising young African American entrepreneurs by the Black Educational Television Network. Don has designed and built 60 market-rate houses in East St. Louis since 1995.

Kirk Goodrich, another former student, now works for the Enterprise Foundation, the national nonprofit group established by developer James Rouse. Kirk is currently working with Vickie Forby, EPDC, and McCormack-Baron to secure the last $4 million needed to complete their housing project.


I've been gone from East St. Louis for a year now, first on sabbatical and, starting this month, in a new job at Cornell. During my year off, I began work on a long-planned book on my Illinois experience.

Since 1990, East St. Louis's fortunes have picked up considerably. The opening of a riverboat casino, construction of the light rail line and state financial assistance have reduced the city's unemployment rate from 29 percent in 1990 to 16 percent today. I mention the casino's contribution to the city's economic recovery with some chagrin because I publicly opposed this type of development.

More news: Emerson Park has a new neighborhood revitalization plan, created with student help. The Parson's Place Housing Project is in the final planning stages. This $28 million, mixed-income venture, the result of the partnership between EPDC, the McCormick-Baron Company Louis, the City of East St. Louis and the University of Illinois has qualified for almost $25 million in low-income housing tax credits from the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

The university has expanded its efforts to five additional East St. Louis neighborhoods, where students have helped to complete stabilization plans. These new planning initiatives were undertaken with funds provided by HUD's Community Outreach Partnership Centers (COPC) Program. During these activities, residents challenged our planning approach which they felt was encouraging dependency by not enhancing the organizing, planning, and development capacity of local institutions.

We responded to these criticisms by adopting an empowerment planning approach that integrated the principles and methods of participatory action research, direct action organizing and popular education into the planning process. This shift in approach had two major impacts. We worked with local leaders to create the Neighborhood College that has offered tuition-free urban planning, community development and non-profit management courses. In addition, we established a community planning and design center in downtown East St. Louis which has assisted more than forty community groups, faith-based organizations and municipal agencies from the Metro East area in completing numerous economic and community development projects.

Many of those community organizations are now part of a coalition called the East St. Louis Community Action Network (ESLCAN). In recent years, this group has emerged as a highly effective direct action organization promoting environmental justice, economic development, and municipal reform. This network played a pivotal role in a recent voter registration and mobilization effort that helped elect several community-oriented and reform-minded candidates to the city council, ending the local Democratic Party's exclusive control over this body and creating an important new political forum for discussions regarding East St. Louis's future.

Finally, I am pleased to report that, almost 25 years after it was disbanded; the East St. Louis City Planning Commission is back in action. Emerson Park's 1998 neighborhood revitalization plan was the first plan officially reviewed by the commission.

Final reflections

The project owes its success to the prophetic leadership of Miss Davis and her neighbors and the impact they have had on hundreds of architecture, landscape architecture and urban and regional planning students from the University of Illinois. Another factor contributing to the project's success has been the commitment of its community and campus partners to enhance their neighborhood planning knowledge and skills through critical reflection upon their cooperative problem-solving experience. This experiential learning approach has produced an empowerment planning model that appears to be highly effective in addressing the complex problems facing severely distressed urban neighborhoods.

Ken Reardon currently teaches city and regional planning at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He left the University of Illinois this past summer. The East St. Louis Action Research Project and Ken received this year's AICP President's Award. For more information regarding the project see its web site: http/:www.eslarp.uiuc.edu

Source: Planning, Sept.2000



Last modified: 18 October 2000, Deanna Koenigs