Emerson Park Neighborhood Revitalization Plan

[ Contents ]



"We’ll bring it back to it’s full glory!" - Resident


A. Native American Origins, Yesterday and Today

The residential occupation of what is now the Emerson Park neighborhood of East St. Louis, Illinois can be traced back to the Mississippi Valley’s earliest settlers: the Native Americans. The earliest recorded inhabitants of Mississippi Valley were the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian tribes, known casually as "the mound builders." As their nickname suggests, their claim to fame is the massive ceremonial dirt mounds they have left behind, the most famous and impressive is in Cahokia, Illinois. Recently, one such mound was uncovered on the outskirts of the Emerson Park neighborhood. Later, the same area was inhabited by tribes of the Illini Confederation, referred to as the "Illinois" by the next group of settlers, the French, whose presence was entrenched by the early 18th century. The French vacated their settlements in this area to the British by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, who later did the same to the American colonists in 1783.

The settling of the city of East St. Louis dates back to the 1790s, when James Piggot built a ferry landing and began transporting people across the river to St. Louis, Missouri in 1797. People began settling in what became known as the village of Illinoistown and by the mid-1800s, these settlers were producing most of the agricultural products consumed by St. Louis residents. In 1861, the people of Illinoistown voted to change the village's name to East St. Louis to symbolize the relationship with its Missouri neighbor.

The extension of rail lines to East St. Louis enhanced its image as a major transportation center. Due to the cost of constructing bridges across the Mississippi River, eastern railroads chose to terminate on the Illinois side of the river and ferry their cargoes across. In fact, by the early 20th century, East St. Louis became the western terminus of 22 eastern railroad lines, making it the second largest railroad center in the nation. This led it to become a prosperous industrial center with heavy aluminum manufacturing, meat-packing, steel, and paint manufacturing industries. The problems that later came back to haunt Emerson Park and East St. Louis are the result of industries that were either owned by outsiders or had owners that formed their own company towns. In the case of the former, city residents weren’t the ones to prosper from the successful industries, and in the case of the latter, the industries would profit from relatively cheap East St. Louis labor while not paying any property taxes to the city for municipal services since they were out of East St. Louis’s taxing jurisdiction.

Southern blacks and Eastern European immigrants were drawn in great numbers to East St. Louis during World War I with the promise of jobs and prosperity in the city’s booming industries. The changing population and long-standing racial tensions caused an eruption in 1917, with one of the deadliest race riots in the nation's history. Employees at the Aluminum Ore Corporation went on strike in April 1917, and the company brought in strikebreakers, some of whom were African American. White workers blamed the black workers for the defeat of their strike, and riots broke out for a brief time in May. On July 1, 1917, a group of whites sped through a black neighborhood, randomly shooting at homes. The next day, white mobs began stoning and clubbing blacks in public areas and burning down homes in black neighborhoods. In total, thirty-nine blacks and eight whites were killed during the riots, and more than three hundred buildings were destroyed, damage far worse than that inflicted by the infamous Chicago Race Riot two years later. After the riots, eleven blacks were convicted of shooting the police detectives, and only four whites were convicted for murdering the African-American citizens.

During the Depression, many East St. Louis factories closed and many more moved where cheaper labor could be found. The Aluminum Ore Company, which had precipitated the East St. Louis Riots, moved to the Deep South. City industries experienced a sort of renaissance during World War II with production for the war effort. By 1957, Look magazine chose East St. Louis as the "All-American City", one of those most likely to make the post-war transition from an industry-based to a service-based economy. The increased use of the refrigerated truck coupled with the closing of regional meat-packing centers nationwide and the decreased use of railroads caused by the rise of the interstate highway system (whose paths caused the demolition of many East St. Louis neighborhoods) all contributed to the city’s descent into financial and physical ruin in the 1960s and 1970s. The phenomenon of "white flight," where most of the white population, fearing racial integration, fled the city to the collar suburbs also occurred during this time period. The city’s population peaked in 1945 with 80,000 people, but fell to 40,000 in 1990. Emerson Park itself lost over 50% of its population between 1960 and 1990. The city’s number of occupied dwelling units dropped over 30% in those thirty years; the neighborhood’s fell by more than 55%, now under 400 units, in an area which once boasted more than 1,200. The city lost nearly 15,000 jobs between 1960 and 1990. The number of firms in East St. Louis declined from 1,527 in 1967 to 383 in 1987. The city's tax base shrunk from $560 million to $190 million between 1970 and 1990, forcing city officials to cut all but its most essential services. In October 1987, the city garbage pickup service ceased, but restarted by 1992.

In 1991, the city was forced to vacate its City Hall when a local judge awarded it to a man injured in a city jail, in addition to two hundred and twenty acres of the city’s prime waterfront property. City officials were forced to seek state protection from creditors under the Distressed Cities Act of 1991. The state helped East St. Louis avoid bankruptcy by providing a $3.75 million loan so the city could meet its payroll for the rest of the year. In addition, the state helped the city negotiate with creditors to retire an $80 million debt through issuing a $23 million bond. In return, the city was forced to accept state oversight of its budget and fiscal affairs by the State Financial Advisory Authority. As unemployment and poverty were on the rise in the city, a devastating effect was becoming visible to the residents of East St. St. Louis.

B. East St. Louis Action Research Project (ESLARP)

1. Origins

Alarmed by the city’s worsening conditions, State Representative Wyvetter H. Younge (D-East St. Louis), a member of the Illinois Legislature’s Higher Education Finance Committee challenged the then-University of Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry to demonstrate the school’s stated commitment to low-income communities. In 1987, President Ikenberry responded with the creation of the Urban Extension and Minority Access Program (UEMAP), a joint effort on the part of the School of Architecture and the Departments of Urban and Regional Planning and Landscape Architecture. This program provided financial support for student and faculty research in East St. Louis. In the Fall of 1990, the effort was reorganized as the East St. Louis Action Research Project (ESLARP).

2. Participatory Planning Philosophy

ESLARP’s primary goal is to improve the quality of life in East St. Louis through research, teaching and outreach activities provided by UIUC students and faculty. ESLARP seeks to achieve this goal by:

  1. Supporting the community development efforts of East St. Louis neighborhood based organizations and municipal agencies.
  2. Enhancing the planning, development and management capacity of the city’s non-profit organizations and government agencies.
  3. Training a new generation of civic leaders and university students skilled in participatory approaches to community planning and design.
  4. Pursuing basic and applied research on urban policy issues confronting the East St. Louis community.

ESLARP’s research and technical agenda has been set by neighborhood residents. History has taught us that planned solutions tend to fail when they are imposed on a community by outsiders, often becoming "shelf projects". In order to insure that our plans are relevant and supported by the community, ESLARP has developed a participatory planning and design model which integrates participatory action research, direct action organizing and citizen education. In our model, neighborhood organizations are the bridge between the University and East St. Louis citizens. ESLARP projects, conceived by local residents and officials, have addressed neighborhood beautification, housing improvement, job creation, and open space development. Because local individuals and neighborhood organizations participate in goal setting, program development, and plan implementation, these projects are more likely to become self-sustaining.

Students and residents learn from each other by working together. Community members work together with University students and faculty in both planning and implementation stages. In fact, the opportunity for hands-on work attracts many students to ESLARP. Their commitment to project completion - through repeat visits to project sites and neighborhood meetings - encourages the continued involvement of residents. At the same time, the students learn about working in distressed communities from the participating residents.

University resources are being mobilized to address the root causes of urban poverty. Through their lifetime experiences, residents often know what is wrong in their neighborhoods, and in many cases know how to make things better, but lack the organizational and financial resources necessary to bring about change. In ESLARP projects, concerned citizens work with faculty and students trained in physical design, strategic planning, and organizational development. Together they have planned, financed and implemented effective solutions to economic, housing and safety problems. A primary goal of this cooperative effort is supporting and enhancing the capabilities of community-based development organizations.

The fully integrated interdisciplinary effort of the Project enables students and faculty in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning and the College of Law to work toward common goals, contributing from their respective areas of expertise. Through this collaboration, students begin to develop their professional identity, and to better understand the concerns and responsibilities of other disciplines. The participatory approach provides training for a new generation of planners and designers for socially responsive community development.

Expanding collaboration of the University and the community to take on increasingly ambitious projects requires great planning and preparation. As community organizations demonstrate their ability to accomplish their goals, involvement grows, and institutional collaboration broadens. ESLARP invites all newcomers to contribute their particular skills and resources to the ongoing revitalization of East St. Louis. It is the hope of ESLARP that these working relationships will promote improvement in other distressed areas, wherever concerned citizens seek technical assistance in realizing their visions of a better community.

3. Examples of Completed Works (incomplete list)

Participatory Research and Technical Assistance

Economic Development

Building/Housing Rehabilitation

Landscaping/Park Projects

Youth Development


Comprehensive Neighborhood Plans

Intensive Board and Non-Profit Development Support

Technological Initiatives and Public Access


C. Origins of Partnership Between Emerson Park and ESLARP

In the Summer of 1990, Kenneth M. Reardon, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, met with William Kreeb, Executive Director of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, to discuss problems confronting the Emerson Park neighborhood. Mr. Kreeb encouraged Reardon to meet with a representative of the Emerson Park Development Corporation, which had recently completed a small nest-pocket park at the corner of Winstanley and 14th Streets, to discuss possible collaboration. Director Kreeb indicated that the neighborhood residents were interested in pursuing larger-scale community improvement projects and might benefit from the type of planning and design services that the University of Illinois could offer.

D. Past Planning Efforts

1. The Neighborhood Improvement Plan for Emerson Park, 1991

Later that summer, Professor Reardon met with Ms. Ceola Davis, the organizer of the EPDC and long-time community activist, as well as several of the corporation’s officers, to discuss working together on the creation of a comprehensive stabilization plan for the neighborhood. The leaders were very interested in working with university planners, provided the University of Illinois would:

The University’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning agreed to work with local leaders in creating a comprehensive neighborhood stabilization plan for Emerson Park using a highly participatory approach that would achieve each of the four objectives stated above. In the fall of 1990, eleven urban planning students worked with Professor Reardon to assist local leaders in developing a five-year stabilization plan to halt the severe emigration of businesses and residents that was threatening Emerson Park’s vitality.

Neighborhood residents and university students, assisted by staff members from the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, collected archived materials, census data, land use, building condition and site condition information. They also interviewed neighborhood residents and local institutional leaders in order to document and analyze the forces contributing to the neighborhood’s decline. The research findings that emerged from these activities were presented at EPDC’s monthly membership meetings. Attendance at these meetings grew from 15 to 140 during the Fall of 1990 as a result of the growing interest in the planning process. The Neighborhood Improvement Plan for Emerson Park,1991, developed by the community/university planning team led by Professor Reardon and Ms. Davis, was unanimously approved by neighborhood residents who participated in a community review meeting held in mid-December of 1990. The major findings and recommendations of the plan, which was recognized as the Outstanding Student Plan of 1991 by the American Institute of Certified Planners, are summarized below.

Neighborhood Assets, 1991

Neighborhood Weaknesses, 1991

The Neighborhood Improvement Plan of 1991 was designed by the community and university planning team to halt the exodus of businesses and residents from Emerson Park through the execution of a coordinated stabilization plan based on the following objectives:

  1. Improve the health and the appearance of the Emerson Park environment.
  2. Improve the quality of the local housing stock through a coordinated program of rehabilitation and construction.
  3. Enhance the safety of local residents, employees and visitors through an aggressive community-based crime prevention program.
  4. Expand business and employment opportunities for local residents.
  5. Strengthen the voice of Emerson Park within public policy processes in the city and region through a community outreach effort.

A detailed strategy featuring 53 major activities was developed to achieve these five major objectives. These were to be carried out by a variety of community-based organizations and municipal agencies serving the neighborhood under the leadership of the Emerson Park Development Corporation.


Housing Rehabilitation and Development

Substance Abuse

Economic Development and Job Generation

Community Organizing

Significant progress has been made during the past seven years towards completing twenty-five of the plan’s main program activities. Strides were made toward accomplishing the plan’s environmental protection strategies, housing improvements and community organizing objectives. Among the most important of the projects completed in each of these areas has been:

Environmental Protection/Neighborhood Beautification

Housing Improvements

Community Organizing

2. The Community Safety Plan for the Emerson Park Neighborhood (1992)

Resident interest in planning remained quite high in the months following the completion of the Neighborhood Improvement Plan for Emerson Park. EPDC leaders, pleased with the results of the comprehensive planning process, asked the University of Illinois Department of Urban and Regional Planning to help them formulate an effective strategy to stem the rise of violent crime fueled by growing crack-cocaine use in the area. University planning students began to work with EPDC leaders to create a community-based crime prevention plan in the Spring of 1992. Their efforts were enthusiastically supported by East St. Louis’s police chief, Isadore Chambers, and the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Bruce E. Reppert.

The Community Safety Plan for the Emerson Park Neighborhood was developed using the same participatory methods used to formulate the neighborhood’s original comprehensive plan. This plan seeks to improve the quality of life in Emerson Park by reducing violent crime related to illegal drug use and sales. The plan attempts to achieve these goals by achieving the following objectives:

  1. Improve the security and safety of residential homes and local businesses through the implementation of low-cost physical improvements.
  2. Reduce criminals’ interest in the Emerson Park area by carrying out a systematic and coordinated program of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED).
  3. Lower rates of chemical dependency of local residents, particularly youth, by means of an aggressive drug education awareness, prevention, intervention and treatment program.
  4. Increase residents’ involvement in crime prevention, including neighborhood watches.
  5. Improve the coordination and delivery of police services to the neighborhood.

The Community Safety Plan for the Emerson Park Neighborhood proposed twenty-eight specific program initiatives to achieve these five objectives. A brief description of each of these twenty-five initiatives is presented below.

Improving Physical Safety and Security in Residential Homes

The Physical Design of the Neighborhood

Reducing Illegal Drug Use and Sales

Mobilizing Resident Involvement in Crime Prevention Activities

Creating Neighborhood Law Enforcement Activities

Very few of the recommendations contained in the Community Safety Plan have been fully implemented. Those that have been carried out by local law enforcement and housing agencies, however, have served to dramatically reduce the level of drug-related criminal activity in the neighborhood. These steps have also served to increase resident perception of the neighborhood’s overall safety.

The U.S. Department of Justice organized an undercover operation involving two drug enforcement agents during the summer of 1991, which resulted in the arrest of the neighborhood’s primary dealers of crack-cocaine. Later that year, the East St. Louis Housing Authority took steps to demolish a section of abandoned town houses near the corner of Nectar and 13th Streets which had been a location for illegal drug use, sales and prostitution. This structure had long been referred to by local youth as "the Pharmacy."

3. Emerson Park Community Development Block Grant Program Proposal (1992-1997)

During the Summer of 1991, neighborhood residents requested additional university planning assistance in devising a neighborhood-level capital improvement plan for their area. During the 1991-1992 academic year, Mr. Wendell Stills, a graduate planning student, used data from the 1991 comprehensive plan to develop a five-year infrastructure improvement initiative using Community Development Block Grant funds.

The overall goal of the program was to implement major physical improvements and self-help efforts in order to preserve and enhance the Emerson Park neighborhood as a stable area affordable to low-income and working-class families. The goal of the proposal was to upgrade the major components of the neighborhood’s infrastructure and to improve the overall quality of the area’s housing stock. The most important elements of the plan, divided into a five-year time-frame, are presented below.

Year One

Year Two

Year Three

Year Four

Year Five

None of the major proposals contained in the plan were implemented by the East St. Louis Community Development Block Grant Office, which was affected by several major management shake-ups between 1992 and 1995. During this time, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hired a private management group from St. Louis to operate the city’s CDBG program. Political conflicts between this group, the East St. Louis City Council and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development prevented much from getting accomplished during this time. During the past three years, several of the major proposed components of the Emerson Park Community Development Block Grant Program Proposal have been implemented with assistance from the city. These include:

  1. Seven single-family homes have been fully renovated using HOME funds provided by the East St. Louis Community Development Block Grant Program.
  2. Seven more single-family homes will be renovated during the next calendar year through the HOME program.
  3. A graduate of the University of Illinois graduate program in Architecture has been hired by the Emerson Park Development Corporation with funding provided by CBDG.
  4. Two - 1,200 square foot, single family homes have been constructed.
  5. An assessment of the status of the neighborhood’s current infrastructure and future infrastructure was completed.

4. Design for the Emerson Park Light Rail Station and Expanded Residential Housing (1996)

In the spring of 1996, students from Professor Robert I. Selby’s Architecture 372 Studio developed several proposals for the sitting and design of a MetroLink station near the corner of 15th Street and Baugh Avenue. Professor Selby’s class also produced a set of designs for various affordable housing units suitable for local residents.

While none of Professor Selby’s class projects were adopted by local transit and housing agencies, his class played an important role in supporting the successful efforts of local residents to move the proposed route for the light rail extension into their neighborhood. Through the efforts of Ms. Ceola Davis and members of the Emerson Park Development Corporation, the proposed light rail route was shifted from an alignment paralleling Interstate 64 to the west to an abandoned rail right-of-way within the neighborhood boundaries of Emerson Park. As a result of residents’ pressure and Professor Selby’s technical assistance, city and regional planning and transportation officials agreed to establish a station in Emerson Park. Professor Selby’s class was also influential in reducing the parking area proposed for the site and using remaining adjacent land for transit-oriented development.

The success of Emerson Park as a MetroLink site has generated considerable development interest in the neighborhood. One developer, Mr. Donald Johnson of Community Planning and Design Associates, has already assembled land near the light rail line for new residential development of 100 new single family homes. He has also recently completed two market rate homes available for $150,000, one of which has already been sold to a local family. Also, the MetroLink extension into Emerson Park was a major catalyst for the new Parsons Place development of 210-units of mixed income rental housing. Ground will be broken in August of 1999 for this project.

5. Emerson Park Housing Market Study (1997)

In 1997, the City of East St. Louis’s Community Development Block Grant office awarded a contract to the Professional Development Group Midwest, Inc. of Peoria to study the changing demand for housing located in Emerson Park in light of the soon-to-be-completed MetroLink extension. A portion of this work is included in the housing chapter of this document.

6. Affordable Housing Study (1998)

The East St. Louis Housing Authority has recently awarded a contract to the Kreigsfeld Corporation of Washington D.C. to develop a plan to use $34 million in public housing construction funds to construct several mixed finance affordable housing complexes, providing 1000 new quality housing units in the city. Emerson Park has been identified as one possible location for a portion of these new housing dollars to be invested. The East St. Louis Housing Authority is currently constructed 34 units of affordable townhouse and garden style apartments in the northwest quadrant of the neighborhood.

E. Planning in Emerson Park Today

1. Need for an Updated Revitalization Plan

The 1991 Plan has become outdated as a result of the positive changes occurring in Emerson Park. The expansion of the MetroLink and the development of new housing by the ESL Housing Authority, McCormack Baron and Associates, and Community Development Consultants, present a new set of issues and challenges to the residents of Emerson Park. In an effort to plan effectively for future developments in Emerson Park, the University of Illinois was asked once again to conduct a highly participatory planning process. This approach involves as many residents as possible and collects data on all social and physical characteristics of the neighborhood. The highly participatory approach to planning in Emerson Park is what has made planning in Emerson Park a success. It is founded on the fundamental premise that neighborhood planning cannot be done without the neighborhood. For we have clearly seen that imposed plans that do not involve residents, often fail and further alienate the community.

2. Resident Participation in the Planning Process

The following is a list of interaction between the University of Illinois and the residents, leaders, and board of the Emerson Park Development Corporation. The list also includes all data collection efforts.

Nov, 96 Request for Plan Update made by EPDC to Prof. Kenneth Reardon

April, 97 East St. Louis Action Research Project beings programming for the 1998 Revitalization Plan

October, 97 ESLARP staff and volunteers collect physical data on Emerson Park using the Neighborhood Condition Survey


Jan./Feb. Collection of Census Data, Archival Data, and Information on Current and Planned Development Projects

February 11 EPDC General Meeting

Feb./Mar. Resident Interviews

Feb./Mar. Institutional Leader Interviews

March Students Conduct and Infrastructure Condition Survey

Assess condition of:

March 14 Emerson Park Neighborhood Summit at Frank Holten State Park

May 13 Spring Neighborhood Action Project (SNAP)

May 30 ESLARP Hires Research Assistant to Work with Emerson Park on Finishing the Plan

June 7 Phone Meeting between ESLARP and EPDC

June 11 EPDC General Meeting

June 19 Meeting between ESLARP and EPDC

June 26 Phone meeting between ESLARP and EPDC

July 6 – 23 ESLARP Assists in the Building of Two New Single Family Homes in Emerson Park

July 9 EPDC General Meeting

August 7 Phone meeting between ESLARP and EPDC

August 12 EPDC General Meeting

September 4 Phone meeting between ESLARP and EPDC

September 9 EPDC General Meeting

September 16 Phone Meeting between EPDC and ESLARP

September 24 Department of Housing and Urban Development Conference Charrette Site

September 25 EPDC Board Member Participates in an Evaluation of Emerson Park’s Relationship with ESLARP

October 2,3 ESLARP Outreach Weekend

October 6 Phone Meeting between ESLARP and EPDC

October 13 EPDC General Meeting

October 25 EPDC Negotiates with PDGM to Discuss Zoning Proposals

November Presentation to Plan Commission

3. Emerson Park Data Book

The Emerson Park Data Book is a compilation of all social, economic and physical data collected between October 1997 and August 1998. The data presented is both qualitative and quantitative. It is intended to paint a picture of the Emerson Park neighborhood, giving credibility to the Plan’s recommendations and identifying the key issues in Emerson Park. All data was collected by University of Illinois students, staff, faculty, or residents of Emerson Park. This data book builds on the data collected through the 1991 Emerson Park Neighborhood Improvement Plan process.

Date includes:

Document author(s) : Cathy Klump
Last modified: 23 September 1999, Deanna Koenigs