Spotlight . . .


Community - Campus Day of Service

April 5, 2014

On Saturday, April 5th, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign kicked off National Volunteer Week with an inaugural Community-Campus Day of Service. Over 60 students, faculty and staff worked with six community partners on seven projects to complete pre-construction projects, community garden spring preparation projects, flyering in the community, reorganizing classrooms at Tap in Leadership Academy, cataloging choral literature, and preparing a Bee Garden. A big thank you goes out to all who helped on April 5!


Enriching perspectives through community engagement

Why East St. Louis?

East St. Louis developed as an industrial city with railroad-related industries and warehouses. Other factories were added and by 1905 there were a total of approximately fifty factories producing aluminum, baking powder, soap, concrete blocks, chemicals, fireworks, fertilizers, paint, glass and more. By 1935 more than 200 industries were located in the city. During the Depression many East St. Louis factories closed and others moved to areas with a cheaper labor force. During World War II, industry had a renaissance with war production (Edwards & Lawson, 2005; Theising, 2003).

In the 1960s, as demand for the city’s heavy industrial production slowed and the railroad’s role as the main transportation network was displaced by semi-trucks on the county’s highways, the situation in East St. Louis rapidly changed. Post-war industrial abandonment led to loss of blue-collar jobs; white households moved out in large numbers and the population reduced by over half between 1960 to 1990. The number of firms in East St. Louis declined from 1,527 in 1967 to 383 in 1987.

Unemployment and poverty had devastating effects on the city and its neighborhoods. There are very few “pull” factors to keep households in the city and therefore it continues to lose many of its employed residents to more prosperous suburban communities. According to the US Census, in 2000 the total population of ESL was 31,542; this is a decline of 23% since 1990 or a loss of 9,402 residents. As of 2000, the population was 98% African American, and unemployment rates were at 18% (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000).

Over half the residents live below the poverty level, and unemployment is around 30%. Almost two-thirds of the children in school are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. Many have elevated lead levels in their blood stream that affects their ability to learn and develop. While some of the housing stock is in good condition, much of it is derelict and creates deplorable living conditions for the poorest residents. Many residents are victims of predatory lending practices that keep them from home ownership and deeper in poverty.

One of the city’s constant problems is a lack of tax base to support municipal services such as police and fire protection, code enforcement, infrastructure improvements, public education and other essential services to keep the city functioning. In the 1970s, with the flight of the middle class, shrinking tax rolls forced the local government to eliminate many of its municipal agencies, beginning with its city planning office. The city’s tax base declined from $560 million in 1970 to $190 million in 1990, forcing the city to eliminate all but its most essential services. Garbage pickup stopped from 1987 to 1992. With no service, garbage accumulated in vacant lots and some residents burned their trash. While many cities have neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and racial segregation, East St. Louis is experiencing such problems citywide.

East St. Louis and the collar communities remain areas of extreme distress. The unemployment rates in most of these communities are two to three times that in St. Clair County and of the State of Illinois. Not surprisingly, all communities in the target area saw considerable loss of population and dwelling units in the period 1970-2000 while the comparison areas saw increases. This means that the tax base to support basic services has fallen to precarious levels. As will be argued later, this kind of severe depopulation, with loss of leadership and talent, is both an effect and cause of the target communities spiraling into despair.

Potential new investors, until recent years, have been discouraged from purchasing land and/or homes within the area due to skyrocketing building and property abandonment and the extremely high property tax rate – 12.5%, the highest in the State of Illinois.  Local lenders have also been hesitant to provide home mortgages or improvement loans to individuals wishing to purchase property given these alarming trends. With the lack of conventional financing, many homeowners have sought and received credit from sub-prime lenders, who often charge extremely high interest rates and attach unnecessary costs to each transaction. 

East St. Louis has not had a local planning department since the 1970s, and currently the city can only afford one staff person for all of the city’s economic and planning development activities. The surrounding communities have never had full-time planners nor economic and community development specialists, these localities lack capacity to effectively deal with the challenges of brownfield properties.

Despite this bleak picture, the people of East St. Louis and the collar communities have shown a tremendous will to address problems themselves. Many residents are actively involved in neighborhood revitalization, with local churches supporting and often leading improvement efforts. To date these communal actions have produced many ambitious plans and tangible but limited results such as: new infrastructure and housing investment, new learning and employment opportunities, and increased local government accountability. Irrespective of these accomplishments, East St. Louis and surrounding communities remains in a very deprived state.

Last updated on 8/15/2011
Action Research Illinois University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Fine and Applied Arts
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