by Michael R. Allen
The Arch design competition winner has leaked this week, and that means we have some glimpse at what the East St. Louis waterfront could look like in five years. Yet more immediate, less hopeful news arrived this week too: KTVI television reports that there have been three suspicious fires at abandoned buildings in East St. Louis in a two-hour span early today. The fires were at a house the 600 block of 22nd Street, a building at 14th and Cleveland and a building in the 12-hundred block of Missouri burned.
The house in the 1200 block of Missouri Avenue is at left in the following photograph.
Meanwhile, back at the start of this month, the state Financial Advisory Authority voted unanimously to seize all state revenues in East St. Louis. Such revenues include all of the state gambling taxes from the Casino Queen, which comprise 50% of the revenues of the city. The Authority will now control at least half of the city’s budget, a move some say has long been needed. Whatever the politics, the effect is that a struggling city government is put further at risk of not being able to survive.
Yet amid this period of turmoil, a major design competition concluded that had half of its land area inside of East St. Louis. Even submissions that did not address the urbanized parts of East St. Louis all had elaborate plans for the east riverfront. Whatever gets built will be a bigger moment for East St. Louis in some ways, because it will be create a master plan for the riverfront and a totally new major metropolitan park.
What does that park mean for an East St. Louis with struggling finances, arrested revenue and massive abandonment? We will find out. If it means that a new park isolated from the city is built and business as usual continues to push the historic second city of the metropolitan area into the ground of history, then the region will be worse off. We can ignore East St. Louis at our own risk, and at the risk of the forthcoming investment in the riverfront.
As for the spate of fires, I can think of nothing more sad for the city at this time. The television report quotes from a neighbor of one of the burned abandoned houses, who says the house needed to go. He reported that bodies had been dumped there. That opinion is a micro version of the regional attitude toward the physical fabric of East St. Louis, and is based in despair. A hopeful mind could envision something greater than removal of the city bit by bit, or in large swaths. East St. Louis residents have more of a right than St. Louisans to see despair in the old great city, but neither of us should let the hope extinguish. The design competition and the radical change to city government ought to spark a revolution in East St. Louis.
One more reason — and a big one at that — for a revolution: next year, 2011, is the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of East St. Louis. In 1861, dusty Illinoistown grew up and became East St. Louis. The new name started a period of explosive growth and massive industrial development. St. Louis would never have become the major city that it did without the workshops of its neighbor across the river. East St. Louis would reach a population over 82,000 in 1960 before beginning massive decline, but it retains a central position in the region. Its anniversary provides a crucial occasion to imagine its next life. The entire region should seize the opportunity. After all, never was East St. Louis fully a creature of Illinois, and never will it be again. At the least, the City+Arch+River 2015 Foundation does not think so.