by Michael R. Allen
The new Mississippi River Bridge entails construction of an extension of I-70 that will run parallel to St. Clair Avenue in East St. Louis. As part of this project, much of the National City Stockyards in East St. Louis will be demolished. While the abandoned Armour and Hunter packing plants will not be disturbed, the landmark concrete stock pens will be gone forever by year’s end. The flip side is that the Illinois Department of Transportation will be conducting archaeological work on the site that will help us learn more about the history of the stockyards.
Yesterday, I led a group of sixth graders from the College School on a tour of East St. Louis. We stopped at the stockyards, and got out of the bus to look inside the long cattle pen shown above. A security guard ushered us away, and told teacher John Colbert that we should leave because the pens were about to be demolished. In fact, we were there precisely because the pens will be demolished, removing the chance for future generations to physically connect with an important part of St. Louis’ industrial past as well as a lost system of food production. While I am not prepared to strongly advocate for saving any of the ruins of the stockyards, yesterday’s tour led me to wonder how any of the sixth graders will explain what they saw to their children. Will they drive on the I-70 connector and explain that once upon a time they stood in cattle pens on that site? Will their children care about a history that has no living physical embodiment?