East St. Louis has been portrayed to the American people as a nightmare for years, but I’ve always found it far more sad and interesting than horrifying. Obviously, anyone taking the time to actually visit it (and few do) cannot help but notice the widespread abandonment and dilapidation of so many buildings and houses, and most people attach the stigma of that to the people who still live there, largely African-American. The scholar Andrew Thiesing produced a remarkably well-written and well-researched book called Made In The USA which thoroughly refutes that common view, outlining in detail the way corrupt government prior to the 1960’s and the machinations of big industry conspired to put the East Side in the shape it is today, but few Americans would probably take the time to read such a work, readable though it is. So mainstream media has largely contributed to a view of East St. Louis as extremely violent and dangerous, which not only keeps away any tourists, but also potential redevelopers and investors, and that despite the fact that large areas of the old city have beautiful views of the Gateway Arch.
Of course, if anyone actually gets off the interstate, what they are likely to notice more than anything is the sense of emptiness. East St. Louis was built for a population of 80,000, and only about 20,000 actually live there, so the city has the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town on most days, as it did on the Tuesday I was there. I headed down to 15th and Broadway, an intersection that had been the center of the city’s Black community in Miles Davis’ day (yes, he was from East St. Louis), but the intersection today, adjacent to the Orr-Weathers projects, doesn’t look like much of the center of anything. What hasn’t been torn down is largely vacant. But what caught my eye was two beautiful murals that I assume were painted by youths from the nearby projects. Amid the drab surroundings, these stood out, and what they told me was that there is a determination in the young people of East St. Louis that cannot be extinguished by poverty or hardship or even racism. To stand for any length of time and look at these works of art is to understand that talent abounds in places like the East Side. If we as a society squander it, the stigma should be attached to us, not these young people. (I took these pictures on Tuesday, May 13. One of the murals was on the wall of the Broadway Market at 15th and Broadway which I understand since has burned to the ground. I’m glad I got these pictures before that happened).