Feb 12, 2010

East St Louis

Friday (day 5)

I Broke Down In East St Louis, the Kansas city line...
Train Song, is my favourite song on my all time favourite album. I bought Franks Wild Years by Tom Waits in 1985. I was on a day trip, to Liverpool of all places, with a girl called Nicola Clark who broke my heart on at least three occasions. I had no idea where St Louis was at that time and until recently I didn't know that East St Louis is a separate city from St Louis. It's just across the Mississippi river, but it's separate. It's even in a different state - Illinois rather than Missouri. I just assumed East St Louis was the Eastern part of St Louis, like the East End of London is still London. What was also lost on me was that East St Louis is not the sort of place you want to break down in.

East St Louis has one of the highest crime rates in the United States. According to the FBI's data of 2007, its murder rate hit 101.9 per population of 100,000 which is far worse than other notoriously dangerous cities. If you've seen the TV show The Wire you'll know that Baltimore, Maryland is often referred to as Bodymore, Murderland because of its high murder rate. Well Baltimore's murder rate (43.3) is just over 40% of East St Louis's. The population of East St Louis is 98% African American, so it's no surprise to learn that it's poor. Nearly a third of the residents live below the poverty line and poverty leads to crime and crime plus guns equals murder. So for those who know, East St Louis is shorthand for "Don't Go There Whitey" and most Americans do know and that's why it crops up in songs and movies and TV shows.

Well I really wanted to see some of it for myself. I didn't plan on going at night and I didn't plan of staying in town but after scoping out the look of the place on Google Maps street view I thought it didn't look too bad. And because there's a famous Casino there called Casino Queen, which has the awesome tag line "The Loosest Slots" (fnaar, fnaar) and was the subject of a song on Wilco's first record. It's also got a few strip bars and I was starting to think it was one of those places that people think are worse than they are. Sure it was going to be a bit sleazy but not dangerous. In the mid 90s I lived in Brixton in South London for a while and quite a few folks (always white) thought I was brave. Of course it was just nonsense and Brixton was fine. I reckoned East St Louis would be the same.

But OMG East St Louis scared the living shit out of us. I have never seen as blighted a place as that. Carol's seen slums in India and I've seen a slum in Pakistan but East St Louis was frightening. In fact you can't really compare the two. Because for all the poverty in Asia, it's not like that in these poor places in America. There are cars in East St Louis, sure many of them are wrecks but there are some big cars too. And no doubt lots of consumer goods like TVs in the houses. But just as surely there are guns too and that's what scares us Brits. And it's far worse than those Baltimore streets in The Wire. It's all detached houses, though many of them look like shacks, and in the 15 or so blocks we saw there were at least 10 burnt out houses. In the yards of some houses there were numerous big mean-looking dogs, and looking down some forsaken streets we saw guys pushing shopping carts just like Bubs in The Wire.

What made the trip even scarier was we ended up there by mistake. We'd just been to see the Cahokian Mounds and were on our way to Sauget. Both are really interesting places that I only learnt about from Uncle Tupelo songs. Sauget is a village of less than 300 residents but it has been blighted by some really big, bad, polluting industry. And the Cahokian Mounds are the remnant of an ancient civilisation that died out in the area in 1400. The biggest mound there was the largest man-made structure in North America until the 20th century. It's a World Heritage site and curiously unknown or uncared for by Americans. But we didn't make it to Sauget because the TomTom satnav took us through East St Louis. And not the part with the strip clubs. As we got further and further into the residential area and the neighbourhood was getting worse and worse, the satnav kept directing us down roads that just didn't really exist anymore. These parts, I have since learned are called "urban prairie" and they spring up where where vacant buildings have been torn down and whole blocks became overgrown with vegetation. I started trying to navigate by sight but every turn just seemed to make things worse. In the end I had to do a 5-point turn (it's a big truck) and head back towards the highway which took us to Casino Queen and there we sat coming down off the fear inspired adrenalin rush.

If you check this Google map out, you'll see that they didn't sent the Street View cars down the residential side streets.

View Larger Map

So back to Tom. And you really don't want to be like the hero of Train Song, the eponymous Frank of the album title. East St Louis is the last place you want to break down in. It's rock bottom and you'll want to go back home. But as Tom says a train can take you away from here but a train can't bring you home. That line always moved me. It seems to express a sentiment that lies at the root of many American place songs. The pull of the frontier can create a yearning that can lead you astray. And you only realise what home was after you left it.

What's really depressing though is that East St Louis is home to many. And having seen it I'm ashamed for America and for the whole of the western world the the systems we live by. East St Louis has been a hell hole for years and very little has been done to save it. As Detective Bunk says in The Wire "Some shameful shit right here."


  1. Dear Sir or Madam:

    I found your post incredibly interesting. It was really neat to see what an foreinger (at least I gather you are from England?) thinks of ESL. I am also an outsider to the city, at least natively. I'm from South Carolina, but my wife and I moved here a year ago to work and live in East St. Louis. You're probably asking why--but you already answered that question with you experience today. There is certainly a lot of need in the city, resulting from over a century of injustice and oppression. So, while I could spend time telling you about the assets of our city and how there really are a lot of good people in it, most importantly I want you to know that it is indeed possible for whites to come into a city that is entirely (not just 98%) African-American and not only make a positive impact, but be accepted in doing so.

    In reading your post I was not offended, but encouraged to keep laboring for the good of our city. We love it here in spite of all the things you saw and felt. You were "spot on" in your observations and what you felt is truly common. And I love what you essentially said: "Shame on white America for creating this and enabling it, and for turning its back on it since 1970." Just know that not all White America is running and not looking back. We are fighting with the residents who still have hope for our city!

    Shane Fast
    Rebirth: East St. Louis

    1. You people are so stupid it is CRIMINAL. 'White' America did NOT create these ghettos, JEWs did! They have white skin but are far from being human, of any color! EVERYTHING you learned in school is BS, and it is designed to keep you STUPID. It looks like it has worked to a TEE! JEWS owned 75% of the slave ships. They brought the blacks here and PROFITED from it like they always do, then shift the blame to white people. SO MANY IDIOTS, SO LITTLE TIME!

  2. Thank you for commenting Shane. And I sincerely wish you the best in your work. I figure I only saw the very worst parts... Alorton looked bad enough when we drove through that then it just got worse. I felt guilty for getting afraid in those streets. And saddened too. I kept thinking about the Katrina telethon and Kanye West's comments about George Bush not caring about black people.

  3. You shouldn't feel guilty, most people are too scared of stereotypes to even drive in this area. It's crazy what the media has done to exacerbate this situation, but as you saw there is still certainly a devastating reality. I guess I just wanted to encourage you that there is optimism and hope here!

    Kind of jealous of your trip--must be an amazing experience!

    1. The 'media'=JEWS. Wake up or STFU! Sheeeeesh.....

  4. I'm glad to hear what you're saying Shane. Thinking about it now, that makes sense. Amidst the wrecked looking houses there were houses that were clearly being kept well. Good luck to them folks and to you.