#128 Mar/Apr 2003

Riding the Rails

For 30 years Ceola Davis has been an outreach worker for the Lessie Bates Davis House (no relation) in the Emerson Park neighborhood of East St. Louis, IL. In 1997, […]

For 30 years Ceola Davis has been an outreach worker for the Lessie Bates Davis House (no relation) in the Emerson Park neighborhood of East St. Louis, IL. In 1997, at the age of 60, she had her hands full: In addition to working full-time, she was raising four grandchildren. Nonetheless, her community was her passion. When she heard about plans by transportation officials to extend the region’s light rail system, she immediately thought about how it could benefit the city’s poorest residents.

I received an early morning call from her not long after. Davis tried to catch her breath as she explained how the BiState Development Council, the region’s major transportation planning agency, wanted to extend the MetroLink from downtown St. Louis, MO, through East St. Louis, IL, out near Scott Air Force Base in southwestern Illinois. Davis described how local residents, most of whom did not have private automobiles, could secure living-wage jobs in downtown St. Louis and at the airport if local officials could be convinced to use an abandoned industrial rail line that ran through East St. Louis’s poorest neighborhoods. Such development could promote private investment and would be minutes away by train from the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the TWA dome, Busch Stadium and Union Station. Davis asked me to work with her in recruiting architecture, engineering and planning faculty and students to assist local leaders in developing a compelling case for their proposed route.

Ceola Davis’s sense of urgency and opportunity were well placed. East St. Louis had experienced a dramatic decline over the last 40 years, a free fall that took it from “All-American City” to what federal housing officials called “the most distressed small city in America” by 1990.

The Faulty Crystal Ball

When the National Municipal League and Look Magazine proclaimed East St. Louis an “All American City” in 1957, the city’s bustling port, rail yards, stockyards and factories had produced a mostly unionized workforce with one of the highest employment rates and second highest industrial wages in Illinois. The vast majority of East St. Louis households were able to purchase single-family homes, which attracted more newcomers. City planners forecasted a population increase from 88,000 to 100,000 between 1960 and 1970. Local officials, confident in such predictions, aggressively pursued slum clearance, municipal infrastructure and civic building projects with funds provided by the Federal Urban Renewal Administration.

But the predictions proved to be tragically flawed. Changes in technology, combined with well-intentioned but ill-fated national housing and transportation policies, undermined the vitality of the local economy. The shift from rail to automobile and trucking following WWII eliminated thousands of well-paying jobs within the city’s transportation sector.

The number of firms operating in East St. Louis fell from 1,527 to 383 between 1967 and 1992. These business losses led to a reduction in the value of the city’s real estate tax base from $562 million to $162 million, forcing local leaders to increase property taxes to balance the municipal budget. When tax increases failed to close the city’s budget gap in the 1970s and 1980s, municipal services were cut. By the late 1980s, the city’s debt exceeded $80 million, prompting city officials to disband the planning department, halt municipal trash collections and delay contributions to city pension funds. Nonetheless, the city still failed to meet its payroll. Unemployment in East St. Louis soared from 10.5 percent to 24.6 percent, the poverty rate rose from 11 percent to 39.2 percent and the rate of female-headed households grew from 21 percent to 62 percent between 1960 and 1990. Many long-term residents began to abandon the city. Between 1960 and 1990, the city’s population fell from 88,000 to 43,000 while its percentage of African American residents jumped from 45 percent to 98 percent. By the late 1980s, the city’s mounting economic, social and fiscal problems prompted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to label East St. Louis as “the most distressed small city in America.” In September 1990, the city defaulted on a $3.4 million payment to an individual injured in the East St. Louis municipal jail. When a local judge attempted to satisfy this judgment by transferring the title to City Hall and 220 acres of abandoned riverfront property facing the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the city’s catastrophic fiscal problems made national headlines.

Emerson Park

Nowhere was the devastation more visible than in the older neighborhoods like Emerson Park, which surround the city’s business district and where most of the city’s poorest residents live.

Emerson Park is a sixty-block subdivision that was constructed between 1910 and 1920 to house workers who labored in the rail yards, meatpacking plants and smelters of nearby National City. As the area’s economy collapsed, Emerson Park homeowners left the area in droves. The neighborhood’s population fell from 5,600 to 2,040 between 1960 and 1990.

As local property values plummeted, local realtors and bankers began to view the neighborhood as an increasingly unstable residential area. Many long-time homeowners, unable to find a buyer who could secure conventional financing due to bank redlining, began to rent their homes. Over time, many of these rental units began to deteriorate when owners could not secure financing for modest home repairs. The lack of credit services, along with the growing number of absentee landlords, led to a sharp decline in the maintenance of many of the neighborhood’s rental properties. By the early 1980s, both tenants and owners abandoned the run-down properties in greater numbers. By 1990, approximately 30 percent of Emerson Park’s buildings were abandoned and nearly 40 percent of its building lots were vacant. Housing problems were complicated by poor access to public transportation, seriously deteriorating infrastructure and escalating street violence connected to illegal drug sales.

In the mid-1980s a small group of neighborhood women, led by Ceola Davis, came together to discuss creating an organization to rehabilitate their once-thriving neighborhood. Eager to break through the cynicism that many residents harbored regarding what they called “talking organizations,” the group decided to pick a highly visible physical improvement project to demonstrate the power of collective action: the construction of a playground where three abandoned buildings stood. The site was also located across from the Lessie Bates Davis Child Care Center, where many of their grandchildren were enrolled.

After petitioning the county for control of the three tax-delinquent properties, Davis and her neighbors mobilized dozens of unemployed workers to disassemble the buildings – and to salvage old lighting and bathroom fixtures, window and door frames, and bricks and copper wiring. These items were then sold for $2,000 to an architectural preservation dealer. Next, volunteers ran a Friday night chicken and fish fry until they raised $1,000. To obtain another $2,000, residents approached the corporate philanthropy department of the Ralston-Purina Company across the river in St. Louis, MO. With these resources, Davis and her neighbors transformed three eyesore properties into a park with sitting area, flowerbeds, a water fountain and a sign. Many years later, Shugue Park, named after a long-time neighborhood leader, remains a lovely open space maintained by the residents of the Emerson Park community.

Planning for the Future

Buoyed by the success of the playground, and encouraged by the staff of the Lessie Bates Davis House and Catholic Urban Ministries, residents established the Emerson Park Development Corporation (EPDC). In the summer of 1990, I joined the faculty in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and offered to assist EPDC in completing a comprehensive stabilization plan for their neighborhood. I worked with 11 students on archival research, physical surveys and resident interviews. More than 140 Emerson Park residents packed the auditorium that winter to hear EPDC’s leaders and my students present the elements of the Emerson Park Neighborhood Improvement Plan. Residents were enthusiastic about the plan’s youth development, crime prevention, commercial development, housing improvement and job training proposals. Their excitement about the plan was reinforced when their plan was selected the “Best Student Project Plan of 1991” by the American Institute of Certified Planners.

But community enthusiasm was soon tested when more than a dozen local housing and community development agencies refused to provide funding for any of the projects outlined in the plan. Undaunted, Davis challenged EPDC and its members to begin a clean up of 10 of the worst vacant lots, an important element of the plan. Within several weeks, more than 50 residents, assisted by more than 100 students, removed piles of trash, abandoned appliances and mounds of old tires from lots along N. 9th Street, Emerson Park’s main corridor. Everything was proceeding nicely until the organizers realized they had no way to transport the trash or pay landfill-tipping fees.

Davis recommended that we line the more than 900 bags of garbage up in two very neat piles along the side of the road. She knew that a high-ranking county official regularly traveled along this “county” road and that he would take immediate steps to remove the garbage. As we piled the last of the garbage bags along the shoulder of 9th Street in an act of minor civil disobedience, a camera crew from the local television station appeared to document the event. Shortly after the evening news broadcast the story (“East St. Louis Residents and University of Illinois Faculty Break Law to Save Neighborhood”), EPDC received a $15,000 check from a St. Louis foundation to continue the clean up. Although many of EPDC’s members were unemployed, they decided against hiring themselves. Instead, they volunteered throughout the summer to clean up more than 1,400 local lots and used the funds to rent the equipment needed to complete the task and to pay landfill-tipping fees.

Between 1991 and 1995, EPDC worked with students and faculty on more community development projects, such as establishing a community garden and helping elderly homeowners complete home repairs. Working with the state treasurer, EPDC designed and managed one of the state’s first “linked deposit” programs through which local lenders contributed funds to a low/no-interest revolving loan fund to finance more substantial home repairs. In 1994, EPDC worked with a group of area contractors, suburban churches, the Settlement House, Catholic Urban Ministries and the university to create a Faith-Based Affordable Family Housing Project, based upon the Habitat for Humanity model. Local volunteers and donations helped construct eight new homes in the neighborhood. Finally, EPDC received nearly $200,000 in Federal HOME funds from HUD to complete substantial repairs to the homes of eight low-income families.

Getting on Board

As we began to build our case for a MetroLink route that would better serve East St. Louis residents, transportation officials announced their proposal. Skeptical that East St. Louis residents, most of whom were not working, would use the light rail system, the planners proposed a route that would minimize the distance the train would operate within the city. Their route would operate at grade behind the playgrounds of the Katherine Dunham Center for Arts and Humanities, the East St. Louis Salvation Army and a local public elementary school.

But Davis was confident in the environmental, acquisition, public safety and economic development benefits of her plan. She organized more than 150 residents to attend an evening meeting with then Mayor Gordon Bush to discuss the route for the light rail line.

On a warm fall evening in 1997, the mayor took a seat in the middle of the packed auditorium as teams of graduate students presented archeological, environmental, engineering, economic, sociological and design data supporting the residents’ proposal. In an effort to rattle this seasoned politician, EPDC leaders had seated the mayor in a particularly uncomfortable chair, and the warm lights required for video production were placed above his head. After the presentation, the mayor thanked the community and student speakers and asked Davis if she had a preferred route. She responded by pulling a cord on the wall, which revealed a five-foot-wide map of the residents’ preferred route. After studying the map, the mayor voiced his support for the proposal. By doing so, the mayor denied a quick payday for a lot of investors and developers in the region who had a keen “intuition” about where the tracks might run – and who had snapped up property nearby.

Mayor Bush invited those present to attend the next city council meeting, where he promised to offer a resolution calling upon the BiState Development Corporation to adopt the residents’ plan. Several days later, more than one hundred Emerson Park residents and their supporters jammed the council chambers to see council members adopt a resolution calling on the regional transportation planning agency to realign the MetroLink route in accordance with the EPDC proposal.

The Parsons Place Project

In the days following this meeting, UIUC students, faculty and alumni worked with EPDC to obtain $200,000 in Illinois Industrial Development Authority funds to acquire key parcels in the area surrounding the site of the proposed Emerson Park rail station. When the BiState Development Corporation announced plans to adopt the residents’ alternate route following the city council vote, several major developers eager to acquire land near the Emerson Park rail station discovered that land assembly would be difficult without negotiating with EPDC.

While EPDC leaders were busy acquiring the land, I sought the opportunity to address a large group of St. Louis developers at a meeting sponsored by the Urban Land Institute and St. Louis University. I used my time at this meeting to describe the opportunity to enter into a joint partnership with EPDC to create a new mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-finance development in the area surrounding the Emerson Park Rail Station. Richard Baron, president of the McCormack-Baron and Associates, one of the region’s largest and most successful developers of affordable housing, asked me as I left the meeting if I would arrange a meeting for him with EPDC leaders.

At his meeting with EPDC, Baron described how he had long desired to create a new residential development in East St. Louis that would offer the best of modern infrastructure, excellent schools, high-quality housing and great access to regional business, employment and cultural centers. He told residents that he had studied their neighborhood plans and wanted to work with them to rebuild their neighborhood.

After meeting with the residents for several weeks, Baron flew several EPDC leaders to Texas to see some of his recent projects. Emerson Park residents were delighted by the high quality of the housing, the outstanding urban design and the educational facilities. Several weeks after the tour, Baron and his staff returned to Emerson Park to discuss a $24.6 million residential project, featuring a central park, 174 units of rental housing, 50 homeowner units, and an after-school study center. The design of the Parsons Place Project featured all of the infrastructure, open space, housing and child development proposals from EPDC’s 1991 and 1998 plans. In addition, Baron agreed to share a portion of the project’s development fees with EPDC so that it could expand its own planning and design staff. Finally, Baron agreed to work with EPDC, the Lessie Bates Davis Settlement House, the State Community College, the UIUC School of Architecture, and the Carpenters and Joiners Union of the AFL-CIO to pursue a $1 million YouthBuild Grant from HUD so that long-term unemployed adults living in the community could be trained in the construction trades on the Parsons Place construction site.

Working together throughout 1998 and 1999, McCormack-Baron and EPDC were able to raise the funds needed to complete the Parsons Place Project and to secure the zoning approvals and building permits needed to complete this project. Between 2000 and 2001, nearly 225 units of new market-rate and affordable housing were constructed in Emerson Park. All of these units were successfully marketed, and the project achieved full occupancy in record time. With the first phase of the Parsons Place Project successfully completed, local leaders, McCormack-Baron and Associates representatives and municipal officials are working on plans for a second phase of the project, which will bring the total number of new rental units to 400 and for-sale housing to 100.

As construction proceeded on the Parsons Place Project, the BiState Development Corporation began construction on the East St. Louis segment of the MetroLink. Shortly after the groundbreaking ceremony, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation announced plans to construct a $13 million state-of-the-art youth recreational, educational and cultural center on land adjacent to the Parsons Place Project and the 15th Street/Emerson Park Rail Station. Shortly after the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center began operations, the 15th Street/Emerson Park Station opened, enabling dozens of neighborhood residents to gain access to living wage jobs in downtown East St. Louis and near the St. Louis International Airport. The MetroLink Station also gave children and families throughout the region access to this world-class recreational facility made possible by an Olympian who never forgot her roots in East St. Louis. In 2002, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, in cooperation with EPDC, the City of East St. Louis and the University of Illinois, held their first regional conference on community-based planning and development at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Development Center.

As an invited conference speaker, I had the pleasure of taking the MetroLink from downtown St. Louis to the center. When I arrived at the train platform at 8:30 in the morning, I encountered more than 30 Emerson Park residents waiting to take the train to work and school – a sight that was inconceivable to the planners who had initially designed the system but easily imagined by Ceola Davis and her friends who successfully fought to have the train stop in their neighborhood.


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