With a cool spring breeze and great jazz on the truck radio, I found myself driving through East St. Louis last night. I don't mean driving on the highway, either -- I came in from the south through Rush City on 19th Street, headed east on Bond Avenue, north on 17th Street, east on Broadway until I was on the Eads Bridge headed back home. This was around 6:30 p.m., and already the sun had set to make way for a charcoal night sky.
While it was dark out, East St. Louis was very dark. There are several reasons, but foremost is the lack of remaining occupied houses. The loss of buildings has meant the loss of life and light, factors that keep a neighborhood from feeling like a ghost town after nightfall. There is also the lack of adequate street lighting that enhances the feeling that one is not in a city but some other ethereal place not quite settled enough to be a city but too populated to be a rural area.
As I drove north on industrial 17th street, where almost every building, factory and lot is abandoned and there are few streetlights, I glanced eastward. There I saw the St. Louis skyline glimmering as if no ghost town at all stood just to the east. I had a strange feeling, and felt vulnerable.
No, I did not fear any trouble at human hands. I felt a worse fear -- that East St. Louis is something that has life only in the past and death in the future. The present moment is thus a terrible recognition.
Of what? Perhaps the painful conclusion that just east of my city another city may be effectively dead -- but still inhabited by people who need jobs, schools and city services that a dead city cannot provide.