East St. Louis, Illinois Explained

East St. Louis is a city located in St. Clair County, Illinois, USA, directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. As of the 2000 census, the city had a total population of 31,542, less than half its peak in 1959. Like many larger industrial cities, it was severely affected by loss of jobs in the restructuring of the railroad industry and deindustrialization of the Rust Belt in the second half of the 20th century.

One of the highlights of the city's waterfront is the Gateway Geyser, the tallest fountain in the United States. Designed to complement the Gateway Arch across the river in St. Louis, it raises water to a height of 630feet, the same height as the arch. It is part of the redevelopment of the waterfront.


Native Americans long inhabited both sides of the Mississippi River at this point. Mound builders of the Mississippian culture constructed mounds at what became St. Louis and East St. Louis, as well as the large settlement of Cahokia to the north of East St. Louis near present day Collinsville, Illinois.

East St. Louis lays within the American Bottoms area of the present day Metro-East area of St. Louis, Missouri.

After European settlement, East St. Louis' original name was "Illinoistown."[1]

Several destructive tornadoes have hit East St. Louis, the deadliest being the St. Louis-East St. Louis Tornado of 1896 which killed at least 255, injured over 1000, and incurred an estimated $2.9 billion in damages (1997 USD).[2]

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the St. Louis commune

A period of extensive industrial growth followed the American Civil War. In the expansion, many businessmen became overextended in credit, and a major economic collapse followed the Panic of 1873. This was due to railroad and other manufacturing expansion, land speculation and general business optimism caused by large profits from inflation. The economic recession began in the East and steadily moved west, severely crippling the railroads, the main system of transportation. In response to the difficulties, railroad companies began dramatically lowering workers' wages, forcing employees to work without pay, and cutting jobs and the amount of paid work hours. These wage cuts and additional money-saving tactics used by the industry prompted strikes and unrest on a massive scale.

While most of the strikes in the eastern cities during 1877 were accompanied by violence and mayhem, the late July 1877 St. Louis strike was marked by a bloodless, efficient and quick take-over by dissatisfied workers of commerce and transportation in the area. By July 22, the St. Louis Commune began to take shape as representatives from almost all the railroad lines met in East St. Louis. They soon elected an executive committee to command the strike and issued General Order No. 1, halting all railroad traffic other than passenger and mail trains. John Bowman, the mayor of East St. Louis, was appointed arbitrator of the committee. He helped the committee select special police to guard the property of the railroads from damage. The strike and the new de facto workers' government, while given encouragement by the largely German-American Workingmen's Party and the Knights of Labor (two key players in the organization of the Missouri general strike), were run by no organized labor group.

The strike reached the business sector by closing packing industry houses surrounding the National Stockyards. At one plant, workers allowed processing of 125 cattle in return for 500 cans of beef for the workers. The strike continued to gain momentum, with different regions and workers asking to join in. Though the East St. Louis strike continued in an orderly fashion, across the river there were isolated incidents of violence. Harry Eastman, the East St. Louis workers' representative, addressed the mass of employees: "Go home to your different wards and organize your different unions, but don't keep coming up here in great bodies and stirring up excitement. Ask the Mayor, as we did, to close up all the saloons... keep sober and orderly, and when you are organized, apply to the United Workingmen for orders. Don't plunder ... don't interfere with the railroads here ... let us attend to that".

On July 28 the strike was peacefully ended when US troops took over the Relay Depot, the Commune's command center.[3]

The East St. Louis riots of 1917

See main article: East St. Louis Riot. East St. Louis in 1917 had a strong industrial economy boosted by World War I. Many workers entered the military and the other workers that were left went on strike. The war prevented immigration from Europe. Major companies recruited black migrants from the South to work at the Aluminum Ore Company and the American Steel Company. They were available because the US Army initially rejected many black volunteers in the years before an integrated military.[4] Resentment on both sides and the arrival of new workers created fears for job security and raised social tensions. At a white labor meeting on May 28, men traded rumors of black men's and white women's fraternizing. Three thousand white men left the meeting and headed as a mob for the downtown, where they randomly attacked black men on the street. They destroyed buildings and physically attacked people, but no one was killed. The governor called in National Guard to prevent further rioting, but rumors continued to circulate about an organized retaliation from the blacks.

On July 1, 1917, a black man attacked a white man. Whites drove by shooting in retaliation. When police came to investigate, the black attacker proceeded to fire on the police and wounded at least one. The next morning, thousands of white spectators marched into the black section of town. The rioters burned entire sections of the city and shot blacks as they escaped the flames. They also lynched several blacks.

Although the governor had called in the National Guard to try to control the situation, several accounts reported that they joined in the rioting. The mob included "ten or fifteen white women, [who] chased a negro woman at the Relay Depot in broad daylight. The girls were brandishing clubs and calling upon the men to kill the woman." 2 The woman was a known prostitute frequented by white men.


East St. Louis was named an All-America City in 1959, having retained prosperity through the decade as its population reached a peak of 82,295 residents. Through the 1950s and later, the city's musicians were an integral creative force in blues, rock and roll and jazz. Some left and achieved national recognition, like Ike and Tina Turner. Many were featured on the PBS series River of Song in 1999, covering music of cities along the Mississippi River.

The city was dramatically affected by mid-century deindustrialization and restructuring. As a number of local factories began to close because of changes in industry, the railroad and meatpacking industries also were cutting back and moving jobs out of the region. This led to a precipitous loss of working and middle-class jobs. The city's financial conditions deteriorated. Elected in 1951, Mayor Alvin Fields resorted to ill-judged funding procedures to try to buy the city out of its financial morass. The scheme increased the city's bonded indebtedness and the property tax rate. More businesses closed as workers left the area to seek jobs in other regions. Crime increased as a result of poverty and lack of opportunities. The city is also left with expensive clean-up of brownfields, areas with environmental contamination by heavy industry that makes redevelopment more difficult.

Street gangs such as the War Lords, Black Egyptians, 29th Street Stompers and Hustlers appeared in city neighborhoods. Like other cities with endemic problems by the 1960s, East St. Louis suffered riots in the latter part of the decade. In September 1967, rioting occurred in the city's South End. Also, in the summer of 1968, a still-unsolved series of sniping attacks took place. These events contributed to residential mistrust and adversely affected the downtown retail base and the city's income.

Construction of freeways and urban sprawl contributed to East St. Louis' decline as well. The freeways cut through and broke up existing neighborhoods and community networks. The freeways also made it easier for residents to commute back and forth from suburban homes, so more were inclined to move to newer housing. East St. Louis adopted a number of programs to try to reverse decline — the Model Cities program, the Concentrated Employment Program and Operation Breakthrough. The programs were not enough to offset the industrial restructuring.

In 1971, James Williams was elected as the city's first black mayor. Faced with overwhelming economic problems, he was unable to stop the city's decline and depopulation. By the election of Carl Officer as mayor (the youngest in the country at that time at age 25) in 1979, many said the city had nowhere to go but up, yet things grew worse. Middle-class whites and African Americans left the city. People who could get jobs simply went to where there was work and decent quality of life. Because the city had to cut back on maintenance, sewers failed and garbage pickup ceased. Police cars often did not work, and neither did their radios. The East St. Louis Fire Department went on strike in the 1970s.

Before Gordon Bush was elected mayor in 1991, the state imposed a financial advisory board to manage the city in exchange for a financial bailout. State legislative approval in 1990 of riverboat gambling and the installation of the Casino Queen riverboat casino provided the first new source of income for the city in nearly 30 years.

The past decade can be characterized as one of redevelopment and renewal. In 2001 the city completed a new library. It also built a new city hall. Public-private partnerships have resulted in a variety of new retail developments, housing initiatives, and the St. Louis Metrolink light rail, which have sparked renewal. Access to the Metrolink from the East Side has become a controversy in the Saint Louis Metro Area, as a 2008 article in the Riverfront Times stated that it has resulted in skyrocketing crime rates on the west side of the River in affluent suburbs. [5]

The city, now small in terms of population, is still one of the prime examples of drastic urban blight in the country. Sections of "urban prairie" can be found where vacant buildings were torn down and whole blocks became overgrown with vegetation. As East St. Louis has suffered from white flight and disinvestment for many years already, much of the territory surrounding the city remains undeveloped to this day, bypassed for growth in more affluent suburban areas. Thus, many old, "inner city" neighborhoods abut large swaths of corn and soybean fields or otherwise vacant land. In addition to agricultural uses, a number of truck stops, strip clubs, and other semi-rural businesses surround blighted areas in the city as well.

An incident occurred in August 2008 at a RoCorp chemical plant in the city that caused the spillage of a toxic white powder that seriously sickened several people and caused at least two area emergency rooms to be quarantined and locked down; it was not a terrorist incident or a release of anthrax, but an accident from ordinary nitroaniline.[6]

Famous natives or residents

Registered historic places

East St. Louis in popular culture



East St. Louis is located at 38°36'56" North, 90°7'40" West (38.615550, -90.127825).

Web site: States Census Bureau] US Gazetteer files: 2010, 2000, and 1990]. 2011-04-23. 2011-02-12.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 14.4 square miles (37.4 km²), of which, 14.1 square miles (36.4 km²) of it is land and 0.4 square miles (1.0 km²) of it is water. The total area is 2.56% water.

East St. Louis usually experiences cold winters and warm summers. On July 14, 1954 the temperature at East Saint Louis unexpectedly rose to 117 °F (48 °C), the highest temperature ever recorded in Illinois.


East St. Louis has one of the highest crime rates in the United States. According to FBI's data of 2006, its murder rate hit 83.8 per population of 100,000, surpassing that of cities such as Compton, California (40.4 per pop. 100,000), Gary, Indiana (48.3 per pop. 100,000), New Orleans, Louisiana (37.6 per pop. 100,000), Richmond, Virginia (38.8), Baltimore, Maryland (43.3), Camden, New Jersey (40.0), Detroit, Michigan (47.3), and Washington, D.C. (29.1), as well as that of its neighbor St. Louis (37.2). FBI data also shows East St. Louis' high rate of rape, which exceeded 250 per population of 100,000.

East Saint Louis and Opa Locka, Florida have the highest crime rates in the United States (Opa Locka had the absolute highest crime rate in 2003 and 2004 for cities of any population.)

The following table shows East St. Louis' crime rate in 6 crimes that Morgan Quitno uses for their calculation for "America's most dangerous cities" ranking, in comparison to the national average:[8] Year: 2006 number of crimes per 100,000.

CrimeEast Saint LouisNational Average
Automobile Theft2,067.5526.5


East St. Louis is home to four St. Louis MetroLink stations; East Riverfront, 5th & Missouri, Emerson Park, and JJK Center.


As of the census

Web site: States Census Bureau] American FactFinder]. 2008-01-31. of 2000, there were 31,542 people, 11,178 households, and 7,668 families residing in the city. The population density is 2,242.9 people per square mile (866.2/km²). There are 12,899 housing units at an average density of 917.2/sq mi (354.2/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 97.39% African-American, 0.38% White, 1.34% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 0.30% from other races, and 0.52% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.88% of the population.

There are 11,178 households out of which 33.2% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 21.9% are married couples living together, 40.6% have a female householder with no husband present, and 31.4% are non-families. 27.8% of all households are made up of individuals and 10.4% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.80 and the average family size is 3.42.

In the city the population is spread out with 32.8% under the age of 18, 9.7% from 18 to 24, 24.6% from 25 to 44, 20.3% from 45 to 64, and 12.5% who are 65 years of age or older. The median age is 31 years. For every 100 females there are 81.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there are 72.5 males.

The median income for a household in the city is $21,324, and the median income for a family is $24,567. Males have a median income of $27,864 versus $21,850 for females. The per capita income for the city is $11,169. 35.1% of the population and 31.8% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total population, 48.6% of those under the age of 18 and 25.2% of those 65 and older are living below the poverty line.


The city is served by the East St. Louis School District 189 http://www.estlouis.stclair.k12.il.us/.

All residents are zoned to East St. Louis High School.


External links

Notes and References

  1. Web site: Alumnus' book highlights history of East St. Louis. 2007-07-25. Meier, Jenee. Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville Alestle.
  2. http://www.illinois.com/details/city.php?cityFips=1722255 East St. Louis: Description, Illinois.com
  3. http://www.riverweb.uiuc.edu/IBEX/IDOT/idot23.htm
  4. http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/integrate/CHRON3.html A Chronology of African American Military Service: From WWI through WWII
  5. Web site: "Out-of-control shoplifting at the St. Louis Galleria. Violent attacks in the Delmar Loop. Is MetroLink a vehicle for crime?". 2008-11-27.,
  6. Web site: "East St. Louis mayor: No further cause for concern about chemical spill" Belleville News-Democrat On-Line. 2008-09-01.,
  7. Web site: Birth of a Nation. 2007-07-25. McElhattan, Greg. ReadAboutComics.com. 2004-08-05.
  8. http://www.city-data.com/city/East-St.-Louis-Illinois.html City-Data.com