East St. Louis is a legendary American city, for all the wrong reasons. Those three words conjure up thoughts of extreme poverty, extreme crime, and danger, sometimes perceived, and sometimes very real. It wasn’t always that way, to hear some locals talk. Others will tell you it was always that way.
In its prime, East St Louis was the place you went because if you couldn’t get a job there, you couldn’t get a job anywhere. And after the late 1960s, it became the place you stayed when you had no other options, but how it became that is something of a geographic and historical accident.
Why is East St. Louis in Illinois?
Capitalization makes a difference. East St Louis, with a capital e, is a city in Illinois. No one calls the Eastern part of St Louis Missouri east St Louis, but make no mistake, the border between Missouri and Illinois is the Mississippi River, and more than just the river separates the two sides of the Metro area.
There is a connotation to the words the east side, and that connotation isn’t new. It dates back to before the time of the railroads. Anything St Louis didn’t want to deal with got pushed across the river, safely outside the jurisdiction of the big city.
Why did Missouri have the upper hand? Simply because Missouri had the higher ground. The terrain on the Missouri side was higher, and therefore less prone to flooding. It was a safer place to build a city.
East St Louis didn’t ask to be called East St Louis. The locals called it Illinois City, or Illinoistown. But when the railroads headed west, they stopped at the banks of the Mississippi River. There was no bridge crossing the river yet. And the low, flat terrain accommodated the railroads well. It was the natural place for the eastern railroads to stop.
The railroads called the place East St Louis. The name stuck.
The east side
The Illinois suburbs were always a convenient dumping ground for anything St Louis, or the rest of Missouri, didn’t want to deal with. Missouri had bars and nightclubs, but there were limits on what could go on inside and how late they could be open, how early they could open, and whether they could be open on Sunday. As a result, East St Louis, and east side in general collectively, developed a reputation as an area where vice thrived. “Vice” had a loose definition. It meant anything from prostitution to whatever the current generation called “the devil’s music,” be it jazz, blues, or rock’n’roll. And everything in between.
For East St. Louis, the taverns and night clubs provided a source of tax revenue and kept vacancies down. When a grocery store built a newer, bigger location, the old one could become a night club.
The Manhattan Club, at 1312 Broadway, featured Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm. Their archrivals, Sir John’s Trio, featured a young Chuck Berry on guitar at the Cosmopolitan Club, a converted grocery store at 1644 Bond Avenue. The Manhattan Club burned in 2010. The Cosmo Club was demolished in the 1990s. Ike and Tina Turner met at the Manhattan Club. Although St. Louis claims all three, they all made a name in East St. Louis first.
Was East St. Louis always poor?
If you ask around enough, you can find people who remember a time when East St Louis wasn’t poor. And that’s true. During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, East St Louis did comparatively well, developing a middle class during those years.
The actress Candy Toxton, who married the jazz/pop singer Mel Tormé and, later, the game show host Hal March, grew up in East St. Louis. She wasn’t born there. She and her family moved there. The idea that someone would move to East St. Louis, grow up there, move to New York, become a model and actress, appear in six films in the late 1940s, date Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey and marry two other celebrities seems both ludicrous yet somehow possible when you look at what remains of the city today. You can tell from looking at the downtown area that East St. Louis wasn’t built to be a slum. Lower middle class maybe, but not a slum.
As late as 1960, East St. Louis was a viable medium sized city. Its population in the 2020 census was 18,000 people, down from 27,000 in 2010. Its population peaked in 1950 at 82,366. In 1960, the year after the National Civic League and Look magazine gave it the All America City Award, it had 81,728 residents. Video of the celebratory parade down State Street shows a vibrant commercial district, with an A&P Grocery and Amoco service station in plain view.
But even in 1960 there were warning signs. In 1957, Alcoa closed its aluminum plant. In 1959, Armour closed its meatpacking plant. Efforts to modernize slowed the tide but couldn’t stop it.
And that window during the middle of the 20th century was the exception more than the rule. Even during the 1920s, when the rest of the country boomed, East St Louis was one of the poorest cities in the United States.
So even though there were nationally known celebrities with East St Louis roots and a number of local politicians were born and raised in East St Louis, that time period was the exception, not the rule.
Why is East St. Louis so poor today?
The short answer is, it was built to be poor. There was a period of time for about 30 years when it had a viable middle class or even upper middle class, but East St Louis is poor for the same reason other Midwestern company towns became poor. East St Louis was a company town with a catch.
Don’t think of East St Louis as a city so much as a business decision, or a series of business decisions. It was not a community that built up organically the way a conventional city does. And it wasn’t even always called East St Louis. It used to be Illinois town, a small community in the floodplain of the Mississippi River. The city of St Louis is on the Missouri side because the Missouri side was higher, and less prone to flooding. Geographically, it was a better place to build a city.
But in 1857, the railroads came. There was no bridge across the Mississippi. So the line ended at a spot on the map that the railroads called East St Louis.
The company town with a cruel twist
The founder of East St Louis was a man named John Bowman. And when he petitioned the state to form the new community, he didn’t call it what the locals called it. He called it what the railroads called it. East St Louis. He saw an opportunity and he intended to cash it in. Illinois had a lot of natural resources in the area, including coal, iron ore, and bauxite. It would be cheaper to process those raw materials in Illinois rather than ship them across the river to Missouri. Illinois also had ample supplies of livestock.
But when he tried to persuade industries to come to East St Louis, the industries played hardball. They were willing to build factories and plants, but they didn’t want to build inside the city limits. They wanted to build right outside the city limits, where East St Louis didn’t have jurisdiction, and so they wouldn’t have to pay taxes.
The result was National City, a suburb of East St Louis, and home to what was, for a time, the largest stockyard in the country. But it was its own entity, with just the minimum number of residents required to legally meet the definition of a city, but nowhere near enough housing for the thousands of workers the stockyard would require. The majority of the workers lived in East St Louis, and commuted to National City.
Similarly, when Alcoa built its aluminum plant, they built it outside the city limit, and called the place Alorton.
East St Louis is poor today partly because it never overcame this disadvantage.
The corrosive effect
Company towns were always a one-sided deal, in favor of the company that was providing employment. But under this arrangement, you had several companies building facilities outside the city limits, bringing workers in to populate the city in the middle of all of it, but with less social burden. For example, the company town of Gary, Indiana, had a YMCA. It gave the workers a place to go after work that was healthier and more wholesome than hanging out in a tavern.
East St Louis never got a YMCA. The residents wanted one, but they were never able to get all of the employers to pool enough money to build one. For most of its existence, the workers had a hard time getting much of anything out of the industrialists, besides long hours and low pay. As infamous as Gary, Indiana is, East St Louis was built to be worse.
There was a reason why the industrialists did everything on the cheap. The industries that came to East St Louis were all extremely low margin. We’re talking a fraction of a percent. When the meat packing plants processed an animal worth several hundred dollars, their profit was 59 cents. They made their money on volume. That meant working around the clock, 7 days a week. Each plant needed thousands of unskilled employees to provide enough labor to keep the plants running.
Eastern European labor
Companies recruited peasant labor from Eastern Europe. The promise was steady work, steadier than what they had where they were, and free passage to the land of opportunity. Thousands took the industrialists up on the offer. The catch was each wave of laborers came from a different country. Since they all spoke different languages, it was difficult for them to organize.
That lasted a couple of generations. Eventually, a bit of a labor movement established itself, but then World War I happened. World war I cut off the supply of Eastern European labor.
African American labor
With no ability to import Eastern European labor, the industrialists looked south, and started recruiting African American laborers from the American South. When the organized labor would go on strike, plant managers would break the strike with African American workers. This caused racial tension. And in 1917, it led to a race riot. It started with a car driving through an African American neighborhood and firing shots, and before long the neighborhood was on fire. By some contemporary accounts, the death toll was as low as 30, by other accounts, was as high as 250. Nobody knows the real count because some of the people who lived in that neighborhood were never accounted for. Modern estimates strongly suggest even that count of 250 was low.
It’s easy to look at this as the beginning of the end. But things got better before they got worse, at least for some. East St. Louis was very much an “up south” phenomenon. But the reprieve was temporary.
Labor unions and a hint of prosperity
The reprieve came as workers became unionized and were able to get better working conditions and better wages. And the better wages led to improving living conditions, even during the 1930s. From the 1930s to the 1950s, East St Louis had a functioning middle class.
But the problem that awaited all large cities in the second half of the 20th century loomed even larger for East St Louis. East St Louis was an inner city with no outer city. The outer city was owned by out of town industrialists, who didn’t pay any taxes into the city of East St Louis.
East St Louis made its money off liquor licenses. They charged dearly for them, but the tavern owners complied. In Missouri, there were laws about what hours you could operate, and you couldn’t be open on Sunday. The attraction of East St Louis was you could open at noon, stay open all night, and you could be open on Sunday.
It was a fragile balance. It worked as long as jobs were plentiful. But the jobs became less plentiful starting in 1957.
The inner city with no outer city
It started to unravel in the late 1950s. The aluminum plant closed in 1957 and the first of the meat packing plants closed in 1959. The rise of the interstate highway system meant that you didn’t have to depend on the railroad anymore. You could build a plant in any rural area that had cheap labor and easy highway access.
In 1959, East St Louis got its last hurrah. It was named and all America city by Look magazine and the National Urban League. Footage of the celebratory parade still exists, and downtown East St Louis looked like the kind of place Norman Rockwell would paint. There were national chain stores, family-owned boutiques, and anything else that a medium sized American city would want.
But one by one, the plants started closing. And the population started to decline as anyone who had better options started to leave. At its peak, the city had 82,000 residents. In the 2020s, it had 18,000 residents.
The domino effect
The whole thing caused a domino effect. As the plants started closing, the middle class had little reason to stay. That caused businesses in the inner city to close. That caused a further loss of jobs. The plants remained as long as they were economically viable. But as the equipment wore out and the plants became less productive, it was cheaper to relocate then it was to refurbish plants that had lost their usefulness adjacent to a city that had also lost its usefulness, at least as far as the out of town interests were concerned.
It’s tempting to say it was racially motivated, and maybe the race riots played some part. But probably only a small part. The race riots were too quickly forgotten.
It’s easy to blame the unions for driving up wages.
But East St Louis was always a delicate balance. And in the 1950s, two other things came into the picture. The interstate highway system meant trucks could haul materials to places railroads didn’t go. It opened up other avenues for cheap labor. And entropy kicked in. Factories need retooling every 50 to 100 years as they wear out. And as they approached 100 years of age, the factories needed to be rebuilt or replaced. If it was just racism or just the unions, the decline would have been faster.
There’s no single reason why East St Louis is so poor. For most of its history it was poor, because that was what was good for business. And it got even more poor in the mid-1980s when the last of the meat packing plants left.
And when you have a city built for low paying jobs and you take the jobs away, what you leave behind won’t do well.
That’s not to say that it is all doom and gloom. A casino opened in 1993, on the banks along the river, providing a few hundred jobs, and attracting visitors from other parts of the region. The occasional new business pops up somewhere in the city, providing a few additional jobs and providing a service to the people who live there.
But this was once a city that was projected to potentially grow to rival St Louis Missouri in size. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Although there’s every reason to believe East St. Louis’ worst days are behind it now, if there’s a viable path back to the award winning days of 1959, it’s not clear how it gets there from here.