Day 71/ May 8th – East St. Louis, IL to St. Louis, MO: Mississippi burning

You probably haven’t heard of the Morgan Quitno Press, a small Kansas publisher that each year compiles crime statistics from American cities and produces a list of the most dangerous places in the country.  But you can probably guess many of the places featured – Detroit, New Orleans and Compton are all in the top ten, for example.  You might be surprised, though, to learn that St. Louis has been ranked in the top three most dangerous cities in the country (of 500 studied, we should point out) for each of the last eight years.

Gateway Arch seen from East St. Louis

The Gateway Arch seen from East St. Louis

The most dangerous part of St. Louis isn’t even in the city itself, but in East St. Louis, across the Mississippi in Illinois.  This, truly, is a tough place to live.  In 2007, it had the highest murder rate in America – 102 (the national average is 5.6) per 100,000 people, so that simply by living in East St. Louis you effectively have a one in 1,000 chance of being murdered in any given year.  Last month, a local mayor was gunned down as he sat in his car.  Other crime rates are just as bad: the rate of robberies is seven times the national average, rapes eight times and assaults 17 times.  So it was with a spring in our step and a song in our hearts that we set out to walk across it today.

As far back as the 19th century, East St. Louis was a place for the things that St. Louis didn’t want on its doorstep: meat-packing and stock-yards, then steelworks and rail-yards.  Its peak – if you can use such a term with a place like this – came in the late 1950s, when it was named an ‘All-America City’ (a sort of civic merit badge).  Soon afterwards, though, the industrial backbone of the city collapsed and a long, downward spiral of debt, unemployment, crime and white flight began: what was a racially diverse city of 80,000 people in 1960 is now a black ghetto of barely 30,000.  It’s difficult not to see it still, over a century later, as a place for the things that St. Louis doesn’t want.  Like a lot of deprived cities, East St. Louis developed a thriving music scene – it gave the world Miles Davis and Tina Turner – but those days are long gone, and now the city is most famous as a byword for crime and urban squalor.

We set out from the metro station in Fairview Heights to walk the 90 blocks along State Street to the Mississippi, with the Gateway Arch looming over the treetops in the distance like a beacon.  The first neighbourhoods we walked through were unremarkable suburbs of modest bungalows, but inside the loop of Route 50, the city took a marked turn for the worse.  We passed vacant lots surrounded by listing barbed-wire fences, the shells of abandoned mini-malls and the cement outlines of what might once have been petrol stations, now being reclaimed by bushes and grass.  There were lots of these ‘urban fields’, where buildings had been torn down and nothing built in their place, and it was curiously unsettling to see how easily sizable chunks of a city could be erased and swallowed up once humans left.

Petrol station in East St. Louis

Abandoned petrol station in East St. Louis - not yet picked clean

Almost every shop – even the laundromat, for God’s sake – had metal shutters or bars over its windows.  Off the main drag of State Street, the roads were cracked and potholed, some so badly that they were effectively unsurfaced tracks like the ones we occasionally walk on deep in the country.  Across a railway line, the neighbourhood reached its nadir – no small feat – with boarded-up houses, a couple of burned-out shops being used as squats, a low, forbidding bar called ‘Club Rolex’ and, saddest of all, the brick skeleton of what had been George Rogers Clark Junior High School.  It stood like the shell of a dissolved monastery behind a high wire fence in an asphalt yard grown into a meadow of waist-high weeds, its roof gone, every window smashed and its walls slowly collapsing.

Ruins of George Rogers Clark Junior High in East St. Louis

Junior high in East St. Louis: Drug-free, gun-free and now student-free

There were a few hopeful signs in the general blight.  More than in any other place in America, there were people on the streets here, mostly waiting at bus-stops (even if only because they couldn’t afford cars), and this gave the city an air of bustle and community that many smarter, carbound towns in the country have seemed to lack.  St. Louis’s metro system had recently been extended across the river here – though there were already complaints that it had caused a spike in crime downtown as the denizens of East St. Louis now had easier access to the big city.  There were two large schools, one evidently brand new (replacing the ruin we had passed earlier) and the other with the bones of a new wing under construction.  The churches – for the first time in hundreds of miles we were back in Baptist country – were large, well-kept and busy.  And there were police cars everywhere.

Mural in East St. Louis, Illinois

A hopeful mural (but NB the bars to stop the air-conditioner being stolen)

We passed a lap-dancing bar and Pawn Pros (‘We Loan on Anything of Value’) and prepared to cross the Mississippi.  State Street dipped below an underpass and emerged between two roaring interstates.  We followed it gamely for a hair-raising half-mile into roaring traffic towards the Martin Luther King Bridge, which Google Maps had helpfully identified as our ideal crossing-point.  As the road climbed onto the bridge, though, the shoulder vanished altogether, and it dawned on us that unless we planned to walk in the middle of the fast lane, we would have to find another place to cross the river.

Gateway Arch from East St. Louis

Hard to believe one of the world's great rivers lies between here and the Arch

We scuttled across waste ground to the Eads Bridge, which spans the Mississippi in three elegant arches and which, mercifully, provided a paved walkway complete with viewing platforms and iron lamp-posts.  It was especially impressive given that its architect, James Buchanan Eads, had never built a bridge before.  When it opened, in 1874, local citizens were so sceptical about its safety that he had to enlist an elephant to be led across it to persuade people of its robustness; when that failed to convince, he sent 14 locomotives over it at the same time.  We had no such qualms, and crossed over it in prickling rain into St. Louis, Missouri and the West.


8 Responses to “Day 71/ May 8th – East St. Louis, IL to St. Louis, MO: Mississippi burning”

  1. bob Says:

    Just stumbled across you, so to speak. Great stuff.

    Just some thoughts on this post. East St. Louis has for years–decades, even– been a wreckage. It is a case in point for why local fudning of shcools, for example, has limitations. Jonathan Kozol wrote eloquently about this years ago in a passionate and infuriating book called Savage Inequalities. But it’s broader than that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Much of urban America has been abandoned, as the more affluent fled to the suburbs (like outside of St Louis.) But this was only possible because manufacturing got disbursed as well. And this only occurred because energy was cheap. Now that it’s not so cheap any more, and getting mroe expensive still, there have already been some moves back to cities. Like the exodus, it will take a generation or two, but it will happen eventually. In 50 years I imagine the place will look great, now that public transport reaches to St Louis itself. It was always astonishing that it didn’t, in fact.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    For more information about US cities, go to this website:

    Although the rising cost of energy is a factor in deciding to move closer to the city, I would argue that people get tired of spending 1 1/2 hours (one way) commuting to the city from their exurbs.

    Exurbs defined:

    East St. Louis is not yet ripe for gentrification. Maybe it will take 50 years for it to happen. No one wants to live in areas filled with gang members. Until street gangs are violently confronted by the law enforcement, nothing with change. It would help if the factories would move back from China and Mexico, too. People need jobs, not “free trade.”

  3. LAMONICA Says:


  4. Angela Says:

    I would have to agree with Lamonica. I too live in East St. Louis. Some areas are worse than others but ESTL is no different than any other city that has “high crime”. One thing to also think about is that not all crime in all cities gets reported. Some of the “white areas” also have high crime but it’s not reported like it is in the “black areas” because they would 1) lose funding from the government for the city and 2) scare the other residents. If they are afraid then they move and that also affects the cities funding with property taxes and all. People think that if you go to a white neighborhood that everything is safe and you don’t have to worry as much. I think that is funny. I myself am a white women and I feel more safe in ESTL than I do in other areas. There are just as many white people on meth or heroin that kill, rob, or do other such things as there are black people that do that sort of stuff. I have lived in East Saint for almost 5 years and have had no problems with anyone. Before that I grew up in St. Louis, MO all my life. And before you form an opinion of me, let me tell you that I don’t do drugs, drink or even smoke cigarettes, nor does my husband, we are both well educated as are our children. My husband works while I go to school. We are not crazy and share a lot of love in our family. Oh, and yes my husband is “black”. Your home is where you make it. Cities are the same all over the US. They can be bad or good but how you live your life is what determines your out come.

    • adawglol Says:

      No racism here I believe that you shouldn’t classify it as a “black” area just because of high crime. In fact .
      Los Angeles has 65% of the gangs are white or Latino.

  5. adawglol Says:

    Its true I’ve been lost here before and there were people walking down the streets with baseball bats and crowbars. Thanks for the story that’s a part I was fortunate enough to miss.

  6. Maurice Sharp Says:

    Msharpee says; I was born in Esat St Louis, in 1928, lived there until my wife (also born there) and my health forced us to move closer to our childern. I have seen the city at it’s best and at it’s worse. It is no more or no less like any other large ciity where poverty has always ran rampant. Wealty and middle class people left when the factories closed, Black and white. My family moved to an area just outside East St. Louis. called was formed when Hyway I-55 was built. I-55 will be tthe dividing line between the new East St Louis and the people that are being forced out of the area now.From the river front to I-55 highway. Two thirds of the city has already been bought. Like the Phoenix it will rise again.

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