Looking for an open door in the gateway's shadow Revival: In East St. Louis, Ill., government is seen as a partner in the battle against a host of urban problems.

July 29, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- In this Mississippi River city populated mostly by welfare mothers and their children, government is a lifeline, not a bad word.

For a generation, East St. Louis has been a postmark of urban blight. To conservatives who live outside its borders, it serves as a shorthand for everything wrong with liberal solutions. Socially concerned liberals come here periodically to use the city as a canvas to paint stark pictures of the inequities of American life.

Half the people in East St. Louis live in government housing, so federal bureaucrats are their landlords. An estimated 80 percent of the people receive welfare payments, food stamps or some other form of government assistance.

Yet, attitudes here toward these programs -- and toward Washington -- are ambivalent and surprisingly bipartisan for an almost entirely Democratic and African-American city poised to give 90 percent of its votes to Bill Clinton in November.

Although folks here do not employ such Washington jargon as "New Democrat" to describe their political philosophies, what emerges in conversation is a kind of unspoken consensus that the Democrats' hearts and the Republicans' heads are in the right places -- and that both are needed.

"The welfare system has gotten out of whack, crazy," says John McIntosh, a 33-year-old manager of a laundry business. "I'm not saying cut people off 100 percent, but able-bodied people should be made to do something to show that nothing is free."

Bob Shannon, a well-known educator and football coach, thinks the corruption-plagued school system should be turned over to private education companies. Putting welfare recipients to work and privatizing the schools are cherished Republican prescriptions. Yet Shannon makes a point of praising Clinton, whom he sees as a racial healer, and McIntosh criticizes GOP leaders, including Bob Dole, as being out of touch.

Welfare mother Maxine Cole, a grandmother at 33, does not discuss the fine points of whether the government should use the Internet to collect support payments from "deadbeat dads." She talks poignantly about the human cost of having all these babies and so few father figures.

"Every boy needs a father," she says of her 18-month-old son, whose father left her. "Any man that comes to the house, he calls, 'Daddy' -- and he tries to hug them."

Virgie Riddle, an unemployed 50-year-old woman who lives in a federal housing project and receives assistance for three little girls under her care, has been watching accounts of the push to cut back on welfare and require recipients to work.

Asked her opinion, she pauses before replying, "Well, it's nice to have a job. It's wonderful. If they're really going to have jobs out there for the people, it would be a good thing."

On this hot summer day, she is reading her well-worn Bible at her kitchen table. The girls, ages 3, 5 and 7, troop in, overheated and noisy. Two belong to a niece of Riddle's, the third is her granddaughter. The mothers are unmarried and unable to care for them: One is incarcerated, the other has mental problems, she says. Riddle wonders who would mother them if she were required to go out to work for a paycheck.

"This is a job," she sighs. "A 24-hour-a-day job."

No magic bullet

Several people here express the view that at least some of the solutions to what ails their community and other depressed urban areas are to be found in Washington and their state capital. That's not only because that's where the money must come from, but also because many of these problems were caused, or least exacerbated, by faraway bureaucrats.

But neither do the welfare mothers, city fathers or Roman Catholic social workers laboring in the housing projects say there is any single magic bullet for what ails East St. Louis -- and that turning things around will take a concerted effort by all those factions as well as enlightened solutions from Washington.

"I don't know if I'd want the job of running the government," says Sister Carol Lehmkuhl, a Dominican nun who directs a program of assistance for 10 needy families. "Lots of people think they have an instant fix, but there probably isn't one. We're just trying to help our little corner of the world."

Actually, East St. Louis only feels like a corner. It lies in the middle of the country, hard on U.S. 40, and in the shadow of St. Louis' famed arch. That "Gateway to the West" signifies the promise of knowledge and the riches of impending discovery, but across the river it seems more like a taunt. East St. Louis, formerly a gritty industrial town with enough pretentions to have an opera house, today lacks such basic amenities as a bookstore, a department store and a movie theater.

It's also shrinking, to less than half its post-World War II high of 83,000 people. Since the closing of Gateway Community Hospital, East St. Louis is nobody's birthplace anymore; Gateway had the only maternity ward.

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