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Will connecting residents to services turn around city’s long decline?

Will connecting residents to services turn around city’s long decline?

Picture of Emmanuel Felton
[Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr.]

On a gray January morning, Tiffany Gholson, East St. Louis School District’s first-ever director of parent and student support services, took me out the side door of the district’s new Family and Community Engagement Center. She wanted to show me the plot of land where she was hoping to start a community vegetable garden. The new center she was showing off would eventually serve as a nexus of services for families in East St. Louis, Illinois. In addition to providing vital links to agencies like homeless shelters and food pantries, Gholson wanted to create a community hub where people would spend time. She had plans for a parent café and a community garden, where families would come in the spring and summer to enjoy fresh vegetables, something of a rarity in this food desert. But Gholson had one big concern about her plans for the garden: Was the soil outside the center too toxic to plant vegetables?

This isn’t a unique concern in East St. Louis, a former industrial powerhouse located just across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis. Later that day, Gholson attended a networking event for people across the city who were interested in gardening but uneasy about the toxicity of the soil. In the end, Gholson decided to use raised beds to avoid the soil altogether. Bad soil is just one of many scars of East St. Louis’s history of rapid industrialization — and even quicker deindustrialization. In the decades after World War II, the city lost nearly 50,000 jobs and the population shrunk from 80,000 to less than 30,000.

From its founding, East St. Louis was setup to attract the industries that St. Louis didn’t want. During the first half of the 20th century, the city hosted steel mills, chemical and aluminum plants and oil refineries. Today, residents complain that those industries didn’t bother to clean up as they left town during the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, to this day, East St. Louis posts some of the highest rates of childhood asthma and lead poisoning in the nation.

Andrew Theising, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, says that while the case of East St. Louis may be extreme, the city isn’t completely an anomaly. He says East St. Louis is a classic industrial suburb. He points to other famously troubled cities like Gary, Indiana and Camden, New Jersey as similar examples. Like East St. Louis, these cities were built to cater to industry. Those industries then attracted thousands of workers. But in each community, eventually many of those companies decided to leave town, and more affluent residents and businesses often followed suit.  

As a Dennis A. Hunt Fund grantee, I was able to spend four weeks in East St. Louis, talking to families, educators and civic leaders about the day-to-day challenges facing the children of East St. Louis, where residents say there are few jobs and a severe lack of safe, affordable housing. But I also heard a lot about a new potential solution. East St. Louis is embracing an idea known as “collective impact.” The thrust behind the initiative is to connect families with all of the services that the city’s government and nonprofit agencies already offer, from housing to counseling to workforce development.

For years, nonprofits have flocked to the city in hopes of moving the dial, but Evan Krauss, director of East Side Aligned initiative, says that while individual agencies could point to success stories, there was an acknowledgement across the city that the they haven’t been able to turnaround the city.

Tiffany Gholson and the Family and Community Engagement Center are a centerpiece of the initiative. The school district reaches more families than any other institution in the city, and Gholson is hoping to lure in families to her center with amenities like the garden. Once they’re through the doors, she works to connect them with the resources they need. While collective impact has found some success in communities like Cincinnati, the open question in East St. Louis is whether it will be enough to rebuild a city that has lost so much.

[Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr.]

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