Welcome to Brooklyn

Damn the criticism -- Mayor Ruby Cook runs Brooklyn her way. But in this historic town, best known for its sex trade, she's not the biggest problem. Brooklyn is broke, divided and sinking fast.

Her town has seen better days. Topless bars and peepshows have replaced the jazz clubs that once welcomed visitors on Illinois Route 3. The population that peaked at nearly 4,000 in the 1950s has dwindled to below 1,200. Ninety percent of the town's school-age children live in poverty. With many of Brooklyn's residents in public housing and others getting senior- citizen exemptions, and few businesses other than X-rated ones, the tax base is minuscule. The town collected just $33,450 in property taxes last year.

Its coffers empty, its streets plagued with drugs and its reputation besmirched by corruption and vice, Brooklyn has a lot of problems and no shortage of people who say they want to help. The biggest challenge is figuring out where to begin. And who to trust.

It's a Tuesday evening in mid-June. George McShan looks up from his computer, surprised to see a visitor in the basement of Quinn Chapel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church west of the Allegheny Mountains. McShan, a retired civil servant, has spent countless hours here compiling the history of the church and the village, where he was born and raised. Although he hasn't lived in Brooklyn since 1965, the village remains home. "I live in St. Louis, but I stay here," he says.

Attorney Charles Douglas continues advising the village board, even though he hasn't been paid in four months: "I would put it as a notch on my gun barrel — a big notch — if I can help this board make this city a straight city, operating properly in accordance with the law."
Jennifer Silverberg
Attorney Charles Douglas continues advising the village board, even though he hasn't been paid in four months: "I would put it as a notch on my gun barrel — a big notch — if I can help this board make this city a straight city, operating properly in accordance with the law."
Trustee Dennis Miller (left) and Trustee Nathaniel O'Bannon (right) want to reform village government. "In Washington, there's a dark cloud," Miller says. "In Springfield, there's a cloud. But hey, it's raining here. We've got tornadoes."
Jennifer Silverberg
Trustee Dennis Miller (left) and Trustee Nathaniel O'Bannon (right) want to reform village government. "In Washington, there's a dark cloud," Miller says. "In Springfield, there's a cloud. But hey, it's raining here. We've got tornadoes."

The historic significance of the church, founded in 1825 by folk who met in homes, seems obvious, but McShan wants signs from the National Park Service honoring the entire town, and the government needs proof. It's tough work, especially showing that Brooklyn was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Folks who broke the law by helping escaped slaves didn't write things down, so when documentation runs short, McShan must rely on conjecture. As a black town in a free state just across the Mississippi River from Missouri, it only makes sense that Brooklyn would have been the first stop on the road to freedom, he says.

The walls of the tiny church are bowed with age. Even so, this isn't the original sanctuary, which was destroyed by fire in the 1870s and rebuilt with brick. McShan feels the ghost. "Sometimes, when it gets real hot, you can still smell the burn," he says.

Brooklyn has been scraping by since the 1820s, when Pricilla Baltimore led a group of blacks across the Mississippi, hoping to find a place where they could live in peace. Baltimore, who bought her freedom for $1,100, likely scouted the area as a slave while ferrying a group to Illinois for revival services, says Professor Cha-jua, who has written a soon-to-be-published book about the early history of the town. Baltimore was looking for a benign wilderness in a free state. "They wanted to be as far away from a settled white area as possible," Cha-jua says. "They squatted -- they didn't have the money to buy the land. It was a simple matter of convenience."

Brooklyn is the nation's oldest African-American city, according to townsfolk and Cha-jua. Whites, mainly European immigrants, arrived during the 1830s, but they've never accounted for more than a quarter of the village's population. Hoping to lure a railroad, five white men platted Brooklyn in 1837, but they couldn't control the town because there wasn't any government to take over until Brooklyn officially incorporated in 1873. "There's no formal political institutions, so the institutions that are created are social," Cha-jua says. "Blacks have their own churches. They create their own school. They have their own institutional base. So, in effect, these groups of people live in the same community, but you don't see a great deal of interaction and closeness."

The town once had a confectionery, gas stations and grocery stores, but the economic base has always been tiny and mostly controlled by whites. Through the years, men have worked on riverboats, in steel mills, for railroads and in stockyards outside village boundaries. Women were domestic servants for white families in surrounding towns. By the end of the 1800s, Brooklyn had become a bedroom community tied to the outside by trolley cars. "Brooklyn is so close to East St. Louis, as we get closer to the 20th century it's harder to maintain a separate retail sector," Cha-jua says. "Things are cheaper in the big city. It's very easy to just stop in East St. Louis or wherever and pick up your groceries."

Vice goes back at least 100 years, when a turn-of-the-century mayor crusaded to get hookers off the village streets. They retreated to brothels -- politely called boardinghouses -- where they were less conspicuous but no less available amid the taverns and gambling rooms that served the sinful. "To be very clear about Brooklyn in terms of its image, every community has its vice district," says Cha-jua. "What makes Brooklyn stand out is the lack of other types of industry and because people focus on that aspect of Brooklyn's history."

In the 1890s, Brooklyn was renamed Lovejoy by the U.S. Postal Service to avoid confusion with another Brooklyn in Illinois. By the 1950s, the village had been nicknamed Little Las Vegas, a place where Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, B.B. King and other greats played at the Harlem Club, which has been replaced by an unpaved parking lot for the sex district. Gambling raids by federal agents were a regular occurrence, to the great consternation of no one -- certainly not village police officers, some of whom were given guns and commissions simply because the mayor liked them and thought they'd be good role models. Brooklyn was a place that played by its own rules. Those rules would rocket the town into national headlines two years after Albert King immortalized the town with his 1971 album Lovejoy.

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