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.

While Washington was dealing with Watergate, Brooklyn dealt with Frank Skinner, a police chief who shot and killed an auxiliary officer in the street. Mayor George Thomas, soon to be convicted of extortion in a sewer-kickback scheme, told national reporters that Skinner was retaking the town from rogue officers, and the chief was dubbed a black Buford Pusser. Skinner claimed self-defense and was acquitted of murder, but the violence didn't end. Ten years after the killing, Skinner, no longer on the force, shot a prosecution witness, whose house was torched 12 hours later. A judge again acquitted Skinner and declared him just the kind of man Brooklyn needed to maintain law and order. It would take "an army of occupation" to control Brooklyn, "a town where the law of the jungle has prevailed for many years," said the judge. "If it weren't for Frank Skinner, that place would be terrible."

Eight years later, in 1991, Skinner pleaded guilty to selling crack from his home and on village streets.

Skinner isn't the only Brooklyn cop to shoot a colleague. In 1983, police chief Eugene Douglas gunned down a drunken off-duty police dispatcher inside the police station. The chief claimed self-defense and wasn't charged with a crime. By the mid-1990s, Douglas was in prison, nailed by federal prosecutors for taking bribes from the owners of a sex complex known as the Red Garter. The Red Garter itself was a strip club. Customers in search of straight sex went upstairs to a brothel called Above the Red Garter. Those interested in S&M went downstairs to a dungeon called Below the Red Garter.

Village leaders like to talk history, but preserving Brooklyn's heritage is often a 
different matter. The historic cemetery on the outskirts of town is overgrown with 
weeds and brambles.
Jennifer Silverberg
Village leaders like to talk history, but preserving Brooklyn's heritage is often a different matter. The historic cemetery on the outskirts of town is overgrown with weeds and brambles.
Mike Ocello, an executive for Roxy's management company, doesn't want to debate whether sex clubs that support the village with license fees scare off other businesses: "But what I do know is, a town that's strapped can't afford to lose $100,000."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike Ocello, an executive for Roxy's management company, doesn't want to debate whether sex clubs that support the village with license fees scare off other businesses: "But what I do know is, a town that's strapped can't afford to lose $100,000."

Chief Douglas inherited his job from his brother Raymond, who was convicted of beating a woman after she was arrested for reckless driving in 1977. Against the wishes of the mayor and Board of Trustees, the judge included in his sentence a stipulation barring Raymond Douglas from working in law enforcement.

But this isn't the kind of history Brooklynites have time to talk about. They have their hands full trying to raise their families and run their village amid the sex businesses that still taint the town.

Brooklyn can heal itself, says the Rev. Johnny Scott, and the brighter side of its history is the key. Scott, who's in his first year of preaching at 162-year-old Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, dreams big. "These massage parlors, I want to attack that, but I want to do it in a manner where we don't have the FBI, the state police, the county sheriff, all these people coming in here raiding the city and taking these people and putting them in jail," says Scott, who is also president of the East St. Louis NAACP chapter. "I don't think that's the answer to our many problems."

Scott envisions Brooklyn as a tourist destination, the African-American equivalent of colonial Williamsburg. There's plenty of room along Route 3 for new development. Maybe someday, he says, McDonald's and Popeyes will squeeze out the sex parlors that some village leaders insist are a necessary evil in keeping the town solvent.

Townfolk like to talk history, but preserving the town's heritage can be another matter. Take the cemetery on the outskirts of town, which has tombstones dating back more than 100 years: Overgrown with brambles, the roadside graveyard was ignored until a year ago, when neighboring Madison made moves to annex a 20-acre area that includes the cemetery. The threat prompted Mayor Cook and an ad hoc work crew to attack the jungle with chainsaws and scythes in a reclamation project. They spent an hour cutting through the tangle, then left. The job is far from finished. The 2-acre graveyard remains a morass of mud and weeds, the dozen or so headstones so weather-worn it's tough to distinguish them from broken pieces of concrete in the thicket surrounding the site, which had been a popular dumping ground.

The state, which is planning road improvements in the area, has surveyed the graveyard and determined that construction will skirt the cemetery. Terry Ransom, an administrator with the civil-rights office of the Illinois Department of Transportation, says he's heard from groups in Brooklyn that want state money for the graveyard. Couldn't townfolk restore it themselves with a little sweat? "That's it," Ransom says. "And I told them the same thing. They didn't like that idea. There's very little we can do as far as cleaning up the cemetery or anything like that."

Ransom, co-founder of the Illinois Underground Railroad Association, is planning a trip to Brooklyn within the next couple of weeks. St. Louis had one of the largest slave auctions north of New Orleans, he says, and he'd stake his life that escaped slaves crossed the Mississippi and found their way to freedom through Brooklyn. Ransom has heard there's a second, older graveyard somewhere in town that contains the remains of Brooklyn's founders. No one is quite sure where to find it, so he's coming to see for himself. "I'm getting conflicting information from everybody down there," he says. "I don't know who's telling the truth."

Not everyone agrees on Brooklyn's historic import. Angela DaSilva, president of the Black Tourism Network, makes her living showing tourists Underground Railroad routes and sites important in African- American history. Her company is based in St. Louis and offers tours with stops in Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and other states, but Brooklyn isn't on her map. She doubts the Underground Railroad ran through the village. For one thing, DaSilva says, fugitive slaves avoided Southern Illinois because there were so many slave hunters there. For another, she doesn't believe blacks in Brooklyn would have risked their own freedom by harboring escaped slaves -- it would have been an obvious place to look for fugitives, and the consequences were severe in an era when blacks weren't considered citizens, no matter where they lived.

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