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.

DaSilva takes tourists to plantation homes, schoolhouses and other historic buildings -- things that people can see and touch. She doesn't see anything antebellum in Brooklyn. "The condition of Brooklyn today, would you pay money to go see that?" she asks. "To see what?"

It's Saturday night in Brooklyn, and streets in the sex district are choked with cars and charter buses bearing bachelor parties. There's decent barbecue to be had outside and indecent fun inside, where beer costs upwards of $4 a bottle and four minutes with a dancer in a stall against the wall will set you back 30 bucks.

At Roxy's Nightclub, nude dancers straddle and spank grinning patrons leaned over the tip bar. Dollar bills fly onto stages where women perform sex acts on each other, under close scrutiny from men who edge forward to make sure they're seeing the real thing. Cigarette smoke can't trump the odor of sweat mixed with body lotion, a sickly-sweet scent of Mr. Clean, patchouli and fake Chanel No. 5. A sign at the door warns that the club can't be responsible for what might happen should customers visit one of the nearby massage parlors.

Mayor Ruby Cook says she doesn't know the size of the village's annual budget: "I can't tell you that right now because I never really — well, we passed a budget. I never really pay any attention to it."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mayor Ruby Cook says she doesn't know the size of the village's annual budget: "I can't tell you that right now because I never really — well, we passed a budget. I never really pay any attention to it."
Sex businesses paid for a park that includes a playground that goes unused. It's a stone's throw from the sex emporiums on Illinois Route 3.
Jennifer Silverberg
Sex businesses paid for a park that includes a playground that goes unused. It's a stone's throw from the sex emporiums on Illinois Route 3.

This is a party that won't end until 6 a.m., or until your money runs out. "Let me hear you howl for pussy in Brooklyn!" cries the announcer, provoking a great whoop from the crowd. A few minutes later, the announcer tells Eric, wherever he may be, that his charter bus is leaving. "You don't want to be on foot in Brooklyn, so you better get the hell out of here," he proclaims.

With places for gays, straights and those who aren't fussy, Brooklyn has sex shops for a gamut of proclivities. Most outsiders don't know that churches outnumber the sex parlors. Two blocks past the clubs that operate in the shadow of First Corinthian Church is a different world that looks more rural South than 10 minutes from the Arch.

Yes, there are unkempt lots and burned-out shells, but there are also neatly kept bungalows and suburban-style homes, some with two-car garages, flower gardens and lawns bigger those than in neighborhoods across the river in St. Louis. The village celebrates Arbor Day, and greenery punctuates the look and feel of a black Mayberry where residents wave to each other as they drive down streets filled with kids on bicycles. Folks say this is a good place to raise a family and that neighbors don't let each other go hungry.

But on certain corners, young men flag down passing strangers with that unmistakable rock-for-sale look in their eyes, standing out like the one-way street that runs through the center of this no-stoplight town. In truth, this is a community of contradictions unified only in its resolve to survive.

The town's dozen houses of God tend to operate independently, and pastors communicate with each other sporadically, if at all. "We haven't really connected up to this point," admits the Rev. Leroy Henry, who's preached at Quinn Chapel for 15 years. "I don't know why. Can we get together and sit down and know each other and see what we can come up with that would be for the betterment of this town? It's kind of hard to get some of the preachers to do it." What are Brooklyn's biggest needs? Henry has opinions he's not willing to share. "I would rather not talk about it, because at times I've been a very high-profile minister," he explains. "When you become high-profile, it has a way of attracting all kinds of elements. I don't want to do that right now. I've been through some things I just don't want to repeat. I've paid my dues and I've had my life threatened and everything else. I don't want to go that route anymore. I'd rather stay loose from it."

Meanwhile, over at the senior center, Helen English, evangelist, is crossing her fingers. She's invited every pastor in Brooklyn here to organize a day of prayer. II Chronicles 7:14 is her inspiration: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." English wants the town to gather together for just one day, form a human cross and march through the streets. She calls her vision "a church without walls."

"Everything has happened to us for so many years," she says as she waits, hoping at least a few ministers will show up. "The corruption came in. Nobody took a stand." English pines for the town of her childhood, a place where vice and corruption were hidden and neighbors made sure kids stayed out of trouble.

Two pastors arrive, as do Mayor Cook and a handful of townfolk. They talk about the old days, recalling the grocery stores and pharmacies that used to be. "I'm asking all ministers to lay down their weapons against each other," English tells the group. "If we don't stand together, we're going to fall, and we're just about there. Whatever state Brooklyn is in, it's basically our fault. Let's have a day when there's no bickering, no fighting."

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