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.

The group agrees it's a good idea and sets a date: Brooklyn will get a wakeup call on July 22 with a day of prayer for the village. "All the pastors are not going to do it, but we can still go forward," says the Rev. Michael Shelby, who presides over Greater Liberty Church. "We have to start somewhere. I think we need to let bygones be bygones."

Talk moves from prayer to the possibility of forming a nonprofit group that would work to improve life in the village -- Concerned Citizens of Lovejoy would be a good name, Shelby suggests. He says he has the paperwork needed to apply for federal nonprofit status. Everyone in the room knows what he's driving at.

There is more than $1 million available to help Brooklyn, twice as much as the town's annual budget. Trouble is, no one's been able to get their hands on it.

Police Chief Jerome Young herds the media out of a village-board meeting after a reporter asks whether an executive session has been advertised, as required by the state open-meetings law. "Move out of here," he orders. "Advertise that."
Jennifer Silverberg
Police Chief Jerome Young herds the media out of a village-board meeting after a reporter asks whether an executive session has been advertised, as required by the state open-meetings law. "Move out of here," he orders. "Advertise that."

The money came from the Red Garter, whose owners in 1995 agreed to pay a $2 million fine as part of their sentence for money-laundering. U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl put half in federal coffers. The rest went into a trust fund for Brooklyn, whose residents all suffered from the corruption and depravity the brothel brought to the village, the judge declared. The fund is administered by the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund, a board answerable only to Stiehl. The judge approves every grant that the board gives to community groups. And those groups must be federally recognized nonprofit organizations.

The same idea worked in cash-strapped East St. Louis, which went seven years without trash collection until Judge Stiehl in 1991 ordered a Wall Street company that defrauded the city to put up $7 million to help the municipality just south of Brooklyn. In addition to getting rid of mountains of trash and razing thousands of burned-out buildings, the money has paid for a variety of community programs. "What really burst out of the East St. Louis community were grassroots organizations that were really committed to making a difference in their neighborhood," says Alandra Byrd, CEO of the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund, which also holds the money for Brooklyn.

But five years after the money became available, little has been spent in Brooklyn. Indeed, there's now slightly more than $1 million in the fund, as a result of accrued interest. Grant rules are strict: Churches and government officials need not apply. Only nonprofits dedicated to improving life in the village are eligible, but there's a paucity of such organizations in Brooklyn.

"I think the board thinks that, no, we haven't made a difference," says Louis Tiemann, treasurer for the community fund. "I don't think -- I know -- the judge feels just like the board does, a little bit frustrated. Why can't we do more in Brooklyn?"

Time and again, village officials have asked the community fund for money, despite Stiehl's court order barring any disbursements to a government that's had more crooked mayors than honest ones during the past 30 years. "We thought we had that clearly understood by them, only to find out it wasn't," Tiemann says. "They continued to want meetings with us, meeting after meeting, to explain to us, 'We just don't have bucks, and we need those bucks.'" Even today, some pastors and other community leaders suggest that the fund be used as collateral so the village can buy things like a new garbage truck.

But the message appears to be sinking in. Brooklyn has become a hotbed of fledgling nonprofits that say they want to improve housing, preserve the town's historic heritage and start up social programs for the disadvantaged. "We've been kind of keeping tabs and talking with them," Byrd says. "Some of them haven't actually received their incorporation papers, but they are in the process of doing that."

Three weeks ago, fund administrators called a meeting of potential grant recipients to explain the fund's purpose and the rules for getting grants. The fund is supposed to be perpetual, a helping hand community groups can use to augment other sources of money, not a crutch to support a program's entire weight. Neighborhood revitalization is the goal, and that means economic development programs and social work as well as beautification projects, Byrd tells the crowd of about 50 people. The fund's board also wants to see nonprofits working with schools, churches and businesses instead of acting alone.

In the past, the fund has focused on children, giving grants to nonprofits outside Brooklyn such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, which used the money to send village children to summer camp. The money has also funded scholarships. It's been a straightforward approach, with nonprofits applying for grants and being told yes or no. That won't happen anymore.

From now on, organizations must be at least three years old, headquartered in Brooklyn or East St. Louis and have an annual budget of at least $25,000 before the board will consider giving them grants. Grant applications must include audited financial statements, lists of staff and their qualifications, and summaries of current programs and how many people have benefited.

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