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.

Dressed in a black suit and red shirt, with chains draped over his body, Imanuel Reed looks more like the Rev. Al Sharpton than an environmental consultant. Invited by Mayor Ruby Cook, he is here to tell Brooklyn, Ill., village trustees his findings. He suspects 1993 floodwaters that ran through a railroad yard in this Mississippi River town have left deadly residue. He tells them he has taken soil samples and that what he's found doesn't look good: Lead. Barium. Mercury. Arsenic.

"Damn!" gasp some in the audience of about 30. Others shake their heads with suspicion, the leading commodity here in Brooklyn. Less than five minutes into Reed's talk, Trustee Dennis Miller looks less than alarmed. He tells Reed to get to the point.

Reed tells the good folk of Brooklyn that the chains hanging from his neck and arms symbolize their plight. Villagers are shackled, he preaches, their lives held hostage by unseen chemicals that could eventually extract a deadly toll -- not exactly a Chernobyl, he says, but, nonetheless, poison left by outsiders. Reed then turns from pollution to personalities. Pointing, he demands, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" Charles Douglas answers, calmly, that he's the attorney. At the last meeting, Reed had referred to him as "the white boy."

Brooklyn is best known for its sex businesses, which some village leaders would rather see go away. "What's so sad is, they license those places for just a few pennies, $15,000 or something," says the Rev. William Turner. "I just can't understand how the city officials would allow them to do what they're doing."
Jennifer Silverberg
Brooklyn is best known for its sex businesses, which some village leaders would rather see go away. "What's so sad is, they license those places for just a few pennies, $15,000 or something," says the Rev. William Turner. "I just can't understand how the city officials would allow them to do what they're doing."
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."
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."
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.
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."

Reed ends by saying he's going across the street to the village hall and that anyone who wants more information can see him there. No one follows him out the door of the senior center.

Now it's on to committee and departmental reports. There's $2,000 in the general fund, not enough to buy street signs. The garbage truck is broken. "What's the situation with the fire truck?" Miller asks.

It's common knowledge that the bank has repossessed one of the town's two fire engines and that the other one, nearly 30 years old, is broken. The village has been borrowing rigs from nearby cities, but St. Louis needs its truck back on Friday. Fire trucks have been a problem in the past -- four children died in a 1994 apartment fire while the village's aging pumper wheezed to the scene, a quarter-mile trip that took 10 minutes.

"Anyone from the fire department?" Cook asks. No.

The discussion moves on to street lights, a municipal garage and other projects for which the town has no money. Someone asks about bills. "There's a list there, but we won't be able to pay them," Cook answers. Who hired the police dispatcher? "We'll explain that in an executive meeting," Cook responds. "All personnel is in executive meeting." Finally it's time for public discussion, the reason Police Chief Jerome Young began the meeting by warning that anyone who gets out of hand will be removed: "There'll be no whooping and hollering like there was last time."

He might just as well have said, "Ready, set, go!" Someone in the audience complains that another check has bounced. "It cost us $18," the man complains. "We don't want no more checks from the village." Then he starts complaining about Reed. "I don't know what the hell he's doing here," the man says, prompting Cook to bring down the gavel.

"C'mon," the man pleads. "I just said 'hell.'"

Cook explains she was looking out for the best interests of the village when she invited Reed to look into possible pollution. Several in the audience say they're skeptical -- all the chains and preaching in the world won't convince them that Reed's not in it for himself. "People come here with ulterior motives," observes Miller, Cook's main political adversary. "Don't let no one come in and control your town."

From the back of the room, Sundiata Keita Cha-jua, a history professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, agrees that Reed's presentation was terrible. That said, Brooklyn wouldn't be the first African-American community to suffer the consequences of industrial pollution, he says. "Do you disrespect a correct message because a fool delivers it?" he asks. "Regardless of his behavior, you've got to deal with the issue. I'm saying, look at the data. If you don't like him, bring in someone else to do it."

The debate continues. Voices are raised, accusations exchanged. Nothing is decided -- the trustees don't take a single vote before retreating to executive session. Outside, the bickering continues. Reed saunters back from the village hall and is soon arguing with citizens waiting for the end of the executive session.

Lord knows what's going on inside. The IRS recently informed trustees that the village owes $400,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties -- and they'll be held personally liable if the village can't come up with the money. Meanwhile, Frankie Banks, the former village treasurer, has just been indicted on theft charges -- federal prosecutors say she embezzled more than $100,000. Trustees, who say Banks gambled much of the money away at the Casino Queen, also want Cook removed from office. Cook's supporters say Miller and other trustees are making accusations for political reasons -- they want a palace coup.

Trustee Pamela Calvert emerges looking tired. "No one person is right and no one person is wrong," she declares. "It's a struggle. We just want to survive. People are not seeing the struggle we're going through. We're trying. We may have rough spots. The only thing that's going to do it is to pull together. It just hurts. I love my town."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

Few, if any, nonprofits in the village meet the community fund's new standards, and so the fund will provide training on how to build budgets, manage volunteers and plan programs. Organizations must complete the eight-month training program before they will be considered for grants. "It's really going to take a lot of hard work," Byrd says. "I think that we are a pretty tough sell."

In short, Brooklyn won't be seeing any money from the fund anytime soon. And so the village is turning to the sex industry for help -- the Board of Trustees has proposed doubling license fees to ease its financial crisis. In the meantime, Roxy's, which pays $20,000 a year for its business license, is making a $6,666 installment early so the village can make payroll.

Her critics call her a dictator. She sticks her tongue out at photographers when journalists ask questions she doesn't like. The Board of Trustees has asked the state's attorney in St. Clair County to remove her from office. They're concerned about village checks she's written to herself that she can't explain.

Mayor Cook says she's not worried about her war with trustees. "If they want to say malfeasance, I can say nonfeasance," she says. "They haven't done anything to help the community." She ticks off her accomplishments since taking office in 1994 after winning a lawsuit alleging election irregularities. She's started a food bank, begun a clothing drive and organized Heritage Days, an annual celebration marking the anniversary of Brooklyn's incorporation. She wants to bring in more housing and spur economic development, despite the X-rated establishments that doubters say scare off other business. "Las Vegas did it," she says. She's not about to force adult entertainment out of Brooklyn. "I didn't put them here, and I'm not going to try to run them away," she says. "But when the Lord get ready, they will move."

Regarding the alleged $100,000 embezzlement of town funds by the former treasurer, Cook says she has no comment on how so much money could be missing without her knowing about it. Nor can she say the size of the municipal budget. "I can't tell you that right now because I never really -- well, we passed a budget," she says. "I never really pay any attention to it."

Brooklyn has long had its own brand of democracy in which "checks and balances" has meant that the mayor writes the checks and keeps the balances -- in 1984, a Democratic precinct committeeman who insisted on seeing a copy of the town budget was removed from a budget hearing and jailed for disorderly conduct. The situation isn't much better today. The village Board of Trustees says Mayor Cook hasn't shown them financial records for the past five years, despite repeated requests.

Corruption has been a given for so long that obituaries for former mayors convicted of bribery and extortion don't mention their crimes. Trustee Miller says clouds are a natural part of government, but Brooklyn is in a class by itself. "In Washington, there's a dark cloud," he says. "In Springfield, there's a cloud. But hey, it's raining here. We've got tornadoes."

Former Mayor James "Barney" Davis, now deceased, gave a rare peek into the town's political traditions during the Red Garter investigation. Like Chief Eugene Douglas, Davis was convicted of taking bribes, pitifully small ones. At $250 a week from the brothel owners, the mayor collected less than the whores, whose services accounted for $3.3 million in credit-card charges alone over a four-year period. The chief collected $150 a week from the brothel. In testimony before the grand jury, Davis, a trustee for 20 years before becoming mayor, detailed Election Day 1989, when campaign workers for both sides cruised the streets looking for voters. Under questioning by a federal prosecutor, Davis said junkies and drunks were some of his biggest supporters:

The winos and people that like to drink, have no jobs, are hanging around, are picked up by cars and taken to the polling place?

Yes. ... As I say, both of us were paying $5 or $10 a vote.

That's the highest you have ever heard being paid for votes in Brooklyn?

Right.... You didn't have to start to pay until later that evening. You could tell by the number of votes people were bringing in.... We were in trouble, got to pay more for the votes.

So that in effect you and your opponent were in a bidding war with the winos in Brooklyn?

I wouldn't say ... I don't mean to degrade the winos.

You have full knowledge they (campaign workers) were trying to keep up with your opponent in picking up winos or whatever you want to call them?

That's the way Brooklyn pays for our ticket. As I say, I have been there all my life. You have always had to pay. There have been some landslides in Brooklyn, and a lot of times the late mayor wouldn't be no election. He would see they would be off the ballot, couldn't get on the ballot. They always is going to be paid-for votes in Brooklyn, but not as much as this last one.

All told, Davis paid $3,000 in small bills to keep his office. Topless-club owners and a prominent Democratic Party official each contributed half, Davis testified.

Trustee Nathaniel O'Bannon, who's been on the board since 1987, says he's not sure whether the vote-buying tradition continues. "It's kind of difficult for me to say right now," O'Bannon says. "It could be, but I have not been close enough to know. Me being blind, I'm really not into knowing what the deal is going on."

Former Mayor Marcellus West, who died in 1987, invited topless clubs to Brooklyn 20 years ago after hearing that PT's in Centreville had financed new police cars for that city. He figured topless clubs would do the same sort of thing in Brooklyn. He was right.

The clubs have curried favor by donating money to the village baseball team, youth groups and even churches. When they first arrived in Brooklyn, the clubs paid for a small park that features a picnic shelter and playground. Tall grass and empty beer bottles now surround the monkey bars and broken swing set. Shattered porcelain is all that remains of the toilets. Villagers say the park is never used. "They put it right across the street from those places," says Trustee Miller. "I wouldn't let my kids play there."

Miller recalls picketing the clubs with his family and a few other residents back in the early 1980s. They were a lonely bunch, dismissed by Mayor West as radicals. "I was a little boy," Miller says. "When we was out there picketing, it seemed like the churches should have been the first people to come out there and stand beside us. But that didn't happen."

Maybe ministers could have done more to keep the sex businesses out, admits the Rev. William Turner, pastor at Lovejoy Temple Church of God in Christ. He recalls Mayor West's setting up a meeting between club owners and the town's pastors shortly before the first topless club opened. "The people that owned these places said they were coming here to put in legitimate businesses, like stores and things of that sort," Turner says. "But I told them at that meeting, I said, 'I've heard it's going to be something else.' I said, 'If it is, since you all are all Caucasians, why don't you take it to Belleville, Fairview Heights, O'Fallon, some of those places?' 'Oh, no, Reverend, it's not going to be like that.' I didn't believe them, but the mayor was sitting there. In less than two weeks, there was one of those big neon signs that takes weeks to make up, and it had the name of one of the spas. It was right over the place where they said they were going to have a dry-goods store." At that point, Turner says, the ministers gave up. "Since we knew the town was sold out, we just went on and tried to pastor our people," he says. "I guess maybe there's something else we could have done, but we didn't know what our options were."

Ten years ago, Mayor Davis told the FBI that West had been taking bribes from brothel owners. Today, Turner says the town is selling itself way too cheap. "What's so sad is, they license those places for just a few pennies, $15,000 or something," he says. "And they're taking millions away from the community. I just can't understand how the city officials would allow them to do what they're doing."

Turner wants the sex industry out of Brooklyn. Amen, says Miller. Like an addict who discovers that life goes on without a fix, the village can survive without the clubs, Miller figures. "If you take away the clubs, it will be hard," he says. "But some kind of way, we would survive."

Micheal Ocello, an executive for Roxy's management company, isn't so sure. "They're collecting somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000-$100,000 in license fees from these businesses," Ocello says. "Admittedly, some people might say that 'Hey, you know what, if these businesses weren't here, they'd be able to develop some other business.' And I'm certainly not wanting to get into a debate about that. But what I do know is, a town that's strapped can't afford to lose $100,000. And there doesn't seem to be any business developing in other sections of the city."

Ocello doesn't think Roxy's harms Brooklyn. "I don't want this to sound rude, because I don't mean it rude, but when people need money for the schools or to fund a picnic, they certainly don't mind us chipping in to help," he notes.

Mayor Cook and Chief Young have acknowledged ties to whorehouse owners busted by the feds. Called as a defense witness when prosecutors went after Everette O. Baker, a Brooklyn brothel owner convicted of money-laundering in 1998, Cook was forced to admit she'd accepted money from Baker, who ran a combination whorehouse, topless bar and adult bookstore called Fantasyland. A $500 check written to her in 1993 was a campaign contribution, Cook testified, and she probably accepted another $500 contribution in 1997. Cook said she did not know that Baker ran a whorehouse. Under questioning by a federal prosecutor, she also said a nephew and her late brother had worked for Baker, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined $4.4 million.

Young, who gave grand-jury testimony in the same case under a grant of immunity, admitted that two of his daughters worked for Baker, one in the adult bookstore and another as a manager at a massage parlor that also served as a brothel. Like Cook, Young said he had no idea that Baker ran a whorehouse. While assistant chief, Young moonlighted as head of security for topless clubs and massage parlors in Brooklyn and East St. Louis. The late Mayor Davis told the FBI it was Young and a former officer named Sylvester Huddley who told him the owner of the Red Garter wanted him to be mayor and would make sure he got paid. "Huddley and Young told Davis that they had told (the brothel owner) what a good man Davis was and that he needed money to take care of his grandchildren," wrote an FBI agent in a synopsis of his interview with the late mayor. "Huddley and Young both assured Davis that he would receive an unspecified sum of money from the organization if he became mayor." Today, Young is still police chief, and he owes his job to Mayor Cook, who has staunchly resisted trustees' efforts to fire him.

Charles Douglas got sucked in.

When he became village attorney, he made two things perfectly clear. "You've got to pay me each month," he recalls telling the mayor and board. "The other thing is, no bullshit, no crime. If I see anything wrong, I'm going to point it out; you're going to get it corrected. If there's any bullshit or whatever, I'm out of here." He smiles slightly at the memory.

Two years later, Douglas hasn't collected a check in four months, but he's still coming to board meetings, where make-it-up-as-you-go-along supersedes Robert's Rules of Order. Douglas has been telling the board that democracy applies to Brooklyn, a notion that doesn't sit well with Mayor Cook, who no longer recognizes him as village attorney and won't pay him, even though the board has approved a motion authorizing payment. She's appointed another attorney, who sits in the same meetings as Douglas but doesn't talk to him. "He's the one advising them wrong," Cook sniffs. "He's not doing anything. He never bring any law. He brings his opinion. That's the board's great white hope, I guess."

Douglas has told the board it has a right to see financial records. He's told trustees that the mayor can't make things go away by vetoing whatever she doesn't like. He's helped engineer a move to oust Chief Young. "It's been a dictatorship," Douglas says. "I just have an intense hatred for abuse of power. 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. It would be an accomplishment I could always point to."

It's time for another village board meeting. This time, the media have shown up. The Fox television crew and a Belleville News-Democrat reporter are in for a show.

Noting drug deals in the streets and unchecked speeding, Miller makes a motion to fire Chief Young. The motion passes unanimously. Cook vetoes it. Trustees protest that she has no such authority. Despite the impasse, a hearing is scheduled a week from now so Young can hear and answer charges against him. Trustees ask how much is left in the general fund. Zero, answers Cook. What's more, a state grant earmarked for fixing the town's remaining fire truck has been spent on payroll, she says. Shocked trustees demand immediate cuts to city services. Cook tells the audience to leave so the board can discuss personnel in executive session.

As the audience rises to leave, the News-Democrat reporter asks whether the village has advertised this executive session, as required by the state open-meetings law. Young, who stands over 6 feet tall and looks to weigh well over 275 pounds, moves in the direction of the reporter, backing her and others toward the door.

"Move out of here," he barks. "Advertise that."

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