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On a warm summer day, the unmistakable stench of garbage and decay fills the air. Black flies, large as bumble bees, dive around old mattresses, sofas and burned-out television sets. To the left of the makeshift dump sits an even bigger eyesore, an empty and crumbling building at 359 S. 27th Street in East St. Louis. Dressed in a white hat and white sweatsuit, Helen Hudlin holds her nose, picks her way past the garbage and stares at the challenge before her. Peering at the caved-in shell of brick and rubble, Hudlin asks, "Can you believe this? How can they let this just sit -- and right behind a school? It just isn't right." Pointing to a trailer bed overflowing with furniture and leaking garbage bags, sitting alongside a fence around the Alta Sita Elementary School, she says, "That was supposed to be used to haul the bricks away. When it was left here, it became another place to dump."
The eyesore has outlasted the politicians who promised to clean it up. It is part of the deep-rooted blight that has plagued the Alta Sita neighborhood. But Hudlin and the Alta Sita Neighborhood Association, over which she presides, are relentless in their mission to reclaim their community. Every morning, Hudlin calls members of the East St. Louis City Council or City Manager Harvey Henderson. "We will just keep calling until it gets done," she says with a mix of resentment and resolve. To nobody in particular, Hudlin says, "Oh, it's going to come down. We will make sure of that. After everything we have done, this is our proof we still have lots of things left to do."
If the trash heap is proof of things that need to be done, then Virginia Place, a quaint neighborhood less than two blocks away, is a promise that success for the Alta Sita Neighborhood Association is inevitable.
Located in the heart of East St. Louis, Virginia Place is both a short street and a neighborhood unto its own. Modest two-story Tudors sit next to newly constructed starter homes. Lawns are mowed or in the process of being landscaped. Dogwood and maple trees fill the median in the street. In this neighborhood is the well-kept house where Ike and Tina Turner used to live. Two doors down is the home Hudlin and her husband, Warrington, built with their own hands, stone by stone, in the 1960s. There are little details on the block that are missing in many other East St. Louis neighborhoods: new street signs at Virginia Place and 27th Street, a three-mile walking trail that runs through the neighborhood, a small corner park.
Down the street is the new white bungalow where, just last week, 28-year-old Kimberly Miles became a first-time homeowner. On the corner is the brown brick house the neighborhood association rehabbed to get a policeman to move into the block. "It took us eight years to get that house," Hudlin says, her face scrunching. "Whoo-eee! We had to go to St. Louis and get all the family members to sign. Then we had to fix it up." A satisfied grin crosses her face. "But we got it done, and now there is a police officer living in there. He helps us keep people from the liquor store gathering on that corner."
There are eight new homes on Virginia Place. Hudlin, a petite woman who says she's "past 60 but closer to 70," sees each as a sign of perseverance in the face of lethargic bureaucracy. "Every place where you see a new house," Hudlin says, "that is where a raggedy old house used to sit on a filthy, dirty lot. It didn't happen overnight, but it has happened."
The decline didn't take place overnight, either. Hudlin, a schoolteacher, and her husband, who ran his family's insurance business, moved to Virginia Place in the 1960s, when the neighborhood was a quiet enclave of middle-class blacks. They couldn't get a bank loan because they were black, so the couple built the stone house themselves. "It was a labor of labor," Hudlin says with a laugh. "We didn't have a mortgage, but we had a lot of finishing work to be done. When we moved in, all we had were the bare essentials -- the walls, windows and a furnace."
Virginia Place was a good place to raise a family. A bakery, hardware shop and pharmacy lay within walking distance. The neighbors, with the exception of Ike and Tina Turner and gospel singer Brother Joe May, were mostly teachers and other white-collar professionals. "When we moved here, it was nice and the neighborhood was pretty. We had so many more trees," Hudlin says. "The streets were still being swept by the city, and the trees were still being trimmed."
By the early '70s, white flight had changed things. East St. Louis' population fell from a peak of 82,295 in 1950 to 68,000 in 1970. Blacks made up 69 percent of the city, up from 44 percent in 1960. Whites were moving in droves "up the bluff" to Belleville and beyond. Today, the city has 31,542 residents, almost 98 percent of them African-American. "All the whites moved out, and the city lost money," Hudlin says. "They stopped trimming the trees, and they stopped sweeping," The bakery and hardware store were destroyed in race riots. Older homeowners died, and houses in the neighborhood started to sit empty.
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