Funky Town

Smokestacks, strip joints and a seriously solid tax base: Welcome to Sauget, Illinois

Kuehn believes the police department and clubs have cleaned up their acts considerably under Delaney's watch.

"I think that everything changed in the process of the litigation," says the judge. "Their dockets dried up; you didn't see people getting charged. There was a definite change in policy and attitude by bouncers. Otherwise we would have kept getting referrals."

Sauget mayor Rich Sauget Jr., with his village's lifeblood pumping away in the background
Jennifer Silverberg
Sauget mayor Rich Sauget Jr., with his village's lifeblood pumping away in the background

Before the proliferation of nightclubs, Sauget "was a pretty sleepy town -- you had Jim's Pub, the Highway 3 plants, and that was about it," says Delaney, whose grandfather played minor-league baseball in the St. Louis Browns organization before working for Monsanto until his retirement in 1978. He died in 1979, his left eye having been long left sightless by way of a nasty corkball incident.

Jim's Pub is no more, but the plants thrive still, a testament to Sauget's unflagging commitment to putting industry above all other concerns -- social, environmental and legal repercussions be damned.

"Basically, the only reason why Sauget was ever built was so Monsanto could get a sewer," imparts Sauget Jr.

Another reason, says Andrew Theising, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), was so the chemical giant could escape St. Louis city's pesky nuisance laws. Embedded in the 1914 city charter was a provision that empowered St. Louis health officers to restrict, fine or close business operations deemed to cause excessive noise, pollution or other annoyance.

"First, it effectively segregated industry into certain parts of the city," Theising writes in his Made in USA: East St. Louis, a recently published chronicle of the rise and fall of East St. Louis and the metro east's industrial age. "Second, it motivated nuisance industry to escape regulation. One way of doing this was to create an industrial suburb."

Herein Sauget epitomizes the wave -- or, as some would argue, plague -- of industrial suburbs that incorporated around East St. Louis during what is considered to be the region's golden age, from 1890 to 1919. Throughout those three decades, industries pursued a strategy of industrial decentralization, an about-face to the trend of centralization in big cities and first-generation industrial suburbs like East St. Louis that had dominated the 40 years prior.

During this period, National City, Granite City, Monsanto (Sauget), Alcoa (now Alorton), Wood River, Roxana and Hartford were all incorporated.

"The metro-east's industrial suburbs were created by national capitalists to take advantage of the region's strategic location on the Mississippi River across from St. Louis, to avoid or minimize municipal taxes, and to circumvent policies unfavorable to corporate interests," Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, a former colleague of Theising's at SIUE, writes in America's First Black Town: Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915. "Industrial capitalists either located in an existing small town they could dominate, constructed their own unincorporated town, or incorporated a town they created."

Sauget fits this last classification to a tee. And it's the sort of setup Theising believes is "parasitical" at its core. Over a veggie sandwich at Kopperman's Deli in the Central West End, the author and professor, who lives in Des Peres, nods in affirmation when asked whether the west side's answer to Sauget's original incarnation as Monsanto would be for Anheuser-Busch to draw up a set of boundaries and incorporate its main brewery as the city of Budweiserland, siphoning employees and tax dollars from the city of St. Louis while leeching off its social services.

"Sauget has no hospital, no cultural institutions," Theising points out. "St. Mary's Hospital is a great asset to East St. Louis, but it's nonprofit. East St. Louis still has to provide services -- fire, roads, et cetera."

Theising's point is that Sauget relies on its less affluent but more diversified municipal neighbors to keep its residents' wounds bandaged and their bellies full, without bearing its fair financial load when it comes to street-level services necessary to support such infrastructure. An exception to this parasitical modus operandi has to do with schools: Sauget hasn't got a single school within its city limits; instead, village residents pay taxes to support the Cahokia 187 school district, where their kids attend classes and on whose board the current mayor sits. But when a fire or fight breaks out at one of these learning centers, who you gonna call? Not Sauget Village Hall, save for select few incidents when its cops and firefighters are called upon to provide backup support to the presiding jurisdiction.

If Sauget owes a social and economic debt to the likes of East St. Louis, it shoulders an even bigger environmental burden, Theising argues.

"Sauget is a haven for industry -- not just any industry, but industry with externalities like noise, smoke and pollution," says Theising. "They pollute the ground in East St. Louis, but so do others. I don't know that Sauget has any obligation to East St. Louis, but the industry located within Sauget may have obligations."

Kathy Andria, president of the American Bottoms Conservancy, is less forgiving.

"I think it's hard to say a town has blood on its hands, but I think they are extremely culpable," says Andria, whose five-year-old East St. Louis-based organization works to address environmental and conservation concerns in the riverside communities of southwestern Illinois, collectively referred to as the American Bottoms. "Monsanto was more culpable first -- it was there before Sauget was there," Andria continues, her facial and vocal expressions tinged with disdain for the neighboring fiefdom. "They [Sauget] are certainly extremely culpable in what they've allowed to let happen. It's a very cozy relationship between village and plants. I think they make no effort to get controls on facilities. These facilities are putting millions of toxins, hazardous emissions and environmental releases into Sauget and its surrounding communities."

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