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"East St. Louis was collapsing," says Norman Ross, head of the local Chamber of Commerce. "Regardless of who the mayor was, you were gonna have the same problems."
Others, however, maintain that it wasn't the city that stymied the mayor, but Officer who tripped up the city.
"I think he lost sight of what his purpose was: to rebuild the city," says East St. Louis City Council member Eddie Jackson, a onetime Officer ally who's now an arch nemesis. "He was horrible administratively. He spent over $80,000 on limousines. And he didn't get along with any elected officials. Anywhere."
Adds fellow city councilman Charlie Powell, who does double duty as chair of the city's Central Democratic Committee: "At the end of Carl Officer's twelfth year, we were $150 million in debt, couldn't pay police officers and couldn't pick up the trash."
He's right: When Carl Officer was defeated in the 1991 Democratic primary, East St. Louis was in such dire financial straits that there was no garbage truck for the soon-to-be-ex-mayor to hop onto, no cans for him to sling over his shoulder from city block to city block. Moreover, the Illinois legislature had taken the unprecedented step of creating a special panel to oversee the city's suspect financial dealings. In the space of twelve years, Officer had gone from favorite son to prodigal son, his reputation sullied by allegations of egotism, recklessness, womanizing, selfishness, immaturity, corruption, megalomania, senseless grandeur and race baiting.
Knocked out of the fast lane and the public eye, on the cusp of his 40th birthday Carl Officer saw in himself a maturity deficiency. So the lifelong bachelor spent the next decade-plus finding a wife, finding Jesus and finding a way to expand his family's flourishing funeral business. For the first time in his professional life, he was a civilian -- and making an earnest go of it with his political future seemingly dashed.
But never underestimate the restorative talents of an embalming-school graduate. Them boys are trained to make a corpse look as though it could jump right out of the coffin and walk again, if the Lord would just grant permission.
I remember my first visit to East St. Louis two and a half years ago like it was yesterday. I was new to the area and looking for a roller rink located on a dead-end road near Officer Mortuary. Unacquainted with the city's grid system, I came at the rink from the wrong side and ended up in an industrial area bordered by a chain-link fence. I'd just pulled into a parking lot to reverse course when another motorist motioned to me from the cab of his imposing truck. We both rolled down our windows.
"Do you know where you are?" asked the driver, a Caucasian who appeared to be in his early thirties. "You're in East St. Louis, boy. You'd better get the fuck up out of here."
Properly redirected to Missouri Avenue, I could see what he meant, in a way. West-side legend paints a portrait of an East St. Louis rife with machine-gun-toting gang bangers and a drug dealer on every corner, the sort of place where the mere sight of a honky at a stoplight equals a carjacking. Such characters exist in East St. Louis, of course, but in no greater concentration than in any other downtrodden urban area. What was striking about that first visit to East St. Louis wasn't any palpable menace, but rather a pervasive sense of desolation, as if the municipal lords had thrown in the towel on this city a quarter-century ago, hightailing it without even troubling to stitch up its wounded shell. I wanted to get the fuck up out of East St. Louis not because I was scared, but because it was so depressing.
Not surprising, then, that the city suffers from a dearth of capable young adult residents. Men and women who saw the city brought to its knees as youths during Carl Officer's first reign want little to do with their hometown today.
"There's a youth outage, quite frankly," says recently appointed city manager Alvin Parks Jr., a 1979 Lincoln High grad who went on to earn degrees at Morehouse College in Atlanta and Washington University in St. Louis. (Lincoln High has since been turned into a middle school, leaving the city with just one public secondary school, East St. Louis Senior High.) "People from the '70s and '80s have chosen not to come back. I lived through the wheels coming off. People would just run, knowing police cars couldn't go more than 35 miles per hour. We had trash literally blocking the streets. Sanford & Son was junk. This was vermin. This was trash."
While the 1990s saw a return of garbage collection and operable police cruisers to the streets of East St. Louis, the hopelessness remains.
"There are limited opportunities inside the city limits," explains Chris Hudlin, an insurance broker headquartered in the flagging wasteland that passes for downtown East St. Louis. "You get your degree and then a headhunter calls and says, 'Come to New York, come to Atlanta.' So of course you leave."
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