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"It's had a wild nightlife since it was founded shortly after the Civil War," says Andrew Theising, a political-science professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and author of Made in USA: East St. Louis, The Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town. "And they've had federal investigations into their handling of liquor licenses three times dating back to 1918. It has always been a haven for crime, sex and drugs. It's always been there, and it's still there today."
In short, while dancing till sunrise and beyond is the norm in famous clubbing cities like Barcelona, New York and Las Vegas, outsiders' views of the festivities in East St. Louis are a different story. To many it will forever be the place where a goofy honky from Chicago named Clark Griswold gets his hubcaps stolen in the movie Vacation.
Caricatures may depict a machine-gun-toting thug on every corner, but the sad reality is that the city is mostly desolate. Virtually every block is dotted with boarded-up or burned-out buildings. Of about 31,000 residents, 98 percent are African American and 24 percent are unemployed. There were 19 homicides in East St. Louis in 2008 and 31 the previous year. In the eyes of several local officials, the bloodshed and raucous nightlife are inseparable.
"Let's face it, if those places were to close at 1:30 a.m. like everybody else does, East St. Louis would probably get rid of half their crime," contends St. Clair County Sheriff Mearl Justus. "I been sheriff for 27 years. The nightclubs have been a problem since day one. In the summertime, when it's warm, my people have been down there, and there are literally hundreds of people swarming around on Collinsville Avenue, drinkin' and druggin' and everything else going down there."
"Our judgment, law enforcement's judgment, is many of the city's problems are caused by nightclubs being allowed to stay open," echoes Robert Haida, St. Clair County Prosecuting Attorney. "You get people who are already intoxicated, and they're armed, and they get into trouble on the east side. We know we can save lives by closing the clubs."
Justus and Haida made their views public at the March 19 press conference. They were joined by U.S. Attorney A. Courtney Cox, Illinois State Patrol Captain Mark Bramlett, U.S. Marshal Don Slaznik, East St. Louis NAACP president Johnny Scott, three members of the East St. Louis City Council and a handful of local clergymen.
Conspicuously absent was Mayor Parks. He says he was never notified.
The next day many reports about the gathering focused on a single statistic: The Illinois State Patrol stated that fifteen homicides over the past five years "came directly out of East St. Louis nightclubs."
Bramlett concedes the figure is inaccurate: Two of the murders were actually associated with clubs in nearby Washington Park and Venice, and one came from a report that vaguely cited "an undetermined East St. Louis nightclub."
Nevertheless, Bramlett says, his agency responds to enough nightclub-related shootings to validate the claim that the bars add to the body count. Beyond the murders, he notes, there were "five separate cases of weapons fired into vehicles as patrons are leaving the club and on their way back to St. Louis, and four cases where individuals were shot as a result of an issue in one of the clubs."
The last month of 2008 was a particularly violent one. On December 29 a security guard at the Broadway East nightclub was wounded in the thigh after trying to break up a fight in the parking lot at 4:45 a.m. The shooters sped across the Eads Bridge into St. Louis in a red Lincoln Navigator. Three days earlier a shooting inside the VIP Lounge at Blackmon's Plaza had sent more than 300 people fleeing into the street. And on December 7, a woman walking to her car alone after leaving Club Etta on State Street was hit in the back by a stray bullet at 3:45 a.m.
(Nightclubs west of the Mississippi River have not been immune, however. At about 2:30 a.m. on Friday, May 8, three men were gunned down after leaving a concert by rapper Yo Gotti at Club Society, near Union Station in downtown St. Louis.)
Bramlett also cites an episode from January when two cars leaving East St. Louis at 3:30 a.m. exchanged fire on the Poplar Street Bridge, killing a 23-year-old woman.
"If these places close down at the same time St. Louis does, then we don't have those types of incidents," the state patrol captain argues. "It's that simple."
On March 26 the FBI raided Alvin Parks' office and several others inside East St. Louis City Hall. Parks says about eighteen boxes of files were carted away, records dating as far back as 2003 that deal with "what's taking place with the liquor-selling operations, what's happening with how we handle liquor licenses here, liquor penalties and other aspects related to liquor."
A spokesman from the FBI's Springfield, Illinois, office declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.
The search has yet to produce an arrest or indictment, but Parks' deputy liquor commissioner, Walter Hill, was placed on administrative leave shortly afterward. On April 19 the city council voted to eliminate Hill's position as part of a citywide spate of job cuts.