There was a deep puddle the width of the entire dirt road, so Dr. Andrew Theising, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University -- Edwardsville, wheeled his car over the gravel shoulder instead.
He was taking a reporter on a mid-autumn tour of East St. Louis and no tour of East St. Louis would be complete without going down Kansas Avenue, to the corner at North 17th street, to see the childhood home of Miles Davis. As the car rolled back onto the road, the famous house came into view.
"Oh, no," said Theising. "Oh my God."
The jazz legend's house was rotting. The white wooden panels had been ripped off every side of the house's ground floor. The aluminum siding was pillaged. All that was left of the backyard porch's wall railing lay in a shattered and charred heap on the ground. The windows were boarded up. Garbage trickled around the perimeter.
"This is so sad," said Theising.
Across the street from the house, on a steel pole and just above a green sign reading "Kansas Ave," stood a blue metal strip that said "Miles Davis Way."
Here's what the house looked like in 2009:
East St. Louis residents maintain a resilient pride in their city's history: the booming industry and the magnetic nightlife and the sports heroes, but perhaps more than anything else, the jazz. All the greats stopped in town, played it like they were in New York or Chicago or Kansas City. Miles Davis represents the good times of the city, before the jobs and the people left.
He was born in Alton but his family moved to East St. Louis while he was a baby. He lived here through high school, before moving to New York City and becoming a legend. He learned to play the trumpet in that house on Kansas Avenue. It's easy to imagine thirteen year old Miles sitting on that porch, stumbling through the same eight bars of some Bobby Hackett tune over and over as the neighbors all down the block brusquely shut windows.
So when Theising got out of his car and walked around the crumbling house on a recent October afternoon, he grimaced and shook his head.
"Tragic. Just tragic."
Theising, who wrote Made in USA: East St. Louis, the Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town, had seen the house in the early summer and it was fine. While it remained vacant, the owners-- Davis' relatives-- had kept up its visage. But the vandals, likely hungry for the mildly valuable aluminum, outpaced the renovations. In a statement to KSDK in September, the owners said:
The Miles Davis family spends thousands of dollars yearly to maintain the property which suffers from repeated vandalism. The family has hired a contractor, whose team regularly visits the home to re-secure and update as necessary. Unfortunately, the vandalism occurs much quicker than the regular recovery efforts set forth.
The statement goes on to say that, over the last ten years, the family has met with city officials to try to make the house an official historic site. But, "To date, there has been no definitive interest." So the house continues to sit, anonymously, another empty and decaying structure in East St. Louis.
Meanwhile, Davis' first home in Alton is occupied and still standing as of 2008, when RFT's Chad Garrison explored the town for the cover story Alton Confidential.
It's tough times and desperate people likely don't care where the aluminum comes from. It's neither more nor less valuable if it's ripped from the home of East St. Louis' soul.
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