Christian Millender, a recent East St. Louis High School graduate, plays jazz and clarinet and serves as a youth ambassador at the House of Miles. He performed the role of Miles Davis in a play that envisioned what a meeting between the trumpeter and fellow local music legend Chuck Berry would have been like.
“We had a lot of students participate from elementary through high school, so it was great to be involved and everyone had fun and learned the lines,” says Millender, eighteen, who plans to attend Jackson State University (whenever COVID-19 allows) in Mississippi, perform in the school’s marching band and study political science and meteorology. “East St. Louis, it can be tough living here, especially with all the poverty and everything that goes on here, including violence. And honestly, for me, I feel like the House of Miles is a beacon of hope for a lot of young kids in the area.”
Tisha Pomerlee, a nurse and mother of three, sends her fifteen-year-old daughter Jadora to programming at the House of Miles, because she says, “it feels like togetherness in the black community is not paramount. Not to us. Not to the government. Not to anybody. So I love the fact that Lauren goes into [East St. Louis] schools and is pulling these children in as much as she can to get them in and give them a sense of togetherness.”
The House of Miles founders plan to use the state grant to repair the organization’s vehicles for transporting students, renovate a neighboring building into a recording studio and build an outdoor stage and a solar butterfly garden in the garage, among other efforts.
“Before we got the grant, we had to tell [the state] where it’s going, and we already knew,” Pearson says. “Two years ago, we started talking to the state and we responded to these questions about X,Y and Z, and we did it to the dime.”
The founders say construction would be further along if it weren’t for the pandemic. The organization also had to suspend programming and tours and started selling face masks, with the House of Miles logo featuring a butterfly, for $15.
Last month, a day after I spoke with the East St. Louis mayor for this story, news reports emerged that he and nine other city employees had tested positive for COVID-19 amid a spike in cases in the Metro East.
“It’s horrible. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” Eastern told the local Fox affiliate in late July.
Tiffany Lee, a communications professor at St. Louis Community College and coauthor of Legendary East St. Louisans: An African American Series, says that in places like East St. Louis “that suffer from poverty, any time you have a pandemic of this kind, they are harmed more. And the reason why I say that is oftentimes it is the people with the lower-paying jobs that don’t get to tele-work.”
Lee, who serves on the House of Miles board, has seen how other cultural institutions in the area have either closed or been destroyed, as was the case when a building on East Broadway — once a nightclub where Ike and Tina Turner met — burned down in 2010.
“You have a lot of areas in the city that really could help to make the city a cultural center, but what you find is those places end up being demolished due to decay,” Lee says. “What I saw [Parks and Pearson] trying to do with the House of Miles was really inspirational, because the House was very dilapidated. And the fact that they choose to build it up in the memory of Miles Davis, I think, was a great idea.”