This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. For more stories about the effect of COVID-19 on museums, please visit the Prairie State Museums Project at PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org.
When you cross the Mississippi River and enter East St. Louis from Interstate 55, the streets are filled with potholes until you reach Kansas Avenue, a portion of which is known as Miles Davis Way and has a smooth surface like the sound of the jazz legend’s album “Kind of Blue.”
The small stretch of nice road sits before the House of Miles, the late trumpeter’s teenage home, which has been repurposed into a nonprofit museum and cultural arts center with educational programs for children and teens.
The founders have faced some questions over their motivations for renovating what was a dilapidated property with little sign of Davis — who lived there from 1939 to 1944.
But they have since filled it with art dedicated to Davis and staged cultural programs for youth in the poverty-stricken area. And now they are working with a $250,000 capital improvement grant from the state of Illinois, so once the threat of the coronavirus subsides, they hope to be able to welcome the public to an artistic hub.
“It’s not just about education and music; it’s about how you build,” says J. Gary Pearson, who cofounded the museum with fellow East St. Louis resident Lauren Parks. “You build methodically. We were instrumental in them repairing this street that has been torn up for over twenty years. We said, ‘We’re here. We’re home and business owners, and we need that street fixed.’”
Parks says the property “kept coming across” her desk when she served as executive assistant to her brother, then East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks Jr. She says members of Davis’ family who owned the house visited the city offices and expressed interest in donating the property to a nonprofit. In 2014, the family gifted the property — but to Parks’ private real estate company PP66 Inc. The deal raised some eyebrows around town.
The Belleville News-Democrat published a story in 2017 questioning whether Parks’ solicitations for donations through her nonprofit, House of Miles East St. Louis, for a property that she privately owned violated the federal regulation against inurement. Parks told the News-Democrat she paid no salaries and sent receipts to donors and had “no ethical concern” about the nonprofit-private property arrangement. But the same month as the News-Democrat story, Parks transferred ownership to the nonprofit, according to St. Clair County property tax records. Parks has also over the last eight years acquired lots surrounding Davis’ home from the musician’s family through her private company, which she then transferred to the nonprofit.
Any public perception of a scandal wasn’t helped in 2017 when her brother, who had moved on to East St. Louis township supervisor, got into a nasty spat with the town’s board over his attempt to hire her for $40,000 per year as the township operations manager. (“This is Amos and Andy n----r business,” he told the board after members rejected his plan, the News-Democrat reported.)
The Illinois State Board of Elections also banned Alvin Parks earlier this year from running for office until he paid $176,100 in fines for failures to file campaign contribution reports. He previously served on the House of Miles board, according to the News-Democrat; Leah Glover, who worked as project manager for the former mayor, is now board president.
It is unclear how much money the organization has raised or how it has spent the money because it has declared each year that it has raised less than $50,000 so it has only had to fill out a 990N or “postcard” tax return that does not provide specifics rather than a more detailed tax return like larger nonprofits.
Pearson and Lauren Parks, who are in their 50s and friends from high school, both describe themselves as full-time volunteers for the organization, but when pressed as to how they then support themselves, Parks says they own and manage properties. Pearson says he also bartends.
Current Mayor Robert Eastern III says he supports the $250,000 state grant to the House of Miles because “we need to re-engage our Generation Zs to understand that this type of history is right there at their fingertips, right there in their own city.”
The House of Miles is trying to reach students living in an area where 38 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data, and attending East St. Louis public schools. The district has a graduation rate of 71 percent and a chronic absenteeism rate of 66 percent, according to Illinois State Board of Education data.
“Each time a kid comes in here, we see what their desires are and we build around that. Our kids have been [left], most of them, in one parent families,” oftentimes with no father around, Pearson says while he and Parks provide a tour of the house with Davis’ music in the background and artifacts, memorabilia and art all around.
The organization’s programs include music lessons and performances, a mentorship program and activities that have little to do with music, like managing a community garden and raising a pet.
“What does that have to do with Miles Davis?” Parks asks rhetorically. “When you think about Miles, you only think about the trumpet, but Miles Davis was a very multifaceted individual, who did not allow you to put him in a box. You weren’t going to define Miles Davis; he defined himself, and so that’s what we want to empower our young people with. Don’t let people define you.”