You leave a place like this, if you can. I know, because East St. Louis is my hometown.
Growing up around 10th Street and Summit Avenue, I always knew I would leave. I simply didn’t know whether it would be in the back of a police car, a coroner’s wagon, or my mother’s used Pontiac.
Those were the odds in a place that’s been called the most dangerous city in America.
Every day was a gamble. In a town where drivers navigate 89 blocks of crumbling, pot hole-laden avenues, and dodge open manholes where thieves have swiped cast-iron covers, everything is a calculated risk.
There is no way to know now, but Maurice Richards probably thought like that, too. On Wednesday night, a hit-and-run driver killed the 11-year-old boy as he crossed State Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. As he lay bleeding, critically injured on the asphalt in the middle of a four-lane street, motorists simply steered around him—avoiding his body like another open manhole.
Situated along the easterly edge of the Mississippi River, in the shadow of the Gateway Arch, East St. Louis is a city without shoes, let alone any bootstraps. Condemned homes, abandoned commercial structures, and empty, weed-strewn lots tell the story of a place that long ago fell on its knees and never got up.
The average per-capita income is less than $13,000. A mere 1 percent of its residents reported working a full-time job year-round last year. A third of adults have no high school diploma, and over the past five years, enrollment at East St. Louis Senior High took a 25 percent nosedive. The old downtown shopping district is a ghost town now. Of the buildings still standing, most are boarded up, waiting for a savior that wants no part of it.
There’s the strip mall where a police officer was shot in the face and a youth center that was the scene of a triple homicide a few years ago.
There was no crosswalk, no stoplight to regulate the traffic where Maurice was hit. In fact, there are no working traffic lights anywhere in the city. Wracked with poverty and perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, the city can’t afford to maintain them. All the signals are dark, and some have stop signs fastened to their poles, including the one on the closest corner where Maurice could’ve crossed safely.
Compounding the tragedy, Maurice was almost hit by a second car when a good Samaritan stepped in. But by the time someone stopped, blocked off the roadway, and called 911 for help, it was too late—too late for the woman who covered his body with her own and prayed. It was too late to save him.
It must be said that there is no hospital in East St. Louis. Kenneth Hall Regional, formerly known as St. Mary’s, closed almost five years ago. An ambulance took Maurice across the bridge to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis—10 miles from the scene of the accident—where he died from his injuries an hour later.
The truth is no one knows how long the boy was in the street. Witnesses said his bloody clothes were “drenched” from the rain.
“Senseless act and, well, as citizens of this city we have to do better because no one will protect it like us,” Detective Jason Hicks said. “So if you were one of the ones that saw the young man lying in the street and went around him, you know it’s not right.”
It’s not right that a driver struck and killed a young boy in the middle of the street and kept going. It’s not right that he was left there to die in the dark. It’s not right that his four sisters and brother will never hear him call their names again. But it’s also not right that there isn’t a single working traffic light in the city and that the nearest emergency room is 10 miles away in another state.
It wasn’t always this way.
Once a jewel town in the nation’s Rust Belt, in the early 20th century, this was a bustling manufacturing hub, an epicenter of commerce that boasted the second-largest hog market in the world. There were hotels and nice restaurants. Glorious century-old churches and lively shopping districts were commonplace. There were two major city parks with swimming pools, and a world-class public library used to sit near 9th and State Street. It was once said that if you couldn’t find a job in East St. Louis, you couldn’t find a job anywhere.
That’s all gone now. Times have changed. The city of just over 20,000 people doesn’t even have a grocery store.
Over the years, working-class whites and blacks both fled the city in droves for nearby suburbs, leaving behind chemical brownfields and a flailing tax base unable to support the most basic public services. Now infant morbidity and mortality rates here are among the worst in the country. The city’s public schools, those that are not already closed and boarded up, are often no better than warehouses and are under constant threat of state takeover. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development deemed East St. Louis “the most distressed small city in America.”
“The citizens need to come together and try to get who did this and get justice for that young man,” Detective Hicks told a reporter.
We don’t yet know who was behind the wheel of the vehicle that killed that child. We do know, however, that what happened on State Street was decades in the making.
Someone should come forward for Maurice. Someone should come forward for East St. Louis.