Using the eye of the camera isn’t always fun. Sometimes it captures images that are hard for the human eye to understand, such as the photo above with the man lying in front of a pawn shop in East St. Louis. The camera can even capture history and time, but can it literally take transport viewers through time? Can the camera’s eye help the photographer retrace moments of history that explain how a city like East St. Louis has gone from a boomtown to a ghost town with historical buildings, condemned homes, and poverty? Can my camera be the key that unlocks the door to the truth? The only way to find out is to take to the streets of East St. Louis and approach this hard topic while taking a walk down memory lane.
In the 1920s, East St. Louis, Illinois had a population of about 82,000 people. Once known as “Illinois Town,” this city was one of the four largest cities in Illinois. East St. Louis went from an industrial powerhouse where people flocked in order to pursue their dreams to a now poverty-stricken and dangerous suburb of about 27,000 people. In the 1960s and ’70s, this prosperous city lost nearly 70% of its businesses due to industries finding economic growth elsewhere, and from 1970 to 2000, the city lost 55% of its population, specifically residents of the middle class. Due to depopulation and the lack of taxes, the city could not afford to keep the basic city services, leaving what is now seen today in 2020. This type of industrial boom and decline also happened in Detroit. Regardless of these facts, there were many missing pieces to this city’s puzzle, and even though many images have the power to stand alone, this story needed something bigger than a photograph.
In order to find out more answers, I decided to seek out a personal story and connection with the hope that this would give my camera’s eye more of an answer. I conducted an interview with Dr. Teresa Blue Holden, the dean of general education and an assistant professor of history and political science at Greenville University. She shares her dedicated love for the people and the city of East St. Louis. Holden says, “[The story of East St. Louis] isn’t just a story of decay. It’s a story of a people trying to really bring life to an area that has been abandoned by so many.” The ‘abandonment’ Holden refers to the abandonment of the region. The region has determined that East St. Louis is worthy of being abandoned. Still, the people themselves of East St. Louis aren’t buying into that, and they are continuing to try to do good work for their city, communities, children. She mentions that the city is “their home,” and it’s more about working alongside the people that live there. She mentions books have been written and movies made portraying this city only as a den of prostitution, drugs, poverty, and while the community has felt many of the negative effects of poverty, there is a flip side. There are leaders in the community that are actively involved in trying to make things better, and those people should be given more of a voice and more regard. While there have been attempts to shine a positive spotlight on the city and its people, East St. Louis is still held in a different regard by those outside of the community.
Again, even with these perspectives and facts, I’m left with even more questions. Why is a region pulling its resources from the very people that once made it such a prosperous city? Why is this region still not hearing the voices of its leaders and its people?
The Spivey Building (pictured above) is the city’s most visible landmark. This now abandoned historical 12 story skyscraper is located at 417 Missouri Ave in East St. Louis. The building was built in 1927 and designed by Albert B. Frankel, a local architect. A.T Spivey (Allen Spivey) built and owned the building. The Spivey was built in an attempt to bring the city a skyline. Now, this lonely, deserted building sits and waits for the day that prosperity will overtake the city of East St. Louis again.
The Majestic Movie Theater (below) is a historic movie theater located at 240-246 Collinsville Avenue in East St. Louis. It was built in 1928 and designed by the Boller Brothers, and it is nicknamed “The Million Dollar Theater” due to the amount of money it cost to build it. This beautiful, unique building with tons of ornate multi-colored stonework definitely has history written all over it. This building requires a round of applause for its great stature and beautiful architecture. Sadly, the Majestic Theater was closed permanently in the 1960s due to the decrease in ticket sales and the high cost to operate. This now historical theater sits alone, untouched.
The image on the left is a rundown apartment building in the heart of East St Louis. The image on the right is a sideview of a church building. This church is located at 1115 State St, East St. Louis, Illinois.
Above are three images in a local neighborhood in Downtown East St. Louis on 14th and St. Louis Street. On the far left is an abandoned home on 14th and St. Louis Avenue. In the middle is an image of a stop sign that simply reads “Look.” The image on the far right is a woman walking while I was taking the shot of the house on 14th. Below is an up-close and personal shot of the house on the 14th. This perishing house shows historical artistry and architecture.
The image above was taken during a walk down College St. in East St. Louis. This street seemed to be a barrel ground for old furniture.
Maybe this story isn’t about the loss or the absence of hope, but maybe it’s a story of a city that continues to have persistent bravery and strength to fight for its community. While it’s possible the camera’s eye can only capture part of a story and only give a glimpse of time, it truly can not be told completely without its story. An image has real power, but it takes the real-life experiences that portray their true meaning and power. Pictures show us that cities like East St. Louis, Illinois should never have been forgotten. Maybe the camera is the key that helps humans better understand themselves and the complicated stories that come with memories and history. It is evident that East St. Louis, Illinois has a huge significance to American history, and it is worth discovering and exploring in order to gain a better understanding of this community’s truth. The truth is that while the city has encountered struggle, the community is full of incredible people that deserve to have their stories shared.
Media by Frances Trujillo.