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East Boogie: Reflecting on a Hometown

August 2, 2012 Featured, Guest, Metro East 4 Comments

Guest post by Chris Andoe:

I can’t really explain why I’m so drawn to the place, but even sitting two thousand miles away in Oakland (CA) my mind still wanders back to East St. Louis.

I’ve gravitated to abandoned places all my life. My Grandma Andoe lived in North Tulsa, a forgotten and emptying area not unlike East St. Louis. Her yard was skirted by railroad tracks that I would wander as a kid. I’d find forgotten salvage yards filled with rusting chrome and crumbling brick. I’d trample though old graffiti covered warehouses. I’d hear stories about the hobos riding the rails during the depression and how my granddad would visit with them and give them something to eat.

ABOVE: Children play in the shadow of the vacant Spivey Building in East St. Louis. Summer of 2009. Photo by Chris Andoe

As an adult I’ve been able to recapture that feeling of adventure in East St. Louis. I’ve climbed though most of the major abandoned structures, some with breathtaking views of the skyline. I’ve scaled the behemoth Armour Meat Packing Plant and descended into its dark labyrinth basement complete with watery pits. I’ve hiked to ruins only accessible by railroad tracks

I’ve visited the crime scene, complete with dried blood, and written about the gruesome murder in what the St. Louis Post Dispatch described as “a human slaughter chamber” along the riverfront.

East St. Louis has been home to legendary nightlife and I’ve hosted story telling events paying tribute to those good times. I’ve read about the mafia history, the built environment history, and have studied the East St. Louis Race Riot.

Despite all of my interest, research and writings, one thing I haven’t done is gathered the stories and viewpoints from the local’s perspective. This fact struck me recently when my friend Shaun Mexico, an East. Louis native, shared a touching update about his mother and hometown:

“I was driving through East St. Louis earlier, and all the memories of my mom were all that was on my mind. I really wish that I could call her, but I cannot, nevertheless, she holds a very special place in my heart, and she’s with me wherever I go in life. For those of you who still have your mom, you have no idea how much I admire you.”

I asked him right away if he would share his thoughts on East St. Louis and he was happy to do so.

C.A.: What was it like growing up in East St. Louis?

S. M.: Thinking back when I was growing up in East St. Louis, I had more good times than bad times. In the summertime in my neighborhood, we would always have a cook-out that would attract the neighbors, and everyone just had a good time with no problems whatsoever. East St. Louis is similar to other small towns in that it had things that were special, at least to me. For example, if I wanted some great ice cream, I’d go to Pirtle’s, where it was family-owned, and made fresh daily. Everyone would go to the East Side vs Lincoln games, and back then, the neighbors looked out for each other. For me, it was really a great place to grow up.

C.A.: Do you have many friends or family that live there today? If so how is it different than it was then?

S. M.: I don’t have any family that lives in East St. Louis anymore, but whenever I go to East St. Louis, I see a lot of people that I’m familiar with, and it just doesn’t seem as if there is a sense of community. Like I mentioned in the last answer, there would be entire neighborhoods having cook-outs, and they would look out for one another. It just doesn’t seem like they do that anymore.

C.A.: While East St. Louis has a sinister reputation I’ve heard locals describe it as a friendly small town. Is that your experience?

S.M.: I have to admit that it bothers me whenever people disparage East St. Louis, because I don’t know too many towns that don’t have any crime, and while it may be true that East St. Louis may have a little more than most, compared to North St. Louis, East St. Louis is like Mayberry. It really is true that if you’re from East St. Louis, it’s really difficult to not run into someone you know. A funny story is when I would be out with some of my friends, I would always run into someone I knew, and it blew them away, because they just thought that I was popular. Most of the people I would run into were people that I knew from East St. Louis.

When I was in college, one of my college roommates thought the worst of East St. Louis, but instantly changed his mind once I took him there. Close to the summer of ’99, we met with his sister and some friends of his family who were vacationing, and St. Louis was one of their stops. He had told them that I was from East St. Louis, but they didn’t believe it because they felt that I was too well-spoken to be from East St. Louis, and all they had known about East St. Louis is what they had seen on the news. I’m glad that I can help to change that image.

C.A.: What are your thoughts on the abandoned buildings?

S.M.: My thoughts on the abandoned buildings is that they could be restored and put to good use, whether it’s office space or residential space. The saddest abandoned buildings that I’ve seen recently were the old George Rogers Clark Jr. High building, my junior high alma matter, & the old Lincoln Senior High building, my high school alma matter, both of which were suspiciously set on fire recently. The only building that they have restored in recent years and put to use was the old Assumption High School building, which is now a prison.

C.A.: Of everything that’s now gone, what hurts the most?

S.M.: I think what hurts the most is that my high school, Lincoln Senior High, is no longer around, and recently the building was set on fire twice. I had so many great times with great friends at that school.

C.A.: Growing up were you taught about the 1917 race riot? If so what did you hear? Did you know of anyone who was there or had firsthand knowledge???

S.M.: To be honest, I don’t know too much about the race riot of 1917, and seeing that it is part of the city’s history, it should have been taught to us, but it wasn’t. I would talk to some older people that knew something about the origins of East St. Louis, but I don’t know anyone who was there or had first-hand knowledge.??

C.A.: Where do you live now?

S.M.: I live in downtown St. Louis, and what’s cool about living downtown is that I’m so close to East St. Louis, so I can visit whenever I wish.

C.A.: If there was a renaissance in East St. Louis would you be interested in moving back?

S.M.: I would definitely move back, because I think that it would be an exciting and great time for the city.

C.A.: How often do you visit?

S.M.: I go about once a week, and usually I just drive around and look at how the landscape has changed. On some occasions, I may grab something to eat. A fact to only those who know is that East St. Louis has some of the best barbecue that you will ever taste. There are also a few good Chinese food places there.

C.A: Who would you say has the best BBQ and the best Chinese?

S.M.: Young’s on 23rd & State for Chinese, The Red Door on 23rd & St. Clair for BBQ.

C.A.: I’ve heard East. St. Louis referred to as “East Boogie”. What do you think of that nickname? Do you know where it came from?

S.M.: I’ve actually used it. A long time ago, East St. Louis had a strong music scene, so the nickname “East Boogie” pays homage to that. I think that nickname for East St. Louis was around before I was born.

C.A.: What do you think the future holds for East St. Louis?

S.M.: I think that the future of East St. Louis is ultimately up to the people who still live there. I was just discussing this very subject with a friend, and we both came to the conclusion that for any real change to take place in East St. Louis, it must rid itself of all of the corrupt politicians who govern it. There are too many politicians in East St. Louis that aren’t doing anything that’s in the best interests of the people who live there, and until those politicians are excused, the future of the city will be on standby.

The East St. Louis that Shaun knew is rapidly vanishing as most everyone he knew has moved away, mostly to Belleville, Fairview Heights, or the city. The ruins that I’ve studied, explored, and loved are also vanishing. The new Mississippi River Bridge is opening up and scooping out one of the most mysterious and secretive places in the region: Route 3 between Brooklyn and East. St. Louis.

As the landscape changes I’m finding it harder to go over there. I asked Shaun if he could imagine a time when he’d discontinue his pilgrimage because there was nothing left to see.

S.M.: Because I have so many great memories, there will never be a time when I will stop visiting East St. Louis. I look forward to the day when I have children so that I can show them where their dad grew up. Also, there are always people that I have befriended in St. Louis that have a misconception of East St. Louis that’s based on rumors, so on many occasions, I would drive those friends around East St. Louis to dispel those rumors.

Chris Andoe is a writer, storyteller and activist who wanders the West, from St. Louis to San Francisco. Known as “The Emperor” the crown wearing Andoe has been interviewed by NPR, CBS, and has been quoted everywhere from CNN to The St. Louis Post Dispatch. Andoe writes for numerous blogs and covers the West Coast for the Vital Voice.  Andoe lives in Oakland, California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. Eric says:

    “Known as “The Emperor” the crown wearing Andoe…”

    Not at all original.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emperor_Norton

     
  2. Anthony says:

    Interesting article. I could say some of the same things about growing up in
    North St. Louis, and the summers that I spent in the Pruitt-Igoe
    projects visiting with my cousins.

     
  3. RyleyinSTL says:

    While I will concede that there are some perfectly fine “intact” areas left in East STL, but on the whole, I find my infrequent trips there it to confirm all of my preconceived notions about it’s dangerous, scary, run-down and poverty-riddeness.  Not unlike North City in many respects but at least in North City there has been some revival and reinvestment.  Both places generally leave me sad, thinking about how grand they used to be at one time – particularly North City.

     
  4. Chris Andoe, the Emperor says:

    Eric: The nickname “The Emperor” evolved after my year as “King of Metrolink” was up. I served as the master of ceremonies as the new King & Queen were elected and the group who originally created the Metrolink Prom though the title would be fitting.
    I’m sure they weren’t trying to step on the late Emperor Norton’s toes or offend the Emperor of Japan.

    Anthony: Thanks for the comment. I’ve also been interested in North St. Louis and am disheartened by all that’s been lost. I agree there’s more meaningful revitalization there. Unfortunately the work in East St. Louis is more designed to create a blank canvas.

    RyleyinSTL: No there’s nothing much left in East St. Louis. Even those of us that love it concede that fact.

     

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