East St. Louis has been portrayed to the American people as a nightmare for years, but I’ve always found it far more sad and interesting than horrifying. Obviously, anyone taking the time to actually visit it (and few do) cannot help but notice the widespread abandonment and dilapidation of so many buildings and houses, and most people attach the stigma of that to the people who still live there, largely African-American. The scholar Andrew Thiesing produced a remarkably well-written and well-researched book called Made In The USA which thoroughly refutes that common view, outlining in detail the way corrupt government prior to the 1960’s and the machinations of big industry conspired to put the East Side in the shape it is today, but few Americans would probably take the time to read such a work, readable though it is. So mainstream media has largely contributed to a view of East St. Louis as extremely violent and dangerous, which not only keeps away any tourists, but also potential redevelopers and investors, and that despite the fact that large areas of the old city have beautiful views of the Gateway Arch.
Of course, if anyone actually gets off the interstate, what they are likely to notice more than anything is the sense of emptiness. East St. Louis was built for a population of 80,000, and only about 20,000 actually live there, so the city has the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town on most days, as it did on the Tuesday I was there. I headed down to 15th and Broadway, an intersection that had been the center of the city’s Black community in Miles Davis’ day (yes, he was from East St. Louis), but the intersection today, adjacent to the Orr-Weathers projects, doesn’t look like much of the center of anything. What hasn’t been torn down is largely vacant. But what caught my eye was two beautiful murals that I assume were painted by youths from the nearby projects. Amid the drab surroundings, these stood out, and what they told me was that there is a determination in the young people of East St. Louis that cannot be extinguished by poverty or hardship or even racism. To stand for any length of time and look at these works of art is to understand that talent abounds in places like the East Side. If we as a society squander it, the stigma should be attached to us, not these young people. (I took these pictures on Tuesday, May 13. One of the murals was on the wall of the Broadway Market at 15th and Broadway which I understand since has burned to the ground. I’m glad I got these pictures before that happened).
Terreon Gulley and his band perform an original composition called “Sanctified” at his Apache Cafe concert in Atlanta on January 4, 2013. The tune has a vibe somewhat reminiscent of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s work with his band the Decoding Society
East St. Louis native Terreon Gulley is a highly-regarded young jazz drummer based in Atlanta who often plays with his fellow Eastsider trumpeter Russell Gunn. However, Gulley rarely plays in Atlanta, so it was a real treat to catch his all-star group of friends and associates at the Apache Cafe in Atlanta on Friday January 4. Gulley’s super-band played a style of jazz that is ostensibly straight-ahead, but clearly informed by hip-hop, gospel, soul and other contemporary styles. The best and brightest of Atlanta’s young jazz scene also came out to sit in. As for the Apache Cafe, there’s always something worthwhile going on there, so visit them at http://www.apachecafe.info/ to check their schedule, hours and menu. Let me add that the oreo cheesecake is to die for, as is the french-pressed Nicaraguan coffee infused right at your table.
All of a sudden, it was winter, and I didn’t prepare for it. I hadn’t brought any warm clothes to St. Louis because I had naively assumed that the weather wouldn’t be that different than what we had been getting in Memphis for the last week. So much for assumptions, and now I was shivering as I drove out to Uncle Bill’s Pancake House on South Grand for breakfast. It was a great choice, a classic late 50’s style place with a classic neon sign thrown in for good measure, and, not surprisingly, great food.
Despite the cold, the weather was bright and blue, so, after I finished breakfast I drove across the bridge to East St. Louis to look for the Gateway Geyser and see if I could get a good photograph of the St. Louis skyline and Gateway Arch. Finding the park that contained the geyser was not easy, as it was tucked behind the Casino Queen, but I did find it. The geyser was evidently not working, but there was a large overlook facing the arch, and I climbed to the top of it to snap a picture. If the weather was cold on the ground, it was absolutely frigid at the top of the observation deck, so I quickly came back down.
Driving out of the park, I accidentally ventured into a warren of old streets through overgrown woods with one abandoned house at an intersection, but I was soon able to get back to the interstate. Given the area’s proximity to the casino and park, I couldn’t help thinking that it would make a wonderful Beale-Street-type entertainment district for East St. Louis. When I got back to the hotel, it was time for the I Am Music Workshop events to get underway, and the events took most of the afternoon. I was on the distribution panel, along with representatives from Fontana Distribution and Jive Records. Afterwards, those two decided to go with me to dinner, so I drove them up to a place called Pi on the Delmar Loop in University City where we ate gourmet pizza and talked about the music business. It was nearly midnight when we left, and I dropped them off at a trendy hip-hop club on Washington Avenue near the hotel. I was too tired for a hip-hop club, and it was too late for me to make it to the Trio Tres Bien performance at Robbie’s, so I returned to the hotel and went to bed.