PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 27, No. 9, Nov. 1, 2007
Partnership with East St. Louis reaps many benefits
Melissa Mitchell, News Bureau arts writer 217-333-5491
When a small group of volunteers from the UI pulled into East St. Louis 20 years ago, ready to help residents clean up vacant lots, they were challenged at every turn, literally.
The students and faculty members – among the earliest participants in the university’s East St. Louis Action Research Project – had a hard time figuring out where they were because many of the city’s street signs were missing – stolen for their salvage value.
Fast forward to September 2007. An entire convoy of vans and SUVs arrives in East St. Louis filled with a handful of faculty members and more than 100 UI students, armed with hammers, drills, paint scrapers and brushes, rakes and other tools.
Hailed as “An All-American City” in 1957 by Look magazine and the National Municipal League, East St. Louis by 1990 had been labeled by federal housing authorities as “the most distressed small city in America.” Books have been written about the city and its rapid decline. The short version of what occurred there is that shifts in technology and transportation caused the city’s major employers – stockyards, railroads and factories – to shutter their operations or relocate, leaving behind a trail of unemployment, and ultimately, widespread community abandonment. Between 1960 and 1990, the city’s once ethnically and racially mixed population base was cut in half – from 88,000 to 43,000. The current population is about 31,000 and is 98 percent African American.
Those who remained were left to play out their roles in a Sisyphean drama, pushing against the crushing weight of out-of-control property taxes, widespread drug-related crime and a sometimes non-existent city infrastructure.
The recent batch of UI students – many of whom have grown up in relative comfort in suburban communities – later described what they saw in East St. Louis as eye-opening.
Likewise for those who’ve been coming back again and again since the late 1980s and early ’90s to participate in the periodic work weekends that are a big component of the university’s project.
“Most Americans visiting East St. Louis today would be shocked by the appalling environmental, economic and social conditions residents of this long-suffering community confront,” said Ken Reardon, a former UI urban and regional planning professor who led ESLARP from 1990 to 1999, and still monitors its progress closely from Cornell University, where he launched a similar program.
“For UI faculty who have been traveling to East St. Louis for nearly two decades to undertake cooperative planning and design activities with local residents, there is – despite many remaining challenges – a deep appreciation of how many remarkable things have been accomplished in the face of daunting odds.”
One of the most stunning of these transformations is a neighborhood development of mostly single-family rental homes called Parson’s Place, which could have been lifted from Suburbia, USA.
“Working together with the university and one of the nation’s most innovative private developers, Emerson Park residents pulled their community back from the brink, creating a quality of life for their residents that any American would be proud of,” Reardon said.
The housing development is just one gleaming, concrete example of the kind of results the program has yielded. The rehabilitation of homes in the city’s South End neighborhood, a reduction in street violence and crack-down on drug trade, the opening of a full-service supermarket, addition of light-rail stations that provide transportation to jobs on both sides of the Mississippi River, construction of the Jackie-Joyner Kersee Youth Development Center, opening of the YouthBuilds Charter Schools program and addition of Internet connectivity throughout the city, thanks to staff of the UI’s Prairienet community network, are other notable achievements.
But architects of the program are quick to point out that none of the success stories could have been told without the active participation of East St. Louis residents themselves. That, the directors say, is the beauty of the program, with its multiple tentacles that have reached out and drawn in various community partners – neighborhood organizers, churches, schools, non-profit organizations and city officials from throughout East St. Louis, becoming many things to many people. What it never was and never will be about, they insist, is sending a bunch of university outsider/do-gooders into an impoverished, blighted community to poke around and tell people what they should be doing.
“That’s the whole point – it’s a partnership,” said Bruce Wicks, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism who serves as ESLARP’s current director. “From the beginning, the residents said, “ ‘Don’t come here and study us. We want you to make a difference.’
“That’s where this whole service-learning/research paradigm has come from,” said Wicks, who co-teaches Architecture 401, a program-based course that brings together students from architecture, urban planning and other disciplines with ESLARP assistant director Janni Sorensen. “It’s not the way traditional social science research is done.”
The more common approach, he said, is for university researchers to go into an area and study a community, form a hypothesis, then tell residents what to do.
“The difference here is, we go to the people and work with them to determine what the problem is, then go to work – and include them in the process.
“As a middle-aged white guy, I only know so much, he added. “Some of the sensitivities about the community, we don’t always recognize. Sometimes we don’t agree with a particular plan our community partners may have, but we’ll say OK, let’s try it. Our students learn a lot from that approach.”
An important part of the service-learning and research model, he added, is that it is typically a reciprocal process.
“We learn from the residents. It’s not one-way.”
Students apply what they learn on the work weekends – generally, three per semester – in a number of ways. While some students are assigned to hands-on projects, such as clearing brush and doing renovation and repair work, many focus on planning and community- developing projects built into course curricula. During a typical work weekend, students and faculty members in East St. Louis hail from at least a half dozen courses.
In the early years of the program, most of those courses were in the School of Architecture and departments of landscape architecture and urban and regional planning. Through the years, other academic partners have signed on, with participants from just about every corner of the campus including journalism, biology and law.
After two solid days of work that include plenty of physical labor, program director Wicks said the staff usually surveys the participants about their experiences.
“Typically, one thing they like is the hands-on projects – taking what they learn in class and trying to implement it. This is not book stuff.
“They also talk about learning about themselves,” he said. “From the beginning, they’re in the van on the way down with people they often don’t know, then thrown into a room for the night with three or four others.”
Also transforming for them, he said, is “seeing poverty – not a poverty simulation. ... They’re in it ... learning about another culture and debunking stereotypes.”
Finally, he said, what amazes so many of the ESLARP weekend workers, he said is “something I hear over and over and over again: ‘I didn’t think the people would be so friendly.’
“What they don’t realize is that they’re standing on the shoulders of 20 years of people who went before them.”
Once they realize that they’re responsible for moving the program forward into the future, “that puts pressure on them, and they realize they’re responsible for continuing the tradition for the next groups to come.”
A family affair
For Jessica Andrejasich, a senior in architecture, East St. Louis has been a weekend destination for as long as she can remember. That’s because her father, Mike Andrejasich, professor of architecture and associate dean of undergraduate affairs for the College of Fine and Applied Arts, is part of the core group of UI faculty members who have provided leadership to ESLARP since 1990.
“The first time I can remember being here was when I was 7 years old,” she said. Volunteerism and community service work “has always been very important in our family, very natural,” she said.
Her older sister, Elizabeth, a graduate student in library and information science, is the program’s volunteer coordinator.
Across town, their father was stationed at the Village Theater, a not-for-profit community theater and learning center, where he and graduate student Bridgette Richardson supervised a labor-intensive project that demanded more advanced skills: a roof tear-off and replacement.
Mike Andrejasich has been devoting countless weekends to such efforts since he, former urban and regional planning professor Ken Reardon, landscape architecture professor Gary Kesler and former UI landscape architecture professor Brian Orland began serving as the program’s unofficial faculty steering committee in the early ’90s.
“My wife and daughters still talk about the two-year period in 1996 and ’97, when we were forming the Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center in East St. Louis,” he said. “I was there 165 days in ’96 and 200 days in ’97.”
Andrejasich continues to spend plenty of time there, always in pursuit of those “teaching moments” when he’s able to witness the convergence of classroom and real-world experience among his students. But one of the most rewarding aspects for Andrejasich these days is watching the program’s evolution.
By design, in part through various faculty hires made when Andrejasich directed the School of Architecture, “the program is moving to the next level institutionally – to another generation that can provide a new level of life and leadership.”
Also rewarding, he said, is watching as former ESLARP student-volunteers have graduated and moved into leadership positions. Some have signed on to work with neighborhood development organizations in East St. Louis, while others have passed up more lucrative opportunities in the private sector to lead planning and community development projects at city and federal agencies in New York and Washington, D.C.
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