by Samuel J. Scott
American Reporter Correspondent
March 23, 2001
AN AMERICAN CITY FIGHTS FOR ITS SURVIVAL by Samuel J. Scott
BELLEVILLE, Ill. -- The Main Street running through the largest city in southwestern Illinois is one of the longest in the world, most residents here are quick to brag. Few acknowledge it is also one of the quietest.
More than 100 restaurants and businesses once lined the street. Vacant buildings now occupy most of their places. For 10 years city officials has fought to prevent businessmen and residents from leaving downtown, and Main Street is a thermometer inversely gauging their success.
A decade ago fast-food restaurants began closing in the eastern end of the city, where the street begins. Since then a line of empty buildings has slowly crept its way up Main Street toward the west.
The line has now reached halfway.
Belleville's problems have their roots in decisions made by the city government during the 1960s. Within decades, though, minor issues resulting from these decisions mushroomed into racial and economic divisions, lapses in education facilities and sensational attitudes toward crime.
"In the early '60s [the city aldermen] decided they wanted a bedroom town," said Rosma Eugea, 71, a homemaker who has lived here since 1948. At the time Interstate 64 was drawing more and more people toward Belleville. "They didn't want the traffic," Eugea said. "They were old, very set in their ways and not very forward-looking. We didn't get the business [that is now] in Fairview Heights."
Belleville's forefathers passed laws, such as raising taxes on businesses, that dissuaded entrepreneurs from coming to the city,and now the city's next generation of leaders casts a jealous eye toward Fairview Heights, which continues to prosper.
Fairview Heights did the opposite; they passed laws creating a favorable business climate. Interstate 64 ran five minutes away from the town, which brought consumers ready to buy and businessmen eager to profit. Businesses already in Belleville began to leave. Belleville residents flocked to Fairview Heights for its movie theaters, diners, pool halls, bars and other entertainment while downtown Belleville became desolate and crime-ridden.
Two decades after the thermometer began its crawl, the U.S. Marshals began a major crackdown on drug dealers in East St. Louis, a low-income community neighboring Belleville.
The dealers then moved on to Belleville in the 1980s, said Doug Moore, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who covers the Belleville area. As the drug arrests began, cable television appeared in Belleville, frightening the local networks with increased competition. The networks and newspapers attracted audiences with sensationalism as crime rates began increasing.
Two decades of such coverage and increased black migration caused residents to believe crime is still skyrocketing because of black people, although statistics say otherwise.
"Crime is decreasing, but the impression that people get is that it is increasing because of the publicity it gets," said Moore. "TV stations competed with cable so they went more and more to a sensational format. Violent crime gets tremendous play." Belleville's Total Crime Index for 2000 was the third lowest in 10 years, according to Police Chief James Rokita. The burglary rate is the lowest it has been in the same period of time, and the murder rate remains constant at one or two every year.
As the dealers moved into Belleville and television showed more and more crime, many black people left East St. Louis to escape the poverty there. Belleville allows Section 8 housing, by which the federal government guarantees the rent rates for lower-income people, so the people from East St. Louis received better housing. Most moved to eastern Belleville. White, affluent residents left for either western Belleville or other cities.
"You're faced with ruined carpeting, holes in the wall, police coming over because of complaints, fighting and criminal activity," complains Diane Bachman, 44, a white Belleville resident for 13 years who works as an auditor for an insurance company. She said allowing Section 8 housing was the biggest mistake Belleville has made.
This attitude toward the increased number of black coming toBelleville also affected education in the city. In the ea= rly 1990s the city built a new high school in eastern Belleville. The high school serving western Belleville is 70 years old and is falling apart.
For years residents in western Belleville would not pass a tax referendum providing money for a new school to be built closer to the high-income neighborhoods in western Belleville. They did not want "problem people" any closer to their end of town, according to a teacher at the school who did not wish to give his name. The teacher said the phrase "problem people" is a local euphemism for black people.
Enter new Belleville Mayor Mark Kern, who inherited these problems. (Kern, who has been in office for several years, did not return repeated requests for comment.) Since taking office he has been working hard to save the city, according to Moore, the reporter for the Post-Dispatch.
Belleville annexed some suburbs, relaxed laws to convince businesses to enter the city, and improved the city's appearance.
"Downtown looks better than it ever has, even though there's some vacant storefronts. Trees they planted in the past have bloomed," said Moore.
The city hired more minorities to improve race relations and residents passed a referendum for a new Belleville West HighSchool last year. If these results improve the city's situation, residents hope Main Street will again flourish, causing the thermometer to retreat.
If that happens, Belleville may return to being a belle ville - French for "beautiful city."
AR Correspondent Samuel J. Scott was born and raised in Belleville. He is the Editor and Publisher of The World Internet Times at http://www.worldinternettimes.com.